Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have taken the Premier League by storm this season, boasting an 8 point lead at the top of the table as of January 4th. This success combined with Arteta’s slick, free flowing football has led to comparisons among some fans between the Arsenal icon, Arsene Wenger, and the club’s current boss. Do these comparisons reflect the truth or are they simply an example of wishful thinking among the Arsenal fanbase who are hoping for even a glimmer of the success that Wenger brought them?
Wenger entered the marble halls of Highbury on 22nd September 1996, following Arsenal’s 5th place finish the year before. At the time Wenger was just 47 and had relatively little managerial experience. He had previously managing French league sides Strasbourg, Cannes, Nancy and AS Monaco, leading to rival fans mocking him with the phrase “Arsene who?”. Fans were going to find out exactly who Arsene Wenger was very quickly. It is simply the nature of appointments that have drawn comparisons between the Arsenal bosses. Like Wenger, Arteta was remarkably inexperienced to be appointed the coach of a club boasting 45 trophies. At just 37 years old and with no experience of being the main man in charge of a football team, Arteta was elected to replace an underwhelming Unai Emery who had left Arsenal positioned 8th in the Premier League table. Already, without even witnessing either of Wenger or Arteta’s teams play, the two can be likened simply due to their inexperience when taking over Arsenal sides disappointing fans expectations.
Both managers achieved relative success in their first 12 months in charge, however in very different ways. Wenger, aided by Arsenal legends and cult heroes such as Tony Adams, David Seaman, Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp to name a few, led his side into the top 4 in his first season in charge, finishing 3rd. Whereas Arteta finished both of his first two seasons as boss in a disappointing 8th place. Despite this, Arteta’s men achieved success through an FA Cup victory spearheaded by Pierre Emerick Aubameyang who netted twice against Manchester City in the semi final and twice against Chelsea in the final. The cup was then swiftly followed by the community shield through victory in a penalty shootout against league winners Liverpool. Wenger would have to wait until 1998 to lift his first piece of silverware. Therefore, whilst both managers achieved very different league positions in their first 12 months in charge, both achieved relative success early on, which again helps to aid the comparisons between the two.
It is extremely difficult to truly compare the two managers given that Wenger led Arsenal for a record breaking 22 years and Arteta has only been boss for shortly over 3. However, the most insightful way to do so would be to compare both managers at their peaks. For Arteta this is present day with his side sitting top of the premier league and with Pep Guardiola predicting Arsenal “to do 100 points or more” this season. For Wenger, whilst having such great and sustained success on the side-line, his 2003/04 Premier League campaign is the obvious choice having gone the whole season unbeaten. Even Wenger’s old managerial foe Sir Alex Ferguson is quoted as saying “it stands above everything else” in terms of footballing achievements. It would be unfair to directly compare Arteta’s side, the youngest in the premier league, to the heights of the Arsenal invincibles. However you can certainly draw some similarities between the two. Wenger has been famously quoted as saying “football is an art” and Highbury certainly was the canvas for his paintbrush with the raw pace and flair of Thierry Henry, the immaculate touch of Dennis Bergkamp and the powerhouse in midfield that was Patrick Vieira. You run out of superlatives just thinking about this Arsenal side. It truly was a work of art, meticulously put together by Wenger to offer the perfect balance of powerhouses at the back, dynamism in midfield and sheer goal scoring threat up top.
Whilst Arteta’s side has a long way to go to even mimic such a great side, you can certainly see shades of what that incredible invincible team had to offer in Mikel Arteta’s red army. The addition of William Saliba to pair Gabriel at centre back gives Arteta an incredibly strong foundation to build his team upon. The stability yet dynamic ability of both Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka to turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye bears a resemblance to that of Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira. Whilst it impossible to compare any player to “the king”, Thierry Henry, his pace and directness along with an eye for goal can certainly be seen at times in Arsenal’s young forwards Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka who have together contributed to an impressive 21 Premier League goals so far this season, at the time of writing. Wenger’s invincible side had the luxury of Dennis Bergkamp who was so technically gifted that “if he played in the snow, he wouldn’t leave any footprints” as John Hartson mentioned. A player etched in the history of Arsenal football club with his touch being turned to bronze outside the Emirates stadium and his goals still leaving many in disbelief. Bergkamp, whilst not breaking goal scoring records, was a vital component of the invincible side, linking up the play and being a catalyst for the talent around him. This role can be likened to Arsenal’s £50 million striker, Gabriel Jesus. Whilst scoring just 5 goals in his first 14 Premier League appearances for Arsenal, Jesus is a core component of Arteta’s league leaders and his intense pressing, impeccable touch and exceptional link up play is what has set the tone for much of Arsenal’s success this season. Therefore, whilst impossible to truly compare Arteta’s side with the invincibles, the two managers clearly have elements of which are core to both of their footballing philosophies.
We’ve mentioned much of the good, however it is important to touch briefly on some of the bad which both managers have suffered in very similar ways. The Arsenal teams of Wenger’s final few years were seen to have no backbone or as Troy Deeney so eloquently put it, a “lack of cojones”. The club famous for its “1-0 to the Arsenal” chant had seemingly disappeared, with Wenger’s back line consisting of players varying from Mustafi to Debuchy leaking goals almost on a weekly basis. Arsenal’s defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final is probably the game that epitomises Wenger’s final few Arsenal sides. Arteta’s early sides displayed a similar problem, with a defence consisting of David Luiz and even Sokratis at times who possessed the ability to be solid as a rock yet had a tendency to capitulate under the slightest pressure.
Ultimately, it is easy to see why Arsenal fans have compared the two managers following Arteta’s first 3 years at the helm. Both were appointed with relatively little experience, and both have led Arsenal sides with very similar features. Fundamentally, Arsene Wenger is the most successful manager in the history of Arsenal football club and whilst Arteta’s sides have shown some encouraging signs in recent months, the levels Wenger set are incredibly high and Arteta would see great success even achieving a fraction of what Wenger managed. One thing is for certain though, Arteta isn’t afraid of a challenge and his side is going from strength to strength. The future is certainly bright for “super Mik Arteta”.