A great football man who has lost his grip
Published 23/09/2011 | 05:00
How much worse could it get for Arsene Wenger before he decided -- or was told -- that a once brilliant reign at Arsenal had finally run its course?
We found out this week. Seventeenth in the Premier League -- and deserted by his two world-class protégés Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, Wenger received the dreaded 'vote of confidence' from the club's chief executive Ivan Gazidas.
He then had to read the detail of it in mounting horror.
Shockingly, it wasn't so much a defence as an invitation to ridicule.
To put it into further context, Arsenal currently occupy precisely the same position as that of Internazionale in Serie A -- and the recent Champions League and serial Italian title winners made their fourth coaching change in 18 months yesterday.
On the face of it, Wenger, while plainly irritated by the terms of the club's reaction to mounting pressure after the worst start to a season in 58 years, was unfazed.
Imperiously, he announced his desire to repeat another 14 years of unbroken involvement in the Champions League.
This, of course, now immediately requires a herculean change of performance in league games or victory in the final next spring that was beyond reach, even when the team list included names like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires.
The reality, of course, is that Wenger, for all his past brilliance, for all the years of sublime football and substantial achievement, is the great football man who has plainly lost his grip.
He watched transfixed as Fabregas and Nasri advertised their belief that the future of Arsenal held no appeal.
And then, when time was at the point of expiry, he found himself in a demeaning transfer deadline hustle for players like Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker, who, despite past achievements, were a parody of Wenger's old transfer priorities of youth and luminous talent.
If this wasn't bad enough in itself, Gazidas proceeded to make a mockery of rational analysis.
The former deputy commissioner of the American Major Soccer League ridiculed the idea that the late moves for Arteta and Mertesacker were the most glaring evidence of command paralysis, both in the boardroom and the manager's office.
No, what they were was something quite different.
They were part of a still vibrant policy of reseeding the club with players of the highest standard.
"Arsene is as focused on delivering success as he has ever been," declared Gazidis.
"Believe it or not, he didn't suddenly become a bad manager or someone who is out of touch with the game. It is an absolute nonsense based on the need to create crisis and drama.
"Even in the transfer window we have seen a tactical adjustment of bringing in more experienced players.
"What we did was spend money early in the window on younger players and then sprinkled it with experienced players.
"But, over the course of the window, our squad actually became younger. Our strategy continues to focus on young players.
"We know we can't go out and compete with the spending that is out there and, frankly, if we did, it would just push the spending to another level, so it wouldn't be a successful strategy."
Naturally, the sophisticated Wenger groaned when he read such defensive platitudes.
There must also have been a Gallic shudder when he reached the chief executive's assertion that many clubs would "die" to be in Arsenal's situation.
While Wenger has always been proud of the 'business model' his inspired work in the transfer market had helped to make possible, he hardly needs telling that an essential dynamic of any successful football club has been a sense of progress, the idea that a great team is about to burst forth.
In the six years since Arsenal last won a major trophy -- ironically, a defence-orientated build-up to a penalty shoot-out against Manchester United in the FA Cup -- such a possibility has become increasingly remote -- a fact which Gazidis acknowledges but only in the most bizarre terms.
His said: "I think the frustration of a lot of us is that the potential is very high, but we have found self-inflicted ways not to achieve full potential.
"This is what is so deeply frustrating.
"If you look at the last six years, when we haven't quite got over the line for a trophy, if we hadn't had the potential to do it, in a strange way we might have been more accepted.
"The potential is there and everyone can see it," he continued.
"Last year we played some of the most attractive football in the Premier League and unfortunately we self-destructed at key moments -- and we have seen that a couple of times this season.
"This is something we have to correct. That is the frustration I think Arsene is wrestling with, but he is absolutely not broken.
"He is as focused on delivering success as he has ever been."
Of course Wenger remains passionate about resurrecting the meaning of his career under the most oppressive circumstances.
But there is a point when the greatest of football managers have to accept that their influence, their ability to dictate events, in any one situation has waned to a critical, maybe impossible degree.
It happened to former greats of the game such as Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and Jock Stein.
And if, thus far, Alex Ferguson has avoided the worst implications of the years, even his bitterest critics are now bound to admit it is one of the wonders of the football ages.
Wenger's heaviest blows are not recorded as starkly in the Premier League table as the roll call of the team he sends out against Bolton tomorrow.
There is no Fabregas or Nasri and if the eventual return of Jack Wilshere from injury is one point of hope, it is one that tends to shrivel, against the picture of Fabregas scoring goals for Barcelona with the freedom of a man who plainly believes he has been released from a crushing sense of futility.
Fabregas has insisted that he will never forget the influence and the inspiration provided by Arsene Wenger. It will always be part of his life, he says.
Arsenal might say the same of the great manager -- and then, sooner rather than later, acknowledge that, in reality, he has also become a symbol of their past rather than their hopes for the future.
No doubt it will require a certain cold detachment -- and one that comes without guarantees. But then reality generally does.