LONDON – Outgoing Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger identified the largely barren stretch from 2006-15 as the period at the club he will be most proud of when it was finally time to reflect on his trophy-laden career.
Wenger will leave Arsenal with three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups after his final game at Huddersfield Town on Sunday, but his 22-year reign included a stretch of nine straight seasons without a trophy from 2006 onward.
And yet Wenger said that was when he did his finest work, when taken into account the financial restrictions he was working under after the move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium.
“I would say personally, from 2006 to 2015 was certainly the period where I needed to be the strongest and did the best job,” Wenger said. “Because to accept to commit to five years when you build the stadium to work with restricted resources and keep the club in a position where we can pay our debts back, I personally feel I did my best job in that period. Not the most glamorous maybe, but the most difficult.”
Arsenal finished in the top four of the Premier League in all those years and their trophy drought finally ended with the 2014 FA Cup title, the first of three the club won in a four-year span.
But their Premier League campaigns have suffered in the last two years, with the Gunners set to finish sixth this season for the worst result during Wenger’s reign. The Frenchman’s final chance at a European trophy also ended with a defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semifinals. And when asked if there was on result he’d want to change from the last 22 years, Wenger picked that loss even over the 2006 Champions League final defeat.
Arsenal had a great chance to kill off the tie in the first leg but were held to a 1-1 draw despite a one-man advantage, then lost 1-0 in Madrid.
“Always the last pain is the biggest one,” he said. “Because when you come out of these two games and you think you are out of the semifinal of the Europa League, when you come out of the first leg with 1-1 and it should be 3-0, it is what you would like to change. Even with my experience, when it was 1-0 in the second half [of the first leg] I never thought it would finish 1-1. I thought maybe we won’t score the second goal, but we cannot concede — they never crossed the halfway line.
[The Champions League final] was in 2006, it is over 11 years ago and of course it is still painful but my last pain, the last big defeat, is that.” Despite his final season fizzling out into the worst of reign, Wenger remained in high spirits in his final prematch new conference, making jokes and posing for a photo with the assembled journalists after.
“It’s a bit strange for me [that it’s his last news conference]. But I’m slowly understanding that it finishes, so I’m adapting now,” he said, adding that his focus is still squarely on his work. “I will try to do my job until the last minute I work here, and then think about the future. At the moment I don’t at all, because I’m sitting in front of you. I don’t realise it’s my last press conference because I have just the Huddersfield game in mind, and try to do my job as well as I can until the last minute I’m here.”
Wenger has previously said he will continue working in football but won’t make a decision until this summer.
Wenger also singled out the 2003-04 “Invincibles” as the best team he managed, and his first league title in 1998 as his favourite moment.
And he hopes his legacy will not only be remembered in terms of titles but also for the way Arsenal played football under him — as evidenced by the receptions he has been given by opposing supporters since he announced he is stepping down.
“They all love me now,” Wenger said. “It is a pleasant surprise. People respect somewhere that I tried to play football in the right way and I tried to give pleasure to people. The most important thing when you wake up in the morning is to go ‘oh, I watch Arsenal today — I have a chance to see a good game.’
“That is basically what I tried to do: to give people an experience in life that is not every day. Every day is not a pleasure. I think football has a responsibility to try to give some people a special moment in their life. You do not always manage to do it unfortunately, but at least you have to give them the hope they can see something special and can be transported somewhere that they do not always experience on a daily basis.”
Mattias is ESPN FC’s Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.