Having left his homeland “scarred” by the injustices perpetrated by Bernard Tapie’s Marseille, Arsene Wenger fled to Japan, taking control of Nagoya Grampus Eight. A European Cup semi-finalist wanted by Bayern Munich months before, the decision to leave Europe for a footballing backwater (Japan had never even qualified for a World Cup at this point) seems odd, but retrospectively it seemed the perfect antidote to stop a promising young coach from burning out.
His stint in Asia wasn’t merely a holiday though. Wenger immediately set about improving a squad that had finished second from bottom in the J-League before his arrival, yet perhaps more significantly he also made some alterations to the way he coached. While he had endlessly drilled players to a system at Monaco, after a poor start to the 1995 he sought to give more responsibility to his players.
“Don’t look at me to ask me what to do with the ball! Decide for yourself! Why don’t you think it out?” he reportedly yelled to his players, in the hope that they would make decisions for themselves rather than relying on him.
The agitated Wenger, constantly smoking on the sidelines in Monaco, was also gone – the Frenchman cutting a far calmer figure in Japan: “I have been aggressive at half-time, yes, but you have to adapt to the culture of your team”, Wenger states. “When you go to Japan, you have to be cautious because what looks normal in an English dressing room suddenly looks completely shocking in a Japanese dressing room.” The lifestyle clearly suited him, declaring “I have a great love for Japan. It has beautiful things that we have lost in Europe, beautiful things that make life good… It felt in some ways as if Japan was my ancestral home. The values I believe in are still being valued in Japan.”
Nagoya recovered to finish second in the NICOS series and won their first trophy, defeating Sanfrecce Hiroshima for the Emporer’s Cup in Wenger’s only full season in charge. Mid-way through his second, Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein got in contact concerning a move back to Europe. His hometown club Strasbourg were also interested, however Dein had got there first, suggesting his appointment to the board in 1995 and finally getting his way a year later after disputes with Bruce Rioch.
Johan Cruyff was the name touted to replace Rioch, but the arrival of Frenchmen Remi Garde and Patrick Vieira made it clear Arsenal had chosen a different man. It wasn’t until October that Wenger finally took charge, delayed by having to settle the contract at Nagoya. Just like at Monaco years before, the appointment was greeted with skepticism.
“At first, I thought: What does this Frenchman know about football?”, Tony Adams recalls. “He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?” Although his amicable nature soon won his captain over: “Not only does Wenger love a good laugh, but he can laugh at himself. He is this gangly wise man.”
“Right away they told me I would never win anything, not just because I was unknown but because I was a foreigner,” Wenger states. “The papers were full of articles illustrating exactly why a foreigner was never going to win the English title. Faced with this situation, I tried to open a dialogue with everybody. I tried to be open and inquisitive. I really wanted to learn their way of thinking and why they felt the way they did. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I do know that, at least within Arsenal, it fostered a dynamism, a sense of reciprocal discovery which helped me a lot.”
Wenger’s often credited for a revolution in the Premier League, but his changes were more an evolution than a sudden jolt into the future. He encouraged healthy eating and with the help of his dieticians explained the nutritional benefits but wasn’t dogmatic in his beliefs. “He didn’t come in and say ‘eat this'”, says Adams. “At no one stage has he ever done that with anything. He just lays it out in front of us.”
“He was open enough for you to go to him and say, ‘I don’t want to do that,'” says David Platt. “Nigel Winterburn wasn’t used to having that kind of pre-match meal and Nigel went back to poached eggs on toast. Arsene was fine with that.”
Wenger helped to shackle the drinking culture, but he arrived at a time when the team were open to change: Paul Merson had already undergone rehab for his drinking and drug use, while Adams, who had been imprisoned for drink-driving, had also admitted his alcoholism and gave up drinking shortly into Wenger’s tenure. Graeme Souness had tried to make similar adjustments to the diets of his Liverpool players years before to little success, however by the time Wenger arrived in England it had reached a tipping point, and having one of the dressing room’s most influential players trying to go clean no doubt made it an easier case to make to the squad.
Winterburn remembers: “It all stopped really when Arsene Wenger put a ban on drink being served in the lounge, and then Tony gave up drinking.”
