Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is still his own man - and for that we should be thankful
Arsène Wenger has become the Omega Man: the classic sci-fi last-man-standing in a world over-run by zombies. Spurs fans can look away now if they prefer, but without the Arsenal boss of the last 19-plus years Premier League management would have no anchor, no refuge for sanity.
A long-term inmate of a remote Brazilian prison or tourist to outer space would emerge amazed to find Wenger is still the Arsenal manager, still doing his Wenger thing, still talking about the “quality” in his group, still casting his eye over the political and social issues of the day, while all around him other managers have their efforts prematurely trashed by twitchy owners.
Wenger has been vilified plenty over the last few years for being stuck in his own grand design; for ignoring countervailing evidence; for terminal stubbornness; for holding Arsenal back while claiming to lead them forward and promising jam in a tomorrow that never comes.
We have all done it: all thrown our hands up at the latest failure to sign warrior midfielders, or strikers, or goalkeepers, or to place the winning of trophies at the heart of everything, instead of to the side, like an optional extra that has nothing to do with the art itself.
Oh yes, frustration with Wenger has been a default mode for Arsenal fans (and neutrals) who see so much good in his over-arching dream but feel the club has been stuck in a loop of third and fourth-place Premier League finishes and last-16 Champions League blow-outs.
Some of the angst goes further. Wenger and the Wengerocracy at boardroom level have been accused of using Arsenal as a kind of gentleman’s club, with big salaries and no pressing need to actually win anything. This debate has been bitter at times: at Stoke railway station, two years ago, for example, where a few Arsenal fans were abusive to a manager who has won three Premier League titles and six FA Cups.
Fear not. This column is not going to hypocritically backtrack on previous criticism of Wenger’s sometimes excessive faith in pure football. No, the point is to give thanks that such a persistent, interesting and artistically committed manager stands at the top of English football after hard-fought draws at Liverpool and Stoke, and with a major chance of winning the title for the first time in 12 years.
As the Gunners prepare to face Chelsea, who inflicted a horrible 6-0 defeat on Wenger in his 1,000th game in charge, Arsenal lead Leicester City only on goal difference and Manchester City by a point, with Spurs only five points further back (Chelsea are 14th).
You just know Arsenal are going to make it hard for themselves between now and May, with aberrations such as the 4-0 defeat at Southampton on Boxing Day, and probably plenty more soft muscle injuries; yet Wenger’s quest to re-conquer England’s football summit is one of the great spectacles of the age. His problem, of course, is that if he fails to do so in such a wide-open race, his life’s work will be tossed on the bonfire of mass opinion.
But we are allowed to be glad he is still around, leading a bedraggled profession. Even the most senior managers are exposed as never before.
Under Louis van Gaal, Manchester United could play in a library without disturbing the scholars or prompting the librarian to throw them out. They are playing without trace. Across town, Manuel Pellegrini is a nightwatchman for Pep Guardiola, supposedly. At Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp surveys his team with an increasingly baffled look. And at Chelsea, home of the champions, Guus Hiddink is holding Roman Abramovich’s empire together while the club search for a manager they have not already hired and fired.
In the last fortnight alone, Wenger has taken on the roles of crimebuster, claiming that football has a doping problem – and sociologist, responding to the nasty chants aimed at Aaron Ramsey by some Stoke fans (“he walks with a limp”) with some thoroughly reasoned psychology. “When people get together sometimes they forget their individual responsibility,” he said. “Maybe when you go home and watch it on television you are less proud.”
Sorry, but are we not grateful to be in the company of a manager who can put people in their place like that, by shaming, rather than straight-out denunciation?
There is a clue here to Wenger’s character. He has spent almost 20 years around British tribalism, with its myopia and sometimes vicious ‘wit.’ And he refuses to be daunted or diverted by any of it, because fundamentally he knows his own mind, and is not bothered what complete strangers think of his work, or the amazing faith he has shown in players who have too often let him down.
Alex Ferguson often talks about Wenger’s refusal to be knocked off course by what others think. “I know one thing. He won’t change,” Thierry Henry said recently. This is a weakness when Arsenal are throwing results away and a strength when Wenger is top of the league after 22 matches. Always he is content to walk that line between salvation and damnation.
Saved in large measure by two consecutive FA Cup wins, Wenger now seeks the 20-year zenith of a league title triumph, 12 years after the last. He is too charming to throw it all back in our faces, but he would be within his rights.