How will Arsene Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal be judged?

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Twenty years ago, Arsene Wenger arrived in England as a relative unknown, a man plucked from Japanese side Grampus Eight to become only the third foreign manager to take charge of a Premier League club.

Now, after two decades at Arsenal, 15 trophies, a new stadium and almost £700m spent on players, he is the longest-serving – and most successful – overseas manager this country has known.

But what will Wenger’s legacy be? To some, he is responsible for transforming the English game. To others, his initial success petered out and he will be judged on a run of 12 years without a league title.

Here, we analyse his record and examine the myths – is he really a reluctant spender and was his second decade really a let down? – of a tenure that began in a different era, his first match coming in a pre-internet age:

A version of Ceefax page 303 as it appeared on 12 October 1996
Many fans would have heard about Arsene Wenger’s first Arsenal result – a 2-0 win over Blackburn on 12 October 1996 courtesy of an Ian Wright double – via Ceefax

The ‘top-four trophy’ and the actual trophies

Wenger was heavily criticised in 2012 when, with the club contemplating a seventh season without silverware, he suggested finishing in the top four – and therefore qualifying for the Champions League – was effectively a trophy in its own right.

“The first trophy is to finish in the top four,” Wenger said following an FA Cup fifth-round exit at Sunderland. “I believe finishing fourth is vital for us, so let’s focus on that.”

If that were indeed the case, his tenure would have been an unequivocal success, having guided Arsenal to a top-four finish in every one of his 20 seasons in charge.


That is something no other club has managed during that time.

When it comes to winning actual, physical silverware, Wenger’s Arsenal lag behind only Manchester United and Chelsea. Just one manager – Sir Alex Ferguson – has won more trophies than the Frenchman.

But finishing in the top four does not mean the Gunners have always been title contenders. In fact, in 10 of the past 12 seasons, they have been 10 or more points adrift of the champions.

Closing in on Ferguson

Ferguson was among Wenger’s fiercest adversaries during their time in opposing dugouts in north London and Manchester. And the Scot is the only man above Wenger when it comes to the number of Premier League games managed.

Manager Premier League games Win %
Sir Alex Ferguson 810 65.2
Arsene Wenger 758 57.8
Harry Redknapp 641 36.8
Sam Allardyce 467 33.6
David Moyes 467 40.7
Steve Bruce 392 28.1
Mark Hughes 390 35.6
Martin O’Neill 359 36.2
Alan Curbishley 328 32.9
Joe Kinnear 302 32.1

Wenger is the only overseas presence in that particular top 10. Indeed, he has taken charge of 493 more Premier League matches than any other non-British or Irish manager (Roberto Martinez, 265).

And he is in a league of his own when it comes to comparing his tenure with his current Premier League counterparts, having been in his job 16 years and one month longer than the next longest-serving bosses, Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe and Burnley’s Sean Dyche.

In his time at Arsenal, the Gunners’ four major competitors – Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United – have had a combined 42 managers.

Have his second 10 years been a let-down?

Wenger’s introduction of new training techniques and a different approach to nutrition helped sustain and advance the careers of many of the players he inherited, including the likes of then-captain Tony Adams, keeper David Seaman and striker Dennis Bergkamp.

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Those players formed the spine of a team that won the double in Wenger’s second season, the first of three league titles for Arsenal in eight years, culminating in the remarkable success of the Invincibles in 2003-04.

That season, the Gunners went the whole campaign unbeaten, ultimately setting a new record of 49 games without defeat in the top flight.

But there has been no league title since and, after the FA Cup triumph of 2004-05, Arsenal endured a run of nine years without a trophy, a sequence ended by the 2013-14 FA Cup win and followed by a further success in the competition the next year, as well as two Community Shields.

So is it right to say Arsenal have performed significantly worse in the second half of his reign?

Their record is actually remarkably similar in that period to the first decade under Wenger.

More goals – but fewer trophies (all competitions)
Games Won Lost Scored Conceded Trophies
First 10 years 566 327 100 1022 513 11
Second 10 years 563 320 119 1064 584 4

But it is the difference in trophies won where he is judged – 73% of them came in his first 10 years.

Is he too loyal to his players?

Ensuring Arsenal’s successful evolution beyond the 1998 double-winning team and the Invincibles was never going to be an easy task.

One accusation levelled at Wenger is that he is not ruthless enough and is too loyal to players in whose development he has invested time and energy.

Earlier this year, Martin Keown said: “He treats every player like his own son. When Francis Coquelin was brilliant last season, Wenger should have gone another step higher and said ‘no, let’s go and get a world-class central midfield player’.

“That would put fear into the rest of Europe, but he’s very loyal, almost too loyal.”

While it is hard to judge exactly when a player is past his best, it is certainly the case that Wenger’s Arsenal are more likely than any other leading club to keep players for longer.

Team Players with more than 100 appearances in past 20 years
Arsenal 48
Chelsea 40
Man Utd 35
Tottenham 30
Liverpool 27
Man City 25

And, of the top clubs, only Manchester United have used fewer players in that period than the Gunners.

