Arsenal’s Best Era: Not The Wenger Years

I guess the celebrations of #Wenger20 brought this to the front of my mind. Congratulations to Arsène for outlasting 144 other Premier League managers and 1,027 in total in English football since October 1996. The longevity is exceptional, though I believe opinions differ on whether it’s become exceptionally good or exceptionally bad in recent seasons. But is this Arsenal’s best era? Many would say so. They cite the constant top 4 finishes and then they present bar charts and graphics showing that this level of consistency has never been achieved or even approached by Arsenal before. But – and this may come as a shock to some – there’s no trophy for fourth, or even third or second, and a loser’s medal is for losers.

The only true measure of success in sport is trophies. It’s fantastic to play beautifully, be thrilling and entertaining and to be remembered for it, but at the end of the season you were either the best or you were not the best. If you were the best you got the trophy. You’re in a group of one, or you’re in the group with all the other losers. You might be a better loser than most, you might finish above Spurs every year, and that’s all well and good for amusement but that’s about as far as it goes. I’m not saying football can’t be fun if you’re not winning, I’m just saying winning is ultimately the point of it and the objective measure.

League Cup 1987

Herbert Chapman never won this. Then again, nor has Arsène

Arsène Wenger’s trophy-winning years have so far spanned 18 seasons, 1997-98 to 2014-15. In that time he’s overseen 3 League titles and 6 FA Cup wins, a total of 9 trophies. However, the title is more valuable than the FA Cup, so if we score a title as 5 points and an FA Cup as 3, then that’s 33 trophy points.

Arsenal’s first great era began in the 1930s, and was kicked off by the incomparable Herbert Chapman, who in a few short years turned Arsenal from a team that had never won a major trophy to literally the biggest and most famous club in the world. Chapman’s death in 1934 barely knocked Arsenal out of their stride, so solid were the foundations he’d built, and by 1953 Arsenal had gone from zero League titles to 7 – a record at the time – plus 3 FA Cups. So 10 trophies to Arsène’s 9, but on the trophy points system a solid win of 44 to 33. And due to the war that was in only 17 League seasons, though 18 FA Cups were available as that competition restarted a year earlier than the League when peace returned.

Not only that, but there were only two trophies to win in those days, with no League Cup or European football. And although cups are much more of a lottery than the League, no one will ever convince me that Chapman’s Arsenal wouldn’t have added several more trophies if there had been 4 competitions to enter. The 1930-53 Arsenal won 10 of a possible 35 trophies (28.6%); from 1997-2015 it was 9 of a possible 72 (12.5%).

But, say Arsène’s most ardent supporters, what about the new stadium hampering Arsène? Well firstly as I’ve explained in detail before, there was very little hampering from the stadium. Most of the hampering came from the newly mega-rich Chelsea and Man City. And that’s just life: some people have more money than you. In any case Arsène has had the advantage of always being in a small group of clubs who dominate financially, while earlier eras were much more equal and it was harder to rise out of the pack.

Quit Highbury? Say it ain't so!

Quit Highbury? Say it ain’t so!

Also it often seems to be overlooked that Chapman built a new stadium too, he just did it on the site of the old one. All four sides of the ground were completely redeveloped in the 1930s so that Highbury became the best stadium in the country – in fact so good that 70 years later the club weren’t allowed to knock it down. I’m not sure the architectural merits of the current place will be viewed the same way.

So on both numbers of trophies and my carefully calibrated points system, the era kicked off by Chapman trumps the Wenger years for success. But there’s another contender: the period starting with Arsenal’s first League Cup win in 1987. In the 19 seasons from 1987-88 to 2004-05, Arsenal won 5 League titles, 5 FA Cups, 2 League Cups and 1 Cup Winners’ Cup, a total of 13 trophies. If we score the League Cup as 2 trophy points and the CWC as 3, then that’s a total of 47, narrowly edging out 1930-53 – though there is an extra season in 1987-2005, plus a total of 72 trophies to be won (would be 76, but four potential years of European competition were missed due to the post-Heysel ban).

So you could argue it’s very close between 1930-53 and 1987-2005, though only 18.3% of available trophies were won in the later period. The earlier period has Arsenal as the world’s greatest club, enjoying domination never before seen in English football, while the later one has more trophies in total, a couple of Doubles and an Invincibles season. It’s close between them, but either way both are better than 1997-2015. And of course credit to both the managers who won trophies between 1987 and 2005.

