When Arsene Wenger first walked along The Marble Halls of Highbury on 1st October 1996, surely not even he could have imagined the success story that was to unfold under his leadership. Herbert Chapman's bronze bust proved to be more inspiring than it was intimidating for the forward thinking Frenchman, who would go on to eclipse Chapman's achievements and become the most successful manager in Arsenal's history.
Wenger was 47 years old when he arrived in North London, relatively fresh faced and extremely enthusiastic. He brought new ideas, fresh impetus and quickly won over the doubters who found it difficult to accept Arsenal's first foreign manager, particularly one who looked more like a Professor than a football manager.
He appears weary, frustrated and increasingly despondent at the malaise in which the great club he has led with such distinction for almost 15 years now seems to find itself in
Contrast the Wenger of 1996 to the one we've seen in recent weeks. He appears weary, frustrated and increasingly despondent at the malaise in which the great club he has led with such distinction for almost 15 years now seems to find itself in. It seems very significant that David Dein, the man who brought him to Arsenal and who remains a great friend, said in a recent interview that Arsenal fans need to "respect" what Wenger has achieved.
When asked whether the man he worked so closely with for many years could leave Arsenal, Dein said; "That's always an option open to him because it could come to a stage when he will say, 'Well, I have had enough.' At least that's how I feel and I feel the fans should feel that. They should at least give him the respect that he deserves for what he's done." This has been seen as a loyal defence of a close friend by Dein, but does Arsene Wenger share those feelings?
Whatever Wenger’s state of mind may be right now, it's certain to be heavily influenced, for better or for worse, by the events that will unfold over the next 10 days. One could even go so far as to describe the time between now and 1st September as the most pivotal in Wenger's time at the club, and wider than that, among the most significant days in the history of Arsenal football club. There can be no doubt that this is a club at a crossroads and the first test of which direction it will take comes on Wednesday night in Northern Italy.
Udinese were always going to be a very dangerous proposition to Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League play-offs. Despite losing 1-0 in the first leg at the Emirates they showed more than enough ability and threat to leave even the most optimistic Arsenal fan extremely wary about what could unfold in the Stadio Friuli. The financial significance of elimination from this tournament almost goes without saying. But what about the psychological blow it would be to a manager who has never failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League in all his time in charge of Arsenal?
Champions League qualification would help attract the sort of players Wenger undoubtedly needs
That said, successfully negotiating his 'Italian Job' would be a huge boost for a man who's fighting on several different fronts at the moment, not least in the transfer market. Fabregas has gone, Nasri may or may not follow suit. But Champions League qualification would help attract the sort of players Wenger undoubtedly needs, to, in the short term, keep Arsenal within the Premier League's top four.
In the medium-long term a handful of key signings could transform Arsenal from much admired nearly men into consistent winners. Most people, Arsenal fans or not, can see the galvanising effect that an experienced goalkeeper, a proven goal poacher, a no nonsense centre back and a ball winning midfielder could have on that squad.
It remains to be seen whether Wenger is convinced by that assessment. But surely the departure of Fabregas and possible departure of Nasri means Arsenal need to make a serious statement in the transfer market before September 1st. They face a race against time to bring in the signing/signings that will raise the spirits of disillusioned supporters and send a clear message to rivals who may think Arsenal are on the decline.
Among those contemplating that very real possibility may well be Manchester United and Wenger's greatest opponent during his time in English football, Sir Alex Ferguson. It is apt then, that during this defining period in Arsenal's history under Wenger, the pair should meet. Sunday 28th August will see Arsenal travel to Old Trafford for a Premier League fixture. By then Arsenal could have qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage, convinced Samir Nasri to stay and made some important new signings.
Does Wenger have the same durability as his old foe? Does the same fire burn within?
On the flip side, Arsenal fans could be looking ahead to the UEFA Europa League group stage, watching Samir Nasri play in light blue and nervously counting down the hours to the closure of the transfer window. Whatever the scenario on the 28th of August at Old Trafford, Wenger will come up against a man who prematurely announced his retirement at a similar age to that which the Frenchman is now, before having a very significant rethink and going on to build more great teams and win more silverware.
Does Wenger have the same durability as his old foe? Does the same fire burn within? Is there another Bergkamp or Henry out there, ready to lead the Arsenal revival under Wenger? Just a few of the questions Arsenal fans are asking themselves at the moment. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that some of the answers will come within the next ten days.
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