Team Players used
Man Utd 159
Arsenal 162
Man City 176
Chelsea 191
Liverpool 192
Tottenham 193

Perhaps part of the reason that players stay longer at Arsenal – and fewer are used – is that he has always seemed unwilling to spend money on major signings.

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Wenger: A reluctant spender?

Wenger is often accused of failing to pay the necessary money to strengthen his squad when it matters, most notably when his bid of £1 above Luis Suarez’s £40m release clause prompted Liverpool owner John W Henry to tweet: “What do you think they’re smoking over there at the Emirates?”

Wenger said in August that he believes “the only way to be a manager is to spend the club’s money as if it were your own”, and he has built a reputation for financial prudence.

So do the figures back up that notion?

The Gunners consistently spend less than their main Premier League rivals. In fact, they have only outspent Chelsea in a season four times during the course of his 20 years in charge – and not once since 2009.

Indeed, Wenger has spent more than £60m in a season only twice. Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United have done it 34 times in total between them.

Arsenal’s move to Emirates Stadium from Highbury in 2006 is usually cited as the main reason for Wenger’s cautious approach.

In the six years either side of that move, Arsenal paid a total of £122.79m in transfer fees. Chelsea twice spent more than that in a single season during that period (£142.35m in 2003-04 and £138.89m in 2004-05), and have spent more than double the amount their London rivals have paid in transfer fees in the 20 years since Wenger’s arrival in England.

While the Arsenal boss has spent big on several occasions in recent seasons, his signings account for only three of the top 20 most expensive deals in Premier League history – and none of the top eight. Manchester City and Manchester United have seven each of the top 20 transfers to their name.

Most expensive Premier League signings
Player Fee Buying club
Transfer fees taken from
Paul Pogba £89m Man Utd
Angel di Maria £63m Man Utd
Kevin de Bruyne £62m Man City
Raheem Sterling £53m Man City
Fernando Torres £49m Chelsea
John Stones £47m Man City
Leroy Sane £42.5m Man City
Anthony Martial £42.5m Man Utd
Mesut Ozil £40m Arsenal
Christian Benteke £39.5m Liverpool
Rio Ferdinand £39m Man Utd
Granit Xhaka £38m Arsenal
Juan Mata £38m Man Utd
Nicolas Otamendi £38m Man City
Andriy Shevchenko £37m Chelsea
Robinho £36.5m Man City
Juan Veron £36m Man Utd
Alexis Sanchez £36m Arsenal
Henrikh Mkhitaryan £36m Man Utd
Sadio Mane £35m Liverpool

What next?

Wenger’s contract expires at the end of this season, and there have been plenty of calls for him to step down, with some supporters disgruntled at the club’s continued inability to mount a genuine title challenge.

He is already Arsenal’s longest serving and most successful manager, so what landmarks can he still achieve?

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Despite winning six of the 11 finals he has been involved in with the Gunners, Wenger has yet to lift a European trophy, having twice been beaten in finals:

Wenger’s record in European finals
Competition Result
Uefa Cup, 2000 Arsenal 0-0 Galatasaray (Lost 4-1 on pens)
Champions League, 2006 Arsenal 1-2 Barcelona

He has regularly found the last-16 stage a stumbling block. In fact, Arsenal have been knocked out at that point in each of the past six campaigns.

If he does stay beyond the end of this season, he will edge a little closer to Sir Bobby Robson’s record for being the oldest Premier League manager, though he still has quite a long way to go.

Oldest Premier League managers
Manager Age at final game
Excludes caretaker managers
Sir Bobby Robson 71 years 191 days
Sir Alex Ferguson 71 years 131 days
Guus Hiddink 69 years 188 days
Dick Advocaat 68 years six days
Harry Redknapp 67 years 335 days
Arsene Wenger 66 years 343 days (as of 30 September)

Speaking of age, Wenger has yet to give a Premier League start to a player born after he was appointed by Arsenal, though he has come close with Alex Iwobi, who was born just 151 days beforehand.

Arsenal squad members born after Wenger joined the club
Player Time between Wenger’s appointment and player’s birth
Gedion Zelalem 0 years 117 days
Ainsley Maitland-Niles 0 years 332 days
Krystian Bielik 1 year 95 days
Jeff Reine-Adelaide 1 year 108 days
Chris Willock 1 year 122 days
Ben Sheaf 1 year 127 days
Stephy Mavididi 1 year 242 days
Joshua da Silva 2 years 22 days

And there is one first he will be keen to avoid. Wenger’s Arsenal have never finished below north London rivals Tottenham. They came close last year, only leapfrogging Spurs on the final day courtesy of a 4-0 win over Aston Villa and Mauricio Pochettino’s side’s shock 5-1 defeat by relegated Newcastle.

If that record goes this season, could that mark a shift in north London power and signal the end for Wenger?

Or, alternatively, could he sign off after 21 seasons by leaving to take the England manager’s job?

My greatest Wenger Arsenal XI

Arsene Wenger has been in charge of Arsenal for 20 years – but who would be in the greatest XI to play under the Frenchman?

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