By far the greatest team Arsenal fans have ever seen

By far the greatest team Arsenal fans have ever seen

The characteristic of the whole Wenger era is a consistency we’ve never had before. I admire the consistency enormously, but I don’t really celebrate it. Earlier Arsenal eras, and other clubs in the Wenger era, had their ups and downs. When you’re down you change things and if you have a solid base maybe you’re on the up again pretty soon. Thanks to Chapman, every Arsenal manager since has had a solid base to build on. The Wenger era has not seen standards fall so far that the Board want to make a change, so we’ve carried on with Arsène, through good times and lean times, in trophy terms. Whether you see this as good or bad is a personal preference.

What I don’t buy is the view that the second decade of Arsène is his greatest achievement. It’s remarkable that Arsenal never slipped out of the top 4, and statistically remarkable to finish third or fourth for 11 years in a row while competitiors finished anywhere from first to seventh, but it’s not his greatest achievement. No, the Invincibles is by far the greater achievement, a once in 120 years occurrence – but Wenger is still only the second best manager Arsenal have had.



11 thoughts on “Arsenal’s Best Era: Not The Wenger Years

  1. If there’s any doubt to speculation that Arsenal might not have won either the League Cup or a European trophy during the 1930s, the strength of Arsenal’s squad can be demonstrated by the fact that in the 13 seasons between 1926-27 and 1938-39 the reserves won the London Combination 10 times, were 2nd once and 3rd twice.

    Against overseas opposition (albeit in friendly matches) they only lost once during the 1930s.

  2. We were without a doubt during the 30’s the outstanding European club side with Glasgow Rangers a lesser rival.we supplied England with seven players in the infamous “battle of Highbury”(Italy were then world champions) England won. Had there been a European cup back then instead of starting in 1956 whose to say we woudn’t have been in the running for it & been the first great European club side instead of Madrid? also were very unfortunate the great Herbert Chapman passed away in 1934.who knows what he would have gone on to achieve? last but not least, world war 2 broke up our winning streak. how many more titles might have been added? speculation all of this but a distinct possibility we’d be the no1 club in world football. but what goes around comes around & maybe fate will look kinder on us in the future..the possibilities with this Arsenal set up are certainly there. just need some luck & a vision…

  3. Perhaps tomorrow you could startle us by revealing that we cannot fall off the planet by sailing to its edge?

  4. Avery interesting piece, but dominated by the fact you wanted to show, by any way you could, that the Wenger era was not the greatest. I am not against what you have written, but am sure that those of us that are opposed to that way of thinking could probably come up with a viewpoint opposite to you. I am of the opinion that the last 10 years were the greatest achievement, even though it was mainly trophyless. HOwever, you put your points of view eloquently, and without recourse to slander, or slagging off. So that is class!

  5. Nice one, Phil. This has me thinking about other spans of years in assessing Arsenal’s Finest. For instance, if one were to start, as a base, from the beginning of Arsenal’s modern era in 1925, and then count the trophy points won over the next 10 years – which decade would work out to be the best? Just add one year each time to find the next 10 year period.

    For example, 1925 – 1934 (inclusive), then 1926 – 1935, 1927 – 1936, etc. Which decade would be the best? This would require the calculation in terms of trophies counted to be standard throughout with only the League Title and the FA Cup being counted, nothing else.


  6. Personally I would dispute your claim that the Invinciples are “by far the greatest team Arsenal fans have ever seen”. I mean, the 2003-04 squad was one tremendous group of players who demonstrated that a team, attacking with style and controlling the ball, could thoroughly dominate the remaining 19 also rans.

    Instead I would claim that the 1970-71 side are the best team that has ever played in the red and white for our beloved club. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia describing some the events and players of that inspiring season; I was living in London at the time and so I was able to watch almost every game that season

    The First Double;

    The following season, 1970–71, Arsenal went on to become only the second club of the 20th century to win the FA Cup and League Double, the club’s first. After a bright start Arsenal looked to be out of the title chase with a 5–0 loss to Stoke City in September. However, Arsenal recovered and put in a strong run (they did not lose again in the league until January), and as the season closed they became involved in a tight race with Leeds United.

    Arsenal were pushed all the way – after being defeated 1–0 by Leeds in April, they needed to beat or draw 0–0 with North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on the last day of the season to take the title on goal average. An 87th-minute goal by Ray Kennedy gave Arsenal a 1–0 lead and despite Spurs’ desperate attempts for an equaliser Arsenal hung on to win and take the title. In the meantime, Arsenal had also reached the FA Cup Final, following a titanic semi-final battle with Stoke which saw them come from 2–0 down to force a replay and eventual victory. In the Final, five days after the win at Tottenham, Arsenal beat Liverpool 2–1 at Wembley; Arsenal went 1–0 down early in extra time, before Eddie Kelly’s 101st-minute equaliser from close range.[4] Ten minutes later, Charlie George scored the winner from the edge of the penalty area to win the game, and the Double, for Arsenal.

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