A startling first half to this Premier League season has led pundits and fans alike to claim that winning the 2013-14 title would go down as Arsene Wenger’s greatest achievement. It smacks of the instant-gratification generation, short-sightedness and even a touch of desperation. Such a view almost represents an insult to the man who has revolutionized one of English football’s most famous institutions, and as some would say, English football on the whole.
It is well documented that the Gunners are now eight years without a meaningful trophy, a timeframe that caused such consternation and discontent that it looked more likely that Wenger would resign, or be fired, rather than be capable of restoring his and Arsenal’s battered reputation.
Wenger's biggest achievements
Title clinched at Old Traffrord
Many predicted the Gunners would fall away from the top four this season, such was the belief that Wenger had lost his cutting edge and that he believed rather foolishly that this group of players had the mettle to break the silverware drought.
You only need to cast your mind back 12 months and recall the damaging defeats to Bradford in the Capital One Cup and Blackburn in the FA Cup to rekindle those forlorn, hopeless days where it seemed more a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ Wenger would go.
So in that respect, the Frenchman deserves tremendous credit for turning it around but we’re not in May just yet, far from it.
Yes, Arsenal are still in three competitions, a point off the top of the Premier League and have rediscovered the style that terrified defences in the late 90s and early 2000s, and you can understand why there is talk of silverware - but this is also the product of eight years of transition and squad-building.
It is the wait for players like Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere to mature into gamechangers. The wait for Wenger to hone the balance of his team and instil a winning mentality he always claimed was there but never really reared its head until this season. After eight years, Arsenal should undoubtedly be in the mix for the title.
It is also worth stressing that this Arsenal squad is no silk purse made from a sow’s ear. Vast sums of money have been invested in this team and the ones that went before it.
Even if you ignore the stunning capture of 42 million pound Mesut Ozil, Arsenal’s squad is the second best paid in the division. They are also led by Wenger - the second best paid manager in England (behind Jose Mourinho) on 6.8 million pounds a year. There is more to come too as Arsenal linked up with Puma in the most lucrative kit sponsorship deal, at 30 million pounds a season, in their history, though that is straying from the point.
The tools are there to succeed - indeed they have been there for some time, it has been more a case of underachievement in the past few seasons and that should not be forgotten when measuring the club’s current achievements.
There are other factors that could potentially take the sheen off a title win this season. Arsenal could win the league without beating their two nearest challengers, having lost 6-3 at Manchester City and only managing a 0-0 draw with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, while Wenger’s rivalry with Manchester United has almost paled into insignificance, with the Red Devils facing an uphill battle just to qualify for the Champions League.
What we are witnessing is Father Time diminishing the scale of Wenger’s past achievements and simultaneously hyping this season’s Premier League title to a level it shouldn’t be seen at. Bottom line: this is still a unique title race. It is open because there has been enormous upheaval at every club in the top six aside from Arsenal and Liverpool.
This team is not likely to break any records either. Defensively it has improved immeasurably on last year but has already conceded four more goals than the team that finished runner-up in 1998-99. At the other end, its points per game tally of 2.26 will see the Gunners end the campaign on 86 points, four off the last title-winning side Wenger has overseen and one behind the 2001-02 team.
The sight of Sol Campbell bouncing giddily toward the southwest corner of White Hart Lane still haunts the nightmares of Tottenham fans. He and his ecstatic teammates bounced arm-in-arm as Arsenal joined the pocket of away fans to celebrate winning the Premier League on Tottenham’s turf.
Manchester United supporters will recall Sylvain Wiltord steaming in on goal and coolly slotting beyond Fabian Barthez to claim the title at Old Trafford in 2002. Fans of 19 Premier League clubs will look back at 2003-04 and remember how their teams were felled one by one by the ‘Invincibles’.
Not least, Wenger will long be afforded praise for the manner in which he not only engineered but eased Arsenal’s transition from Highbury to Emirates Stadium despite the incredible financial constraintsthat came with it. Plenty of other Premier League clubs have tried and failed to negotiate top-flight stability and a stadium move, while Wenger steered a frugal Arsenal through choppy waters and out the other side, all the while keeping the club in the Champions League for 16 consecutive years.
Those are the Frenchman’s greatest achievements in his 17-and-a-half years in north London and they will go down in the annals of time. Winning the league at the home of your great traditional rivals is the stuff dreams are made of. Doing it at your title rivals the stuff of legend.
Wenger has been fantastic for English football and unimaginably good for Arsenal but the idea that this would be his biggest achievement is an insult to the glory he has bestowed on the club.
Triumph this season would be unexpected and that certainly enhances the value of winning the title - but don’t let that change the perception of what came before.