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Revolutionary to revolt: Wenger's legacy soured by Arsenal slide

LONDON (AFP) - 

Arsene Wenger announced his arrival as a revolutionary force in England by overhauling a culture of booze and bad diets but the Frenchman's inability to maintain his own high standards prompted a parting of the ways.

Arguably the most significant agent of change in the Premier League era, the 68-year-old's achievements in revitalising both Arsenal and English football will be celebrated in his final few weeks in charge.

But for many Arsenal fans his exit is not before time after 14 years without winning the Premier League and facing the real possibility the Gunners could miss out on Champions League football for a second consecutive season.

- 'Arsene who?' -

Few overseas stars plied their trade in England at the time when Wenger left Japan's Nagoya Grampus Eight to join Arsenal in 1996. Tabloid headlines sneered "Arsene who?".

Born in Strasbourg, Wenger grew up on the border between France and Germany, but the majority of his managerial experience prior to Arsenal came in the glamorous principality of Monaco, where he won a Ligue 1 title in 1987/88.

However, Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein's intuition to let Wenger loose on English football proved a masterstroke.

After coming third in the Premier League in Wenger's first season, Arsenal never finished outside the top two for the next eight years.

Overhauling Arsenal's dietary and fitness regimes and introducing sports science and data analysis with remarkable results, Wenger was feted as the most innovative manager of his generation.

"Nutrition was a big deal for Arsene," said former Arsenal defender Martin Keown. "We started feeling superhuman during games, fitter and stronger than ever."

In his early days in charge, Wenger also had the right recipe in the cut-throat world of the transfer market.

A skilled linguist with a command of Spanish, German, Italian and even some Japanese to go with English and French, Wenger had a natural upper hand in the early globalisation of the Premier League.

His knowledge of the French market saw Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Emmanuel Petit arrive as unknowns and leave as superstars, while he rescued Dennis Bergkamp and Arsenal's all-time leading scorer Thierry Henry from difficult spells in Italy to form the most fearsome strike partnership in the club's history.

During that golden period, Arsenal won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with a smooth-passing style that raised standards in a league previously more enamoured of a physical game.

"When I used to play for Arsenal, people used to talk about the way we were playing, not what we won, but they way we were doing it," said Henry. "Arsene changed Arsenal into a well-recognised club in the world."

The high point of Wenger's era came in 2003-04 when Arsenal's "Invincibles" became only the second side ever to go undefeated in the English top-flight.

Two years later they came as close as Wenger ever did to European glory in losing the Champions League final 2-1 to Barcelona.

- Emirates a false dawn -

That season was also Arsenal's last at Highbury and proved to be the turning point in Wenger's reign.

The promise that moving to the 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium would allow the club to compete financially with the biggest spenders in England and the continent failed to materialise.

Advanced scouting across the league left even a football fanatic like Wenger, who confessed to watching games from around the world even on his rare days off, without the natural advantage he once enjoyed.

Henry left to fulfil his dream of winning the Champions League at Barcelona, paving the way for a succession of stars developed by Wenger such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie to also turn their back on their mentor to go and win trophies elsewhere.

Confronted by the new-found wealth of Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal never finished higher than third between 2005-06 and 2014-15.

With a masters degree in economics, Wenger was criticised for treating Arsenal's money like his own by refusing to get involved in an escalating arms race for the Premier League's top talent as his side began to fall further behind.

- 'Wenger out' -

Qualification for the Champions League for 19 straight seasons kept Wenger in a job, as did a run of three FA Cup wins in the past four years to end a nine-year trophy drought.

However, Arsenal fans' frustrations at their failure to go toe-to-toe with their main rivals in the Premier League and Champions League continued to simmer, with "Wenger Out" banners becoming commonplace.

That run of Champions League qualification came to an end last season and Arsenal are on course for their worst-ever Premier League finish under Wenger as they sit in sixth, 33 points behind champions Manchester City and 14 off north London rivals Tottenham.

The fans have spoken with their feet in recent weeks with swathes of empty seats for home games against City, Watford, Stoke and Southampton.

Wenger does, though, have one last shot at a happy ending. Winning the Europa League would end his wait for a European trophy and qualify Arsenal for next season's Champions League in the process.

By announcing his departure now, he will hope to unite the fanbase for the first leg of their semi-final against Spanish giants Atletico Madrid next week.

"I urge our fans to stand behind the team to finish on a high," said Wenger.

© 2018 AFP