With Arsene Wenger set to leave the London club he has managed for two decades, Tim Wade looks back at the manager’s glory days and the video tape that defined a style
Sometime in the early noughties a VCR appeared in our house of Arsenal’s triumphant 1998 double. I’m certain that Boring Boring Arsenal had been put there by my grandpa in an ultimately fruitless attempt to indoctrinate me to the club he loves.
Sadly for him, I selected Liverpool. Still, I watched the Arsenal tape relentlessly, alternating it with Michael Owen’s Soccer School, and Owen’s First 100 Liverpool goals. In fact, Owen and Arsenal remained the two poles of my footballing life for the coming years. In 2001, my grandpa and I had a bet on who would win the FA Cup final between our two clubs. Owen scored a miraculous brace. A UEFA Cup followed. Case closed.
Nevertheless, there are many memorable moments in Boring Boring Arsenal: Bergkamp’s all-pervasive genius, Ian Wright breaking the scoring record, and Tony Adams ludicrously wrapping up the league title against Everton. None matches the general effect of Arsenal at that time, a sumptuous balance of force and fluidity, with the likes of Overmars and Vieira played off against Ray Parlour and Lee Dixon.
All of this had been orchestrated by the bespectacled figure of Arsene Wenger. The story of this transformation is well known: in brief, a new professionalism of everything from training to eating and a knack for uncovering wonderful foreign talents. Seen in the video with a fading crop of dark hair, it was Wenger who had crafted Arsenal into a ‘boring’ team, as the joke went (referencing an old Arsenal chant) that just couldn’t help winning.
The boundless optimism of that video is rather melancholy now. Likewise, the idea of boring Arsenal has become less funny, with the team seemingly finishing inside the top four every year without really challenging. As results have dipped, so the club has plunged into its version of an in-out referendum, fans staying away or booing the team taking the field.
But, despite what people may say about Wenger now, the influence of his teams will be impossible to escape, not least the most ‘boring’ of his teams, the Invincibles of 2003-4.
They are the benchmark, and, as the search for a new manager begins, so fans may have to shed some of the identity they were given by Wenger. Say what you like about the Frenchman’s refusal to plunge headlong into the transfer market or possession-based approach; they remain the markers of the Arsenal brand. One need only look at Manchester United to see the same problems that lie ahead for the London club. Alex Ferguson, Wenger’s only real counterpart in the modern era, still has a near-unbreakable hold on the way United fans believe they should play. Even if the arguments for a change of management are clear, the pain of separation will be no easier. Some may even come to miss boring, boring Arsene.