Tuesday 26 September 2017

Mob's rule beginning to take hold of punch-drunk Wenger

DION FANNING

I have a simple formula for assessing the danger Arsene Wenger is in. When he sounds like Gerard Houllier he's in trouble.

He has edged close before, especially during the fraught recent past, praising Arsenal's achievement in reaching an FA Cup semi-final only to see the side knocked out of the FA Cup. When he says a good team doesn't lose two games in a row or that the team has turned the corner then there will be even greater trouble ahead.

Wenger will be unable to trot out one of those as Arsenal have now lost three in a row but those of us who care for him are once again beginning to worry.

Sometimes it is hard to know which is more distressing: the sight of Per Mertesacker resuming his role as an emergency centre-forward or the sight of Per Mertesacker playing as a conventional centre-back.

No matter where he plays, Mertesacker cannot be said to represent what Wenger stands for. He has also not been particularly successful, which was why many disputed what Wenger stood for in recent years.

Mertesacker may only serve as an example of what happens if you go against your instincts, although Johan Djourou could be put forward as an example of what happens if you trust them. Djourou at least demonstrates some sign that he is able to run, an ability impossible to discern in Mertesacker.

For years, people had been encouraging Wenger to spend money and, on the last day of the transfer window, he did. His curious purchases may have made some things better but they also announced the possibility of a post-Wenger world. Anyone could have signed these players. Many people would never have signed Mertesacker.

Wenger appears to be trying to be what he's not. He has always brought interesting players to the club but in August he responded to the distress of losing Fabregas and Nasri and the baying from without.

In Madrid, Jose Mourinho struggles with another version of the same thing. Mourinho is being urged to be more adventurous with his team.

He tries to quell the dissent from the Spanish players at the club who are human and need to be loved, just like everybody does.

Madrid's Spanish players have it worse because Barcelona are adored, not merely loved.

Mourinho can discard these normal feelings, not because he doesn't feel them, but because he realises that to feel them doesn't mean he has to respond to them.

Like many men who call themselves pragmatists, Mourinho clings to his beliefs with a fundamentalist zeal. If his side lose playing defensively, he will continue to play defensively. If they attack and lose then attacking is to blame.

He was reported to have picked the side his players wanted in the Camp Nou last Wednesday but he may have done it as a way of getting what he wanted. Madrid were brave and were said to have redeemed themselves. They lost. Redemption is an abstract concept for Mourinho. Madrid's lead at the top of the table is a concept he can understand.

So Madrid lost heroically and Mourinho is in a corner. The difference this time is that he does not have all his key players with him. If he wins the Champions League, it will be his greatest act of defiance.

Mourinho used to mock Wenger for his failure to win trophies but like all great managers, like all great men, they share the madness that comes from ignoring the clamour from the reasonable and the unreasonable to change things.

Wenger is now trying to respond to the mob, the largely faceless mob which has all the answers, particularly as they have never had to answer any of the questions. Last week, they knew what he had done wrong. Those who had once hailed the signing of Andrey Arshavin as an example of what Wenger should do more of (sign an experienced player in January), howled when he replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Manchester United with Arshavin.

All of this was predictable but it was Wenger's response that caused me to worry. "At least this means I picked the right team to begin with," Wenger said when asked about the booing of his substitution. In the hint of desperation and the desire to demonstrate his initial excellence, he sounded like Houllier.

Wenger has been tormented by forces within and without to reach that point. For many years he watched his side give the impression they were challenging for trophies only for it to transpire that they were more intent on driving Wenger mad.

Last Sunday, many made the reasonable point that Theo Walcott could have been withdrawn ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Walcott continues to convey a sense that he is very impressed with his own development. He will be applauded by many whenever he does something special. Theo speaks well and acts well so his failures will be overlooked. He now also believes he writes well, nominating his own children's book -- TJ and the Hat-trick -- as his favourite children's book in an initiative aimed at encouraging reading among children.

While this was going on, many were finding it hilarious to laugh at illiteracy when Harry Redknapp stated in court that he could only read and write to a sub-functional level.

Walcott has good manners and can be rolled out to meet Camilla Parker-Bowles.

None of that matters to Wenger who has to absorb the news that Walcott's literary career is flourishing at the same time that a genuine contender, Jack Wilshere, looks like missing the rest of the season.

Wenger used to shrug when the FA Cup came along but he also used to say luck had nothing to do with the success of a football team. Now he needs victory, he needs to catch a break and he needs not to sound as implausible in the post-match interview. As Houllier used to say, they are the most important 60 seconds of a manager's week.

dfanning@independent.ie

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