Premier League

Leicester City: the Arsène Wenger Years

Applause rained down from the stands at the King Power Stadium. Leicester City’s season hadn’t been worthy of special recognition – a lap of honour the previous Saturday had taken place in front of tens of thousands of empty seats – but we weren’t applauding our own team, as much as we had enjoyed their 3-1 victory. We were showing our appreciation to the visiting manager, Arsène Wenger, as the minutes ticked down in his penultimate game in charge of Arsenal.

Perhaps we wouldn’t have been so generous if our team had lost. But Leicester had finally beaten a team managed by Wenger in the Premier League. It had taken 22 years.

There was more to that ovation than respect

There was an acknowledgement that Wenger had seen many Leicesters and that we, as Leicester fans, had seen many Arsenals. There is no bitter rivalry between the teams and few similarities, but we have been thrown together over the years by fixture lists and league tables and we have shared moments, memories and experiences.

We have shared places too. Games between Leicester City and Wenger’s Arsenal began in the iron and brick of Filbert Street and Highbury, hemmed in tightly by terraced houses. Leicester moved to a new home in 2002, Arsenal in 2006. The Emirates is twice as big as the King Power but both are symbolic of the Premier League era, named after corporations based thousands of miles away rather than the surrounding streets.

The four grounds had all seen their iconic clashes. Wenger’s final away game came at the King Power. 21 years had passed since Dennis Bergkamp scored a remarkable hat-trick at Filbert Street and Leicester roared back to equalise. At Highbury in 2004, Leicester took the lead on the last day of the season and threatened to spoil the Invincibles’ record. In 2016, Danny Welbeck’s late winner at the Emirates appeared to put his team in the driving seat in the Premier League title race.

When Wenger arrived at Arsenal in October 1996, Leicester were a newly-promoted Premier League team with Martin O’Neill in charge. That O’Neill team could play, but were still one of the league’s more direct teams with an array of big, bruising centre-halves and an imposing young Emile Heskey up front. Wenger was attempting to introduce a new continental style of football but he had his share of brutes too, passed down from the George Graham days. When the two teams met, there was a clash of styles with the odd clash of heads.

The most famous meeting between the two clubs took place on a Tuesday evening in August 1997. Bergkamp’s three glorious goals are still talked about today, Steve Walsh’s late equaliser less so. The Arsenal fans huddled in the glorified bike shed that was Filbert Street’s East Stand must recall the atmosphere that night. There was heat and sweat and so many goals and so much noise. When Walsh’s header crashed into the net deep into stoppage time, Leicester’s grand old Double Decker stand behind the goal came alive. After the final whistle, Ian Wright marched onto the pitch towards Walsh. The confrontation between the two demonstrated a shared passion despite their teams’ many differences.

While Bergkamp’s hat-trick didn’t seal victory, it did showcase Arsenal at their best and how they often seemed to find that form against Leicester. There was something about Wenger’s teams that O’Neill’s Leicester couldn’t handle. It wasn’t just a question of quality. O’Neill could cope with other great teams – in 1997 and 1998, Leicester were unbeaten in four league meetings with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, including a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. Arsenal were different.

The closest O’Neill came to a Premier League victory over Wenger was in September 1998

Arsenal had won the double four months earlier and their starting lineup included Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and Patrick Vieira to complement the all-English back five of Seaman, Dixon, Bould, Keown and Winterburn.

Half an hour into a sunny encounter at Filbert Street, Emile Heskey ran with the ball from the halfway line before propelling a low shot past Seaman from outside the area. Leicester held the lead until injury time but fell increasingly deep and became desperate for the final whistle. Before it arrived, Arsenal’s Stephen Hughes took advantage of a slight gap amid the home side’s massed ranks to let fly from thirty yards beyond the reach of Kasey Keller.

Leicester losses to Arsenal racked up from there, the next four league results between the teams reading almost like a straight-sets defeat: 0-5, 1-2, 0-3, 1-6. The 0-5 included a hat-trick for Nicolas Anelka and the 1-6 a hat-trick for Thierry Henry, both blessed with startling pace. The 0-3 came after a rare morning kick-off which saw goals from Gilles Grimandi and Lee Dixon. The other scorer that day was Overmars, who seemed even quicker than Anelka and Henry, and the repeated torment of his marker, Robbie Savage, bordered on cruelty. Wenger is remembered as the man who introduced the concept of sports science to top level football in England and these defeats of O’Neill’s Leicester showed the fruits of his work. Arsenal were simply too quick, too dynamic, too fluid.

In 2002, Leicester suffered the first of three relegations during Wenger’s time at Arsenal. Micky Adams oversaw a return to the Premier League for the 2003/04 season, which is remembered for the team that finished it unbeaten: Arsenal’s Invincibles.

Yet Leicester, having lost both Martin O’Neill and Filbert Street in the early part of the decade, fared surprisingly well in their two meetings with arguably the greatest Arsenal team of all time. In the first, a late Craig Hignett goal salvaged a 1-1 draw for a spirited Micky Adams side. In the return fixture, on the final day of the season, Arsenal needed to avoid defeat at Highbury to maintain their unbeaten record but fell behind to a Paul Dickov goal. It took second-half strikes from Henry and Vieira to seal the team’s place in history.

