Graham Greene once wrote that “time lends poetry to the battlefield”. The reign of Arsene Wenger, and his 20 years of moulding and sculpting Arsenal football club, will certainly need the help of time before it will truly be appreciated for what it is.
If one were to look on in the current climate, with supporters baying for blood, exasperated by the annual false dawn every season as another title challenge falls flat, they would be forgiven for thinking Arsene would be leaving a bitter legacy. Wenger, accused of living in the past and of making his brittle teams all silk and no steel, set up to play breath-taking football at times, but their lack of nous and leadership led to an implosion in the Champions League and title race every March.
Arsene is a football purist, obsessed with playing the beautiful game beautifully. When ‘Wengerball’, the one touch brand of slick passing and brazen technique pays off, opposition players – like Chelsea on his anniversary weekend – and fans alike are left stunned.
After defeating Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup final, having been outdone in all departments that day in a haggard defensive victory, Wenger vowed never to set his team up to hold off the opposition again: never would he shield the light of his attacking talents for the greater good of victory. Wenger’s stubbornness – or principled nature, depending on whom you ask – has led to some disastrous days, perhaps most of all the 6-0 drubbing at the hand of his great antagoniser Jose Mourinho. Arsenal had set up with a 4-2-3-1 at Stamford Bridge, but with the front six all told to attack from the off. A ludicrously exposed defence was torn asunder that day, a feature of Arsenal defeats that has happened sickeningly often in the past decade for their fans. As Radiohead know, Arsenal do it to themselves, and that is why it really hurts.
Philippe Senderos is himself a symbol of the austerity years that defined Arsenal after their move to the Emirates Stadium, and he spoke recently of Wenger’s attitude towards defending. Senderos recalls Wenger apologising to his central defenders at training, telling them that they would have a harder job than at other clubs due to his commitment to playing attractive football. They would more often be exposed to the counter due to midfielders joining attacks and creating pretty passing patterns. Here is an example of, not managerial stupidity and naivety – which many people have accused him of – but a self-awareness that in order to put art on the pitch, as he loves to, Wenger will often look the fool when it goes wrong.
The contrast between Wenger’s brilliant first 10 years in England, crowned by the stellar ‘Invincibles’ season, and the barren 10 years that followed have been documented well on his anniversary. What will remain when the dust has settled, after the petty arguments amongst Gunners fans who do not know what they have got until it has gone, is the character of the man.
He has never broken a contract, never spoken ill of those who sling mud his way, and treated his 1000th game in charge of a world famous club like his first: full of nervous energy and a desperation to win. In an era where the shelf life of your average Premier League manager is 11 months, a 20 year tenure is ludicrous. Arsene’s loyalty to Arsenal at the peak of his powers, when European powerhouses rolled out the red carpet for him, speaks volumes. Asked recently why he had rejected Real Madrid, Wenger simply replied that he loves where he is and would not change a thing which, when juxtaposed with the crass judgement passed by many Arsenal fans on him in recent years, shows his class. Although it has been painful at times to watch Wenger desperately try to recapture former glory to little avail, someone who has given so much to the game we love deserves all the sentimental praise that has been coming his way.
As sports writer for The Telegraph Jonathan Liew noted: “The more I know of Arsene Wenger, the more I think his mind is wasted on football”. Looking back in many years’ time, we will all be glad that he did waste it.
Image courtesy of Ronnie Macdonald