Wenger v Chapman: Arsenal’s Best Eras Compared

It’s been a great achievement for Arsène Wenger to keep Arsenal in the top 4 every year for 20 years. Just saying that upfront so I’m not accused of ignoring it.

I keep seeing the chart comparing Arsène’s 20 years of finishing positions with the previous 20 years, and naturally the Wenger years look better – mainly because everything is in the top 4, while the previous 20 years included some poor George Graham years and some poor pre-George Graham years too. And no one can deny the consistency of the Wenger era, nor the achievement of 100 per cent top four finishes – and it is an achievement, whether you like it or not. It might not be the achievement you’d prefer, but that’s another argument. However, claims that the Wenger era has been Arsenal’s ‘best ever 20-year period’ or ‘best ever era’ don’t really work for me. You can’t even claim his first ten years were the best ten years ever for Arsenal.

I’d also say that comparing 1997-2016 to the previous 20 years is flawed, because 1977-1996 is a totally arbitrary time. It covers several managers’ reigns and football at the start of it was completely different to football at the end. There are differences between 1996 and now, but they’re far less than the seventies to nineties. So if you’re going to compare, then pick something more comparable. It’s like all the artificial form stats the media quote, like ‘Man City have only lost once in their last 17 matches’ – you know immediately that in that case they’ve lost two in their last 18, and quite possibly three in the last 19, otherwise the meeja would use a higher figure.

I’d argue you can split Arsenal history into several eras, but they’re not all the same size. To be honest it would be remarkable if they were. So we’ve got: the Woolwich era; Highbury pre-Chapman; Chapman and his ‘boot-room’ successors, Allison and Whittaker; the Crayston to Wright years; Mee to Rioch; and then Wenger. Arguably Mee to Rioch is three different eras of ten years each: Bertie Mee; Terry Neill / Don Howe; George Graham (and Bruce Rioch just to make up the numbers). In a sense the Rioch year belongs more to the Wenger era than the Graham years, as the David Dein influence came to the fore with the signings of Bergkamp and Platt, a major turning point from the sterile end of George Graham’s reign. However, the Wenger chartists wouldn’t want the AW record sullied with a fifth place, so I’ll leave Rioch in with Graham, Mee and the others.

It’s all still a bit arbitrary, I’ll grant you, but better than taking a random point of 1996-97 and going back in 20 year jumps, just because Arsène has been around for exactly 20 years.

So let’s go back to the start and see what we’ve got.finishing-position-comparison-pre-chapman

Arsenal were in Division 2 to begin with, marked in yellow here with the position adjusted to allow for Division 1 as well – so in 1904, for example, Division 1 had 18 teams and Arsenal were second in Division 2, hence position 20 overall. By 1913 Division 1 was up to 20 teams and Arsenal were 20th and relegated. Overall it was an undistinguished period.

After World War 1 Arsenal were elected back to a 22-team Division 1 and Leslie Knighton was appointed manager. He was given little money to spend on players and chairman Henry Norris eventually sacked him in 1925 with Arsenal in 20th position and in grave danger of relegation.

And so to Herbert Chapman, and something worth comparing with Arsène.finishing-position-comparison-chapman-to-whittaker-v-wenger

Chapman’s first two seasons included runners-up positions in both the League and FA Cup, followed by some much more average years. Then the 1930s arrived and the trophies started flooding in. The 24 seasons of Chapman and the men he worked with, George Allison and Tom Whittaker (plus the interim 5 months of Joe Shaw following Chapman’s death), yielded seven league championships – a record at that point. There were other finishes as low as 14th, but what would you rather have, seven titles and some poor seasons or three titles and lots of ‘top four trophies’?

You may say it’s slightly unfair to compare seven titles in 24 against three titles in ‘only’ 20 for Arsène. Okay, but if you arbitrarily knock off the last four years just to make them even, it’s still six titles, which is twice as many as three.finishing-position-comparison-20-seasons-from-1925-26

Or you could even disallow the first four years of Chapman’s reign, given he started from a much lower base than Wenger and needed time to build.finishing-position-comparison-20-seasons-from-1929-30

Would Arsène have done the Double in 1998 if Arsenal had been struggling against relegation just before his arrival? Probably not. Would he even have wanted the job? Who knows.

To complete the picture, the 1950s to the 1990s.finishing-position-comparison-crayston-to-rioch

The seasons of Jack Crayston, George Swindin and Billy Wright in charge were average at best, as the Chapman influence disappeared and Arsenal struggled financially compared to the 1930s, and also struggled against the weight of history – everyone else was still desperate to beat Arsenal due to Chapman’s success in making them the biggest club in the world. For most clubs, playing Arsenal was still treated as a cup final, whatever Arsenal’s league position at the time.

Things improved under Bertie Mee, and although there were also poor times by ‘big club’ standards before Arsène arrived, let’s not forget that bar Liverpool (last promoted in 1962) and Everton (1954), every other club, big or small, spent time out of the top division between 1966 and 1996. And we still celebrated the same number of titles under Mee and Graham as under Arsène, so it wasn’t all bad by any means. It’s also true that since the 1960s Arsenal have only once gone more than eight years without a trophy, and that was in the Wenger era.