At the start, Wenger didn’t alter too much on the pitch either. One of the first things he did when he arrived at the club was make assurances to many of the squad’s more experienced heads they had a future at the club, quickly getting them onside, and he stuck with the 5-3-2 formation Bruce Rioch had used for the rest of the season.
George Graham put together an impregnable back four to protect goalkeeper David Seaman: Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Adams and Winterburn, with Martin Keown and Andy Linighan providing competition. Graham occasionally added a sweeper when the match called for it, but, rather than choosing between Bould and Keown, Rioch simply made a back five the norm.
Wenger maintained the defence, added Vieira to the midfield alongside Platt and Merson, with Ray Parlour as back-up, behind a forward pairing of Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright. Bergkamp had failed at Internazionale, struggling to find space in a the packed defences of mid-nineties Serie A, and wasn’t quick to adapt to the English game, but Wenger’s arrival sparked a turnaround in his career, providing the assists for Wright’s finishes. John Hartson provided a different option but was sold in February, with teenager Nicolas Anelka replacing him as back-up, more similar in style to Wright.
Arsenal missed out on Champions League qualification on goal difference to Newcastle, finishing third, but were seven points off of champions Manchester United. To make up that difference Wenger decided he needed to add more pace and power to his team. He raided his former club Monaco for Gilles Grimandi, Christopher Wreh and Emmanuel Petit, while also bringing in wingers Marc Overmars and Luis Boa Morte.
Wenger also reverted back to his favoured 4-4-2 formation. The back four of Graham’s era returned – Bould and Keown competing for the fourth spot again – but they had new faces ahead of them. Wanting a longer contract than was offered, Merson left for relegated Middlesborough, while Platt also saw less game time. The versatile Petit had mostly played as a defender at Monaco, however here he was the more defensive partner of Vieira, allowing his lanky compatriot to get forward.
He had the speed of Overmars to aim at to his left or Wright running in behind ahead of him, while Parlour returned to the starting eleven on the right, helping to shore up the midfield with his work-rate.
It was Arsenal’s non-flying Dutchman that was their key creative player though, finishing the season as their top scorer. Bergkamp had struggled for space in Italy, but the English obsession with 4-4-2 ensured he had much more to work in for Arsenal. This only increased with Wenger’s switch to 4-4-2, which resembled more closely a 4-2-3-1 than their contemporaries’. The deeper positioning of Petit and Vieira pulled the opposition midfielders up the pitch and the poaching instincts of his striking partner – first Wright, then Anelka – forced the opposition defensive line deeper, leaving Bergkamp with lots of space in between the lines to operate in.
There were a few key differences in the type of players used, but the overall framework was very similar to his Monaco side. Passing from deep supplying quick technical attackers ahead of them. The defence was sturdy but now there was a much greater onus on them to create, passing amongst themselves rather than just hitting long balls into the channels as they had under Graham – Wenger wanting to see “real, modern football” from his team.
They started the season well yet fell away in November, losing all their games apart from a home fixture against Manchester United. By Christmas they were sixth and looked out of the title race. Things came to a head after a home defeat to Blackburn Rovers and a team meeting was called. Sources differ on whether it was organised by Wenger or the players, but true to his lessons from Japan, the manager left it to the players to correct their problems. The senior defenders made it clear they expected more cover than they had been receiving from the Frenchmen ahead of them. The pair took the criticism on board and went on to form one of the most dominant midfield duos of the Premier League era.
Another alteration was made in January. Wright had broke Cliff Bastin’s record to become Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer in September, but he had insulted fans after being booed off in the loss to Blackburn and was now sulking after being denied a January move to Benfica. A hamstring injury saw him miss most of the rest of the season, however he seemed to haven fallen foul of Wenger anyway, and Anelka flourished in his absence. Quick and technically gifted, Wenger worked with the youngster to improve how he used his body to cope with the physicality of English defences and taught him how to make runs to ensure his teammates could find him as often as possible.
United looked so likely to reclaim their title, bookmaker Fred Done paid out on their victory two months before the season had ended, yet week-by-week Arsenal clawed their way back into contention. A win over United in March was followed by nine straight wins, sealing their championship win with two games still left to play. Wenger rested his players, allowing them to come out strongly in the FA Cup final – a 2-0 win over Newcastle. In his first full season, Wenger had done what no foreign manager had done before by winning the double.