Sunday 24 September 2017

Dawn of new reality shines light into marble halls

Arsene Wenger may have to change his and Arsenal's philosophy as the club enters a new commercial world, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

A rsene Wenger allowed English football to think differently about itself. Who will make Arsene Wenger think differently about Arsenal?

Wenger wasn't allowed say too much on Friday at Arsenal's London Colney training ground. The club has now entered a takeover process and the lawyers would have preferred if Wenger said nothing at all. He could talk about football but not what Stan Kroenke could do for Arsenal. Anything he said could be viewed as an inducement to the remaining shareholders. When he promised that nothing would change, this could be seen as an inducement to support Kroenke. Or it could be seen as a reason to look for more radical change.

Few teams have been so mathematically involved in a title race but so philosophically written off as this Arsenal side. In theory, they could be top of the table next Sunday or closing in on Manchester United before they play them in a fortnight. The theory is simple: if Arsenal win all their games and United drop points in one other game, Arsenal will win the league. But where Wenger once had an ability to make the theoretical real, this season, as Arsenal go closer, it seems further away.

Wenger has spent so much time insisting that this team would prove themselves, but now he is more hesitant and more honest. When he was asked on Friday if Arsenal would win the title if they won all their matches, he couldn't be emphatic in a situation he would previously have relished.

In fact, he seemed uncertain about what Manchester United would have to do. "They can make a draw, they play against us. If we win our games, because we play against them, they can make a draw somewhere. It's still not 100 per cent if we win our games. Do you know what we have to do? To win the next one. It makes the Liverpool game vital."

There has been an improvement in league position every year over the past three seasons (fourth, third and currently second), but everything else seems further away.

Arsenal have drawn three of their last four league games, whimpering towards the finish line. Unless they can inject some urgency in the next week in which they play Liverpool and Tottenham, and United lose some of theirs, there will be a demand for change, some will even want a new manager.

Most just want Wenger to adapt. He acknowledges this but remains wedded to his philosophy. He has, some believe, always demonstrated a willingness to observe the commercial realities in forming this philosophy. Arsenal were building a new stadium so a manager who decided that players should be cultivated from within was going to be tolerated. When the manager was a man of Wenger's genius then he was going to be indulged.

But there are other commercial realities. No matter what happens with Kroenke's takeover, this summer Arsenal will go on a pre-season tour to the Far East. Wenger has always resisted this in the past, believing that the team's preparation would be affected.

"It is a compromise with the commercial department, it's the real world. We do not get the money in any other income than ones we produce so we have to produce as much as we can. I compromised a little bit but only if we can respect our preparation. Ideally I wouldn't want to go but I go because we make some sponsorship, some money on the games which we wouldn't make in Europe."

Wenger wants to spend the money the club has, not the money presented to him by a benefactor. "We have less financial potential than the others," he says, explaining the decision to go to Asia.

Kroenke may look at other ways of releasing Arsenal's potential. Wenger is prepared to spend money. Last summer, he was ready to spend £20m on Pepe Reina and he may try to buy him again.

Wojciech Szczesny is fit and Wenger talked about his potential before joking that next season if things were bad, he could always sign Jens Lehmann again. Lehmann's return has at least provided an excellent comedy fall guy at the club. He talked about Liverpool's signing in January of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez in a way which suggested he wouldn't rule out doing the same thing.

"I think this transfer was a bit special because what [money] came in for Torres, went on Carroll. In this kind of opportunity, you can understand why the club spends this kind of money because they got it in on the other side. I don't rule out spending this kind of money but I haven't done it yet."

He doesn't see Kroenke's takeover as changing his desire to spend only what the club has earned. He also believes in UEFA's financial fair play, but talks about it as if it is the Respect campaign, a noble idea to be voluntarily observed, rather than a set of regulations with teeth.

"We go to the financial fair play next season. I want to sit here with you in September and see who respects the financial fair play. We will respect it because it starts in June."

Wenger sees this as a cause. On Friday, he said he had been reading in a French newspaper about Rayo Vallecano, the Spanish club who are top of the second division. "Some of their players have not been paid for a year. A year! So that reminds you. Some players cannot pay their mortgages! We want to run our businesses properly with our income that is produced by the business we do."

Kroenke, no matter how wealthy he is, will have no desire to change that. If Arsenal keep qualifying for the Champions League, they will be seen as a success by many.

"I will stick to my philosophy. We have a team with all the potential to do it. In the press, people are very impatient with us. But we are very close and at the end of the season we have to think we have given everything to achieve it and to do it. At the moment, we are still in it. Many people give us a big chance."

Who these people are, it is hard to say. Unless there is a spectacular development, Arsenal will be left apologising for finishing second in a league that had no outstanding team. In the summer, Wenger will be forced to change, even subtly, as the club looks to exploit commercial potential and the ownership structure changes.

This season has seemed to tire him and his side now often only pay lip service to his football ideals.

"I don't know how long I will be involved. I have three years to go, I am 61. It will not last forever but when it's not me, it will be someone else who can do exactly the same, if not better. At the moment, I feel active and want to be on the football pitch. Once I cannot do it anymore, I will try to be useful somewhere else. Preferably at this club, but if this club doesn't need me, somewhere else." Arsenal still needs Wenger. Single-handedly, he allowed the club to play with the aristocratic intent the marble halls had projected.

Arsenal have looked liked jaded hereditary peers recently but Wenger remains key. It is put to him that he is essential, not only to the football side of things, but commercially too. He is, one journalist says, seen as the Arsenal brand.

"I am not the brand," Wenger says, "I am a servant."

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