Arsenal under Wenger was a force to be reckoned with during this decade of time.
Arsenal played a flowing game of possession based attacking football, and they put in some wonderful performances. During this first half of Wenger’s Arsenal career, the Gunners were one of the best two teams in England depending on the year, and maybe even one of the top 10 teams in Europe.
And yet, somehow, in the second half of Arsène Wenger’s reign, Arsenal became the punching bag of European Big Boys. Heavy defeats became a somewhat yearly routine: 5-1 to Spurs in 2008, 8-2 to United in 2011, and 5-1 to Bayern Munich two years in a row in 2016 and 2017, just to name a few. They never finished above 3rd and fell as low as fifth and sixth in Wenger’s last two years. Once a European power, Arsenal became (nearly) a mid-table English side. At times, they couldn’t even touch the top 25 teams of Europe if their club future depended on it.
What went wrong? Well, it wasn’t that the players weren’t good enough. They had already been successful before they got to Arsenal, and for many, they would go on to win trophies at different clubs after leaving. It wasn’t that Wenger had changed his strategies and management tactics because Arsenal continued to play that possession-based game he had always favored. It was more abstract than that…a saturation of the environment at the club. More or less, it was the lack of change that led to a certain amount of comfort that evidently wasn’t conducive to success. Wenger came to Arsenal in 1996 and was labeled a revolutionary. He changed things left and right, and Arsenal succeeded. But, when the rest of the league adapted and progressed, Arsenal remained static. And it led to their tragic (for me and other Arsenal fans at least) fall from grace.
Under new manager Unai Emery, changes are already evident at Arsenal. Immediately after his appointment, the club signed four players early in the transfer window — a contrast from Wenger’s much-derided transfer policy. New signings Mateo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira, Sokratis, and Bernd Leno have already featured prominently for the club. Perhaps most importantly they are all central players, indicating that Emery is trying to put his stamp on the spine of the team. Arsenal has also been trying to play it out the back this season which has been a departure from Wenger’s usual Arsenal tactics, and Emery has shown he will make early substitutions in a game or drop a player altogether if they underperform — again, another departure from Wenger’s usual policy of management. Another change from the Wenger days and my personal favorite is that Emery shows his emotion on the sidelines in a way that Wenger never did.
And so far, things seemed to have clicked at Arsenal. They are 12 games unbeaten (they’d won 11 in a row before tying Crystal Palace on Sunday) for the first time in a decade. At the moment, they’re performing better than any of the squads that played under Wenger during the second half of his reign. Aubameyang and Lacazette are bagging goals. Özil seems reinvigorated. The new signings are exceeding expectations, particularly Uruguayan international Lucas Torreira. Granted, the 12 games have been against mid-table or lower sides. But Arsenal became accustomed to dropping points against lower half-teams, a depressing commonplace factor of Wenger’s 06’ to ‘18 squads.
It’s still early in Emery’s reign, and while this run is exciting, Arsenal fans should contain their elation. A match against last year’s Champions League finalists and current league leaders Liverpool is coming soon
, and in early December, Spurs, and United come knocking as well. Arsenal has also drawn Spurs in the Carabao Cup semi-finals taking place in December as well. These are all big tests and we’ll have a better idea of where Arsenal is once we get to January.
Now, despite all the aforementioned changes I’ve stated, this doesn’t mean there is a giant renaissance at Arsenal. But, there have been changes nonetheless. I argue that the catalyst for these improvements isn’t even the implementation of those changes, but rather just the changes themselves. The willingness to change and experiment and move away from old tactics and policies. Arsenal became set in its ways under Wenger; a little shakeup was all they needed.