In September 1996, Bruce Rioch compiled his famous transfer wishlist consisting of 1066 full backs and two strikers. He then demanded that the board buy all the players on his list. That didn’t quite anger everyone at the club so he followed up his wishlist by benching Arsenal’s leading goalscorer, Ian Wright.
It was all too much for the Hill-Woods, Fiszmans, and Deins, who were in charge of Arsenal at the time, and they summarily sacked Rioch. I always like ‘sacked’ as the word for ‘fired’. So many connotations.
After the sacking of Rioch Arsenal were now officially a ‘club in crisis’.
As usual, the ‘crisis’ was the press projecting their own uncertainty over Arsenal’s situation onto the club and publishing nonsense. The only real crisis at the club was which bottle of champagne to open when they unveiled new manager Arsene Wenger.
Dein had hatched the plan to bring Wenger to Arsenal years before they fired Rioch. Rioch’s hamfisted transfer machinations just gave the other board members reason to get behind Dein’s plan. Before anyone on Fleet Street could even type ‘crisis’, Dein had Wenger flown in to meet the team, take in his first game, and even give a few choice words to the British press.
And what choice words he would give. On the idea that there was a crisis at Arsenal he said:
“There have been lots of stories about a crisis, but to me everything looks quiet here. I have been surprised by the mental strength and character of the players because it has not been easy for them.”
But what’s truly crazy is that everything printed in the month before he officially takes over his first Arsenal game (October 12, 1996, 2-1 win at Blackburn Rovers) is prescient.
Writing in the Guardian, David Lacey opined:
“Is it too much to hope that Arsene Wenger will usher in a new age of reason in English football? If Wenger makes a go of it then more foreign coaches will surely follow him here.”
Wenger’s success opened the doors for managers like Jose Mourinho. They should show a little more respect.
But what’s weirder is that even before his first game in charge he was already talking about tactics and changing the English game. When Wenger was appointed, the 3-5-2 was all the rage in England, it was a phenomenon which perplexed him in 1996 and probably perplexes him to this very day:
"I play 4-4-2 if I can," says Wenger. It is very adaptable because you can change easily to 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or 4-5-1. It is really strange because in all of Europe people are going to to the old English system of 4-4-2 and England is going the other way. But with three at the back you have to come a little deeper and I like offensive football and winning the ball early. It is more difficult to pressurise up the field with three at the back."
"Overall I like modern football, made of compact lines, of zones, of pressure and of quick, co-ordinated movements with a good technique"
Technique, pressure, 4-3-3, quick, co-ordinated movements: Wenger was looking into the future, the Barcelona future, back in 1996.
But what struck me the most in all those interviews was that Arsene Wenger was then, and is now, a firm believer in the ‘British core’. Arsenal bought Danny Welbeck from Manchester United for £16m last week and with that purchase, Welbeck represents Wenger’s sixth English starter on this Arsenal team: Welbeck, Walcott, Wilshere, Chambers, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Gibbs. If you cast the net further and include British players you have Aaron Ramsey in the group as well.
If you’re new to supporting Arsenal this seems like a departure for Wenger. Since the Invincibles, Wenger and Arsenal have been almost synonymous with foreign players. So much so that Wenger has been accused of ruining English football and undermining England’s World Cup squads. Never mind that England failed to qualify for World Cups before Wenger was even a manager and haven’t won a World Cup since 1966, it was all Wenger’s fault. This is despite the fact that Wenger has recently been quoted saying that he wants England to win the World Cup with six Arsenal players.
But this isn’t a new thing with Arsene. He has always respected the fact that a team based in London needs to have British players at the core. He might not have been able to pay the inflated prices that some British players are sold for - players like Lallana, Milner, Carroll, Downing, and Cahill - but he kept trying to buy British players. He just had to do so slowly and on a budget, bidding on Cahill and Smalling, and buying Walcott, Ramsey, and Oxlade-Chamberlain as youths so to avoid the inflation they would generate after they played a single game for their national team.
And if we go back to September 27, 1996, before he had managed a single game, he was already clear that his policy was to maintain and grow a British core:
"Spending lots of money on players does not always mean you have a good team. Whatever happens, I want to keep what made Arsenal - the spirit, mental strength and character of the team. And for that I will need a majority of Englishmen."
Rather than ruining English football, Arsene Wenger has given so much. And he continues to do so.