Leicester had already been relegated and it would take ten years for the two teams to face each other again in the league. In that time, Leicester endured four bottom-half finishes in the Championship culminating in demotion to the third division for the first time in the club’s history in 2008. Promotion from League One at the first attempt was followed by five top-half Championship finishes, eventually serving up 2014’s glorious second-tier title win. The 100-point mark was surpassed and a return to the Premier League was sealed.

That promotion-winning team was better equipped for the challenge

Nigel Pearson was the manager. Another thirteen men had taken managerial or joint caretaker charge since Adams but Pearson was the first to get another shot at defeating Wenger.

It was a very different Arsenal that his side faced in August 2014. The decline in quality from the Invincibles to the likes of Debuchy and Sanogo is well-documented, but that Arsenal team also included Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sánchez. Some of their short-passing play was a joy to watch and the deep, and at times desperate, Leicester defending resembled the O’Neill era.

The game finished in a draw, Leonardo Ulloa providing an immediate response to Sánchez’s first-half opener. Ulloa wasted a golden chance to win the game after the break, a Leicester victory over Wenger still elusive.

The return match in February 2015 saw Leicester’s first visit to the Emirates Stadium. It was an evening that felt like more of the same for the away fans packed into the corner of the lower tier, yet another 2-1 defeat despite a brave showing and extended periods of real quality.

In retrospect, there were signs of what was to come for Leicester. Robert Huth made his debut. Pearson played three centre-backs for the first time in the Premier League. Riyad Mahrez danced in from the right wing like an elite performer. Leicester lost and it still felt like relegation was imminent – ending the night five points adrift of safety – but there was a spark. If only it could catch light.

There was no relegation. There was no second ten-year exile from the Premier League. No glum faces on the final day of the season. Leicester, rejuvenated by Huth and Cambiasso and some small element of magic, spectacularly saved themselves and so, in September 2015, again faced Arsenal in the Premier League. And again, it was an encounter that felt like the same old story but transpired to be pivotal. It was, tactically, the turning point in Leicester’s season and, given what that season would become, perhaps even the history of the club.

Arsenal won. It was a demolition, a thrashing, a five-goal hammering with a hat-trick for Alexis Sánchez

But Leicester had started the season excellently, continuing their form of the previous campaign’s great escape. In the wake of the defeat, new manager Claudio Ranieri felt a slight adjustment to his approach could reap huge rewards. His change to a more defensive pair of full-backs after the visit of Arsenal was central to one of the biggest sporting achievements of all time: Leicester City would go on to win the Premier League.

Leicester lost only three times that season. Once to Liverpool on Boxing Day at Anfield when Jamie Vardy was unwell and the influential Danny Drinkwater missed the game. The other two defeats were against the eventual second-placed team, Arsenal. A late Danny Welbeck winner for the hosts on Valentine’s Day sparked one of the most exuberant celebrations the Emirates Stadium had ever seen. The momentum seemed to be with the Gunners but Arsenal’s joy was a mirror image of the scenes that greeted Steve Walsh’s equaliser at Filbert Street in 1997 – in both cases, the home players and supporters celebrated wildly while the visitors would go on to win the Premier League.

Arsenal lost their next two games. A ten-match unbeaten run to end the season could only take them to within ten points of top spot. After sealing the title, several Leicester players talked of the determination and resolve they gained from what they saw as a premature and presumptuous Arsenal dressing-room selfie following Welbeck’s winner.

Leicester have since retaken their place in mid-table, while Wenger’s Arsenal slipped further and further behind the big-spenders at the top of the league. The opening night of the 2017/18 season brought a seven-goal thriller that Leicester led for long periods before surrendering in injury time, but that was about as dramatic as it got for either team all season.

It had taken just two years for a clash between two title-chasers to become an irrelevance. A few days away from the league’s finale, Arsenal were 6th and Leicester were 9th. Wenger had already announced his decision to leave in the summer.

There was an early red card for Konstantinos Mavropanos, Wenger’s last-ever Arsenal debutant who hadn’t been born when Dennis Bergkamp scored his famous hat-trick at Filbert Street. Leicester led 2-1 in injury time when Riyad Mahrez ended his stay at the King Power Stadium with a fitting flourish, cutting inside onto his left foot before placing the ball into the corner of the net for one last time. Leicester City had finally won a Premier League game against Wenger’s Arsenal.

Football moves on quickly. Arsenal suffered a gradual decline in the final years of Wenger’s reign but Unai Emery shows signs of revitalising the Emirates Stadium. Leicester, on the other hand, are still coping with adjusted expectations following the spectacular over-achievement of 2016.

Is the title still a possibility for Arsenal? Does European football remain achievable for Leicester? Monday night sees a first meeting since the end of the Wenger era and the beginning of a new chapter in the story of two very different clubs.

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