Thursday 29 September 2016

Another mood swing looming in Arsene's soap opera

Tommy Conlon

Published 04/10/2015 | 17:00

The Ospina blunder was almost a blessing in disguise for Wenger
The Ospina blunder was almost a blessing in disguise for Wenger

And so to the inevitable round of badger-baiting between manager and press on Friday morning. The weekly briefing was appointment TV for anyone interested in seeing what the Professor would say after Arsenal's risible defeat the previous Tuesday.

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They had lost at home to the Greek champions Olympiakos. Arsene Wenger had selected his number two goalkeeper David Ospina for the fixture. Ospina rewarded him by throwing one into the net before half-time.

The Ospina blunder was almost a blessing in disguise for Wenger. It obscured the more damning reality that this was another complacent and dishevelled performance from the team in general. The sort of display that revived yet again the long-running psychodrama between the manager and his legion of fans.

It has become an almost comically neurotic relationship. They don't know what to do with him anymore. They can't live with him, can't live without him. They still love him to bits but he's been getting on their wick for years now. He is their childhood hero who, now that they're adults themselves, has become the stubborn old uncle who'll always say black when they say white.

But they can't forget all the good times with him either; the triumphs and trophies and golden memories. It's part of what they are. Wenger is part of what they are. And it leaves them torn, feeling guilty, feeling grubby and disloyal, when the taboo thought occurs. The conversation they all dread: maybe it's time, you know, maybe it would be better for all concerned, if we asked him to move out of the house and into the rest home.

The Emirates - the magnificent house that Arsene himself built! Ask him to move out? How could you even think such a thing? Well, you know, I hate saying it but . . . it wouldn't just be any old rest home. It'd be the boardroom, with all the bells and whistles; he could always come back on match days; we'd love to see him around; he'd still be part of our lives. Like, I'm just saying, there comes a time for us all, like.

And so the debate continues, over and back, year after year. The online fans' forums were full of it again last week. "That's it," posted one exasperated gooner. "Patience is all gone. This is not a knee jerk thing, I have been trying to avoid doing this for a very long time. Again he has failed to learn lessons and do what was needed. Thanks for the memories Arsene, but that's all they are mate. You have nothing more to offer. You are not irreplaceable."

For the record, the above comments were posted online in 2008.

So fast forward to last Friday. The hacks have assembled in Arsenal's media centre. Enter the Prof, pale and lined in the face, not wearing his years well: Wenger will turn 66 later this month.

The Ospina question is raised early doors. He'd signed Petr Cech in the summer; the fans are angry and frustrated that he didn't pick Cech for this game. "Do you understand that?" asks one hack. "No, not at all," replies Wenger decisively. "Why?" "Because I make the decision I think is right on the day."

So, no concession from the cantankerous patriarch to his anguished fans; not even a token nod to their loyalty, commitment etc, etc. Wenger is too proud and too intelligent for that kind of cheap ingratiation.

The hack continues mining this vein. "You said after the (Olympiakos) game, you sort of inferred that you aren't accountable to people for your selection. Do you think you should be accountable - is it healthy that you're not?" Wenger: "I'm accountable on the results of my team, and the way they play football." He glares back at his inquisitor. "Do you think you should be more accountable to the fans?" "I just gave you the answer."

But the goading and prodding with the sharp stick continues. Jose Mourinho's infamous remark, that Wenger is the only Premier League manager not under pressure, finally gets a reaction. The badger in the pit bites back. "Look, stop that story or we stop the press conference."

It's not a rant, it barely even sounds like a threat. As ever, he maintains his cold, courteous demeanour. He's been subject to this ritual for 19 years now. He can give it back, and he does so now with his usual mixture of articulate logic and dignified defiance. He calls out the hacks on their herd mentality and suspect powers of reasoning.

"They don't analyse well. Honestly, not one came out and analysed well the (Olympiakos) game. I heard one pundit say something on television and all behind (him) repeat exactly the same thing. It's quite depressing to read that and to hear that. All just come to the same conclusion."

Undeterred in the face of these home truths, the hacks want to know who he'll be putting in goals for the match against Manchester United today. "Well come to the game on Sunday (and) you will see who's in the goal."

Arsenal fans watching all this unfold were presumably caught in that familiar bind: frustrated as usual by the adamant defence of his errors, while admiring his tough and clever approach to the media provocation.

United at the Emirates today: another mood swing is looming in this soap opera that is the co-dependent relationship between one man and his people.

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