Shepherding a football club through season after season is one of the most taxing jobs in sport. It’s rarely down to you if you win and it’s always down to you if you lose. Who’d want to be a manager?
Some people, however, are born with a God-given gift for this most stressful of disciplines. Arsenal are one of the most prestigious clubs in world football and to be in charge of them, in particular, is no mean feat.
In this article, we’ll discuss the tenures of the club’s five greatest managers.
Tom Whittaker – 1947-1956
Titles: First Division (1947-48, 1952-53), FA Cup (1949-50), Charity Shield (1948, 1953)
Upon taking the reins in 1947, Tom Whittaker was tasked with restoring the glory days of George Allison and Herbert Chapman. In the end, he was in charge for just shy of a decade, winning three major trophies in that time.
Whittaker was Arsenal through and through. He had played for the club for six years in his footballing career, scoring twice in 70 appearances. He was forced into early retirement following a horrific knee injury in 1925 but chose to stay in football, joining Arsenal’s coaching staff almost immediately.
He served under Herbert Chapman and George Allison during their time at the helm, seeing Arsenal win trophy after trophy. After Allison retired in 1947, Whittaker was the natural successor. Ultimately, he was just as successful, winning the First Division twice in 1947-58 and 1952-53. Sandwiched between them was an FA Cup victory in 1950.
George Allison – 1934-1947
Titles: First Division (1934-35, 1937-38), FA Cup (1935-36), Charity Shield (1934, 1938)
A man of many talents, George Allison was a well-respected journalist before he made the step into football.
Then as now, it was a rarity for a manager to take charge of a major English club without having first had a distinguished playing career. But Allison’s strength of character was enough to secure him the job with next to no experience. He found himself in the position shortly after the untimely death of club legend Herbert Chapman.
Arsenal had already won the league title in 1933-34 under the stewardship of Joe Shaw who took over as caretaker after Chapman’s death, building on the foundations he had laid after taking over in January. That made it two titles in a row for Arsenal, and once Allison replaced Shaw as a permanent manager, it quickly became three.
In 1935-36, Allison won the FA Cup, his Arsenal side beating Sheffield United in the final. He stayed in charge, for a further ten years but that FA Cup triumph was his last as manager. He retired in 1947 and never took another job.
Herbert Chapman – 1925-1934
Titles: First Division (1930-31, 1932-33), FA Cup (1929-30), Charity Shield (1930, 1931, 1933)
Herbert Chapman was the first manager in Arsenal’s history to win silverware. He led his side to the FA Cup in 1930. Arsenal beat Huddersfield 2-0 in the Final at Wembley, with goals from Alex James and Jack Lambert winning the day. From there, Chapman took Arsenal to the league title the following season. They won convincingly, finishing seven points ahead of Aston Villa in the days when it was still two points for a win.
Chapman’s side were known for their extraordinary brand of direct attacking football. In 1930-31, Arsenal scored 127 goals. They finished 2nd the following season but returned to the top of the table in 1932-33, winning the league less convincingly this time – but it was a third trophy for the Gunners all the same.
In his playing days, Chapman was an old fashioned inside forward which explains many facets of his managerial style. Before joining Arsenal, which would turn out to be his last job in management, he took charge of Northampton, Leeds and Huddersfield Town.
George Graham – 1986-1995
Titles: First Division (1988-89, 1990-91), FA Cup (1992-93), League Cup (1986-87, 1992-93), UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (1993-94), Charity Shield (1991)
George Graham is perhaps not talked about quite as much as his achievements deserve. If you include Charity Shield victories, the Scot won seven trophies in his time at Arsenal.
He did so playing a direct, defence-first style of football that would become synonymous with the club during his stewardship. His first championship came in 1987 when Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley to win the League Cup. They repeated the feat in 1992, beating Sheffield Wednesday by the same scoreline.
His two major achievements came in the league, however. He returned the First Division title to Highbury for the first time in just shy of two decades in the most dramatic fashion imaginable in 1989, with Michael Thomas’s famous last-minute goal against Liverpool securing the victory.
Liverpool wrestled the title back from Arsenal the following season, but in 1990-91, Arsenal won the league yet again. Graham won the FA Cup two years later in 1993, beating Sheffield Wednesday once more, and once more with a 2-1 win. Graham’s last hurrah came 1994 when his Arsenal side won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, their first and only major European honour.
Arsene Wenger – 1996-2018
Titles: Premier League (1997-98, 2001-02, 2003-04), FA Cup (1997-98, 2001-02, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2013-14, 2014-15, 2016-17), Charity Shield (1998, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2014, 2015, 2017)
If you follow football even casually, this man will need absolutely no introduction. Arsene Wenger took charge of 1235 Arsenal matches between 1996 and 2018, winning 57% of them.
He oversaw more than twice as many games as the next longest-serving Arsenal manager. His win percentage remains the highest and so does his tally of trophies – by some distance, in fact.
When he arrived in 1996, there was much scepticism. He was one of the first foreign managers and his fellow coaches – including, famously, Alex Ferguson – doubted his abilities and knowledge of the English game. How wrong they were.
Much was said about Wenger in the latter stages of his Arsenal career, most of it negative. But thankfully, now a reasonable amount of time has elapsed since his last match in 2018, his legacy seems to have survived relatively unscathed. Rightly so too; Wenger won 17 trophies in total, including three Premier League titles between 1998 and 2004. He narrowly missed out on a European trophy, losing in the Champions League Final in 2006.
The jewel in the crown was Arsenal’s unbeaten season in 2003-04. It was an achievement that will immortalise Wenger in English football folklore forever.