What else can we compare? How about Wenger’s successful first ten years against the 1930s?finishing-position-comparison-wenger-first-10-v-1930s

Chapman looks the winner there. Give me five titles over three any time.

Or perhaps Arsène’s first ten against the recent ten.finishing-position-comparison-wenger-first-10-v-second-10

Judge for yourself what story that tells. (Cue ill-informed responses about ‘financial restraints’ and the single handed building of a new stadium. I’ve refuted all that many times already.)

One final fact: Arsenal are also, I believe, the only club still in the League who have never finished outside the top 30 of the whole Football League.

Twitter: @AngryOfN5


10 thoughts on “Wenger v Chapman: Arsenal’s Best Eras Compared

  1. Never below the top thirty is a new ‘Arsenal cherry for me. Not only did I not know that never gave it a thought.

    Comparing one era with another has to take into consideration all aspects of the game. Not just managers. We now know that there we have either a very poor standard of refereeing at the moment or intentional bad refereeing. The Sun of all the media did a piece not so long ago showing that if the correct decisions had been made by the ref of the closed shop PMOGL then Arsenal would have been in 1st place and not fourth. This weekend the media reported on Moss decisions and claimed that the ones he gave were correct. However no mention of the red cards he should have given to Burnley players.

    What was the standard of refereeing like 20 years ago? What about the ball over the line and not given and Newcastle scoring from that ref mistake in Chapman’s 1932 cup final?.

    • I’m not convinced ref standards are so bad or have declined measurably, but they do have the problem that the game is faster than ever and there are multiple camera angles for everything. Nothing gets missed now, and naturally the focus is always on what was wrong.

  2. Well researched and written, Phil.The result does give one the impression that AW’s era hasn’t always been the wonder-period for Arsenal that management would have us believe. The question always is this; How would we do without him? Initially, we might seem as if we’ve fallen off a cliff, but in the longer term, we might well do quite a bit better. Unless we take the plunge, we’ll never know.

    I thought that we should have made the change last year when Pep Guardiola was available. He had a proven record as a winner, and he obviously had the big club/big money experience. Who knows – maybe we’ll be lucky and have a chance to snap him up in the future. I know that we need someone new or we’ll be forced to act by circumstances. Better to act while the option is still in your hands.

    • Thanks Dave. It will be hard for the next manager and it’s almost inevitable there will be worse seasons and non-top 4 finishes, whoever it is. The judgement of the masses will be on whether the title or CL is won first, or dropping out of the top 4 comes first.
      Far easier for the next man if Arsenal drop out of the top 4 before Arsene goes!

  3. ”Leslie Knighton was appointed manager. He was given little money to spend on players ”
    What is your source for this ?

  4. Well written and researched article, but I feel you’ve missed on an important factor that differentiates Wenger’s era from all the others in the past.

    Since the advent of the Premier League as well as the massive cars influx into the league the situation has changed drastically. Back in the day, clubs could have bad years and still come back to the top. The gap was much smaller.

    Today, big clubs of the past like Newcastle and Aston Villa have been relegated and even if they make it back to the Premier League, it’s nearly impossible for them to come and win the EPL – and even tougher to do it consistently. Even Leicester, who did the impossible last year, are now battling relegation.

    Considering we didn’t have United and Liverpool’s fanbase or City and Chelsea’s riches, 2-3 10th-12th place finishes during that period may have been enough to widen the gap significantly.

    It wasn’t this harsh during any other period.

    • I agree with some of what you’re saying, but you’re overlooking a few things.
      The Premier League itself was less of a change than the massive TV money that followed several years later – coinciding with the Wenger years, oddly enough. From the late nineties until 2016 once you were a ‘big club’ – which for several years was Arsenal, Man U, Liverpool, with Chelsea knocking on the door even pre-Abramovich – it was hard to dislodge you and there was very little chance of being in the bottom half of the table, let alone relegated. Man City have joined that gang; Spurs are perennial triers, but won’t join it properly until their wage bill reaches the levels of the others; Newcastle and Leeds overstretched themselves and fell a long way. But the current big 5 or 6 can and have had relatively bad years and bounced back.
      Other clubs might have an amazing season and then struggle, like Leicester, as you point out.
      Pre-1990s when the playing field was more level, anyone could have a bad period and get relegated. It was still unlikely, but everyone managed it since WW2 except Arsenal. It’s true that if they got back up to the top flight they could then (with luck and good management) challenge again, and you’re right that’s less likely now, at least without massive outside help from the likes of Sheikh Mansour. But the other side of that coin is that the more level playing field made dominance much harder. Dominant teams were built on a core of players and the right manager at the right time – once that dynamic disappeared, the dominance ended. The only exceptions in the first 100 years of English football were Arsenal under Chapman, Allison and Whittaker, then Liverpool under Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish. So the main difference in the Wenger era is that once you’re near the top it’s much easier to stay there – all the rich clubs have done it for close to 20 years. They can’t all win the title and they can’t all be in the top four every single year, but they’re all still there and whatever happens this year they’ll be challenging for top four next year.
      This may change if the current TV deal has the effect of levelling things a bit, but I can’t see a drastic change for several years at least. It just becomes a bit harder for all the big (ie rich) clubs to hold off all the ‘smaller’ clubs every single season.

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