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Wenger fulfilled Arsenal's dreams

Criticism is as fair as plaudits, but there's no denying Arsene transformed Gunners into a global superclub

By Miguel Delaney

It was on Wednesday that Arsene Wenger made a decision that came from some tension at Arsenal's top level, and then uttered the words that many at the club wondered whether they would ever hear: that he is leaving his job.

That will change the mood around the Emirates Stadium and London Colney training centre that stand as landmarks to the French great's success.

It will go from the pressure that ultimately forced this resignation to pride at the rousing effect he had on the club, and the football it produced. It will go from a bad atmosphere to one of grace, everyone willing the best possible send-off.

Everyone will also retell all those stories we've heard before - about the nutrition, fitness, scouting, different outlook - but what stood out for some of Wenger's first Arsenal players were some other words they hadn't heard before.

Take the story after that very first Arsenal game, when Ian Wright scored twice at Ewood Park to beat Blackburn Rovers 2-0. Wenger went up to his forward and enthusiastically praised him for the quality of his finishes.

It didn't even seem like man-management to Wright either. It instead just felt like a genuine football lover's appreciation for great player.

Wright and his team-mates never got that from previous manager Bruce Rioch, and certainly never got it from George Graham. That was a different English era that Wenger came into, when the prevailing mindset driving teams was one of growling anger.

Wenger was so different, and that had a distinctive effect.

The combination of all these qualities helped create excellent expressive sides, that were the natural product of the attitude that so struck Wright. Wenger made teams for those that loved good football.

He also made teams that won, and won an awful lot.

That shouldn't be obscured by the almost self-defeating purism that did essentially deny him such victories later in his career. For all the natural talk about the stadium and the training ground serving as his legacy, their grandiose height should not overshadow the fact that Wenger was responsible for some of the greatest achievements English football has ever seen.

He claimed a double at a time in 1997/98 when it was still such a historically rare feat, before then helping make it feel routine with a double double in 2001/02, before that unbeaten league campaign.

Through that, he also became the first - and, in truth, only proper - long-term rival to arguably the greatest manager the game has seen: Sir Alex Ferguson (below).

It also helped creating something else that is so lasting, and hasn't been as known in football as much as other sports. He helped forge a truly great rivalry, that is now talked of with such fondness by all.

He was the George Foreman to Ferguson's Muhammad Ali. That is quite a legacy in itself.

It was on watching Manchester City this season, however, that something else struck one highly-respected coach.

The English side that Pep Guardiola's have been most compared to are Wenger's 2003/04 Invincibles.

This coach spotted how the fundamental approach of this great Guardiola side is the same as Wenger's best: two central players commanding the centre, two wide players going as far as possible outside with the other two coming in, to create chaos outside the opposition centre-halves but an array of passing options for what seemed the smoothest possible moves. For all these positions, read Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp, with Lauren and Robert Pires going outside, Ashley Cole and Fredrik Ljungberg going inside, and Thierry Henry there to finish.

This was Wenger's ideal. There were endless revolutions on a pitch, to reflect the work of a genuine football revolutionary, who was willing to do things differently.

The problem is that most revolutionaries work in ever-decreasing circles. They get increasingly wedded to the ideas and approaches that first made them, utterly convinced they can be proved right again, to the point they're just overtaken and those approaches become self-defeating.

This is precisely what happened with Wenger. Those strengths became weaknesses.

Wenger was just behind the times in other ways. Take the story from before the League Cup final humiliation against City. After a week of practicing with four at the back, and up against a manager and team that had proven the necessity of players understanding and drilling tactical plans, Wenger decided to go with three at the back. The surprise among the players was suggested with how many times they got caught out in that defeat.

There are so many such stories, and the fact is that recent criticism is as fair as overall gushing praise.

The criticism is why he was under pressure, why he made this decision, why we are here.

Wenger, however, is why Arsenal are where they are now.

He transformed one of England's great clubs into one of the globe's superclubs, with so many triumphs along the way.

Belfast Telegraph

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