London: Arsene Wenger announced his arrival as a revolutionary force in England by overhauling a culture of booze and bad diets but the Frenchman’s inability to maintain his own high standards prompted a parting of the ways.
Arguably the most significant agent of change in the Premier League era, the 68-year-old’s achievements in revitalising both Arsenal and English football will be celebrated in his final few weeks in charge.
But for many Arsenal fans his exit is not before time after 14 years without winning the Premier League and facing the real possibility the Gunners could miss out on Champions League football for a second consecutive season.
Few overseas stars plied their trade in England at the time when Wenger left Japan’s Nagoya Grampus Eight to join Arsenal in 1996. Tabloid headlines sneered “Arsene who?”.
Born in Strasbourg, Wenger grew up on the border between France and Germany, but the majority of his managerial experience prior to Arsenal came in the glamorous principality of Monaco, where he notably won a French title in 1987/88.
However, Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein’s intuition to let Wenger loose on English football proved a masterstroke.
After coming third in the Premier League in Wenger’s first season, Arsenal never finished outside the top two for the next eight years.
Overhauling Arsenal’s dietary and fitness regimes and introducing sports science and data analysis with remarkable results, Wenger was feted as the most innovative manager of his generation.
In his early days in charge, Wenger also had the right recipe in the cut-throat world of the transfer market.
A skilled linguist with a command of Spanish, German, Italian and even some Japanese to go with English and French, Wenger had a natural upper hand in the early globalisation of the Premier League.
His knowledge of the French market saw Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Emmanuel Petit arrive as unknowns and leave as superstars, while he got the best out of Dennis Bergkamp – the Dutch master signed by previous manager Bruce Rioch.
Wenger also rescued Thierry Henry from a difficult spell in Italy, and he went on to become Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer.
During that golden period, Arsenal won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with a smooth-passing style that raised standards in a league previously more enamoured of a physical game.
The high point of Wenger’s era came in 2003-04 when Arsenal’s “Invincibles” became only the second side ever to go undefeated in the English top flight.
Two years later they came as close as Wenger ever did to European glory in losing the Champions League final 2-1 to Barcelona.
Qualification for the Champions League for 19 straight seasons kept Wenger in a job, as did a run of three FA Cup wins in the past four years to end a nine-year trophy drought.
However, Arsenal fans’ frustrations at their failure to go toe-to-toe with their main rivals in the Premier League and Champions League continued to simmer, with “Wenger Out” banners becoming commonplace.
Former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson has paid tribute to Wenger, describing the long-serving Frenchman as “one of the greatest Premier League managers”.
Tributes to Wenger poured in from all quarters, but Ferguson’s words are particularly poignant given the longstanding rivalry between the two men who often clashed before the Scot retired in 2013.
“I am really happy for Arsene Wenger. I have great respect for him and for the job he has done at Arsenal,” Ferguson said in a statement on United’s website.
“It is great testament to his talent, professionalism and determination that he has been able to dedicate 22 years of his life to a job that he loves.
“In an era where football managers sometimes only last one or two seasons, it shows what an achievement it is to serve that length of time at a club the size of Arsenal.
“He is, without doubt, one of the greatest Premier League managers and I am proud to have been a rival, a colleague and a friend to such a great man.”
Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho said he always had great respect for Wenger despite their long-running feud and urged the outgoing Arsenal manager not to retire from the game.
“If he’s happy I’m happy, if he’s sad, I’m sad,” Mourinho told reporters. “I always wish the best for my opponents.”
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said Wenger’s long reign at Arsenal is unlikely ever to be repeated.
“It’s difficult – Sir Alex Ferguson did it at United and what Arsene Wenger did now is so, so complicated,” said Guardiola at his Friday press conference.