Tuesday 26 September 2017

Arsene Wenger: A charming man who commands the respect Jose Mourinho craves

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, pictured, knows his side must raise their game against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, pictured, knows his side must raise their game against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

As the last enduring manager in the history of English football attended another feisty Arsenal annual general meeting last Thursday, talk of his retirement was in the air once again.

Arsenal’s AGM is the event that tends to see Gunners fans that are a little too full of their own important turn up to have a go at the club’s owners after another year of failure.

This year of ‘failure’ included an FA Cup win and a third place finish in the Premier League, so instead they turned annoyance onto payments made to majority shareholder Stan Kroenke. A minor point in the bigger picture focusing on the lack of investment in a first team squad still lacking genuine match winners.

Amid the usual mumbles and grumbles, the big news emerging from this year’s Arsenal AGM was the suggestion that Gunners boss Arsene Wenger may have set a date for his retirement as the club’s manager.

Wenger’s comment that he was committed to the club up to the end of his current contract in 2017 was hardly a revolutionary statement and he has since insisted he has not made a decision when to retire, but the suspicion this time appears to be that this 65-year-old may not stay beyond the terms of his current deal.

Who can blame him if he has had enough? Only Wenger knows how he has maintained his enthusiasm for a job that has long since consumed him, despite the increasing levels of venomous angst that is sprinkled in his direction from some of the club’s supporters.

Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League...LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05: Managers Arsene Wenger of Arsenal and Jose Mourinho manager of Chelsea clash during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on October 4, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)...S
Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League...LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05: Managers Arsene Wenger of Arsenal and Jose Mourinho manager of Chelsea clash during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on October 4, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)...S

That abuse will be churned up once more if Arsenal fail to revive their Champions League hopes with a win against Bayern Munich on Tuesday night, with the immediacy of condemnation in the modern game a source of great frustration for Wenger.

“The reaction to every defeat now is hysterical, but what can I do about that,” pondered Wenger in one of is always cordial chats with Sunday newspaper journalists last month. “We lose a game and a judgement is made on that one game.

“The response from people outside of the club to one defeat is not something I can worry about. I keep my mind on the job that’s all. I cannot master the reaction and people are entitled to say they are disappointed if we lose at home and we don’t score a goal.

“Football is hugely popular, everyone has opinions. The information everyone has is massive. Everyone knows everything about each game because all the statistics and the data is out there if you want to find it. That is where things have changed in the last few years, but you have to live with it.”

As one of the handful of reporters who have been privileged to cover Wenger’s press conferences from his first day as Gunners boss through to his 19th year at the helm, the reality that he has long since become bigger than the giant of a club he has governed for the best part of two decades not lost on any of us who spend time in his company on a weekly basis.

The power Wenger wields at Arsenal is one of the reasons why his critics have long campaigned for his removal, with the perception that he is answerable to no-one at a club that bows down and does as their leader proclaims an image is harmful when results turn against this French tactician.

Back-to-back FA Cup wins and continued Champions League finishes for 18 years would be considered glorious success for most Premier League clubs, but the critics continue to round on Wenger as they suspect more should be possible from a manager who set the bar of expectation so high in his first eight years as Arsenal boss.

When you spend time with Wenger, it is hard not to warm to the man. Intelligent, charming and polite to all who cross him, he does his best to make his fourth press conference of a week seem as important as the first.

That may be one of the reasons why many in the media are reluctant to join the bandwagon of criticism that rolls up every time Arsenal lose a game, with Wenger’s status as the elder statements of the Premier League meaning he is due the kind of respect he is rarely afforded by some supporters and his persistently annoying rival, Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho.

Arsene Wenger, pictured, has been tipped to lift more trophies by former Arsenal defender Martin Keown
Arsene Wenger, pictured, has been tipped to lift more trophies by former Arsenal defender Martin Keown

Rarely a week goes by without Mourinho offering a suggesting that Wenger has been lucky to survive at Arsenal, that he is ‘a specialist in failure’, or that he does not deserve the respect he gets.

Yet not for the first time, Mourinho is missing the point. We all agree that Wenger is not the managerial master he was when he led Arsenal to three Premier League titles and through the entire 2003/04 season unbeaten, but that is not entirely his down to his own fading powers.

The landscape of the English game changed by the influx of cash injected by outsiders who have taken away the influence he once had, with Chelsea and Manchester City rewriting a rule book and taking the game away from Wenger and Arsenal since their days of dominance a decade ago.

Despite that shifting power balance on the field, Wenger maintained a more than respectable level of success at Arsenal and, significantly, the respect he has earned over many years in the game has not been shaken. It is a respect Mourinho craves and yet he continues to pour poison on the game with his rhetoric, he is unlikely to ever claim that moral high ground.

The reactionaries calling for Wenger’s removal do so without any consideration for who would be capable of filling his boots, but that moment is inevitably edging closer.

“I will retire, don’t worry,” adds Wenger. “One thing is for sure. When I retire, I will really go. I’ve heard that so many times, next year I will retire and then they continue or go somewhere else. That will not happen to me.”

This wealthy leader who earns around £7m-a-year must have asked himself why he bothers to fend off abuse from fans and rivals on a weekly basis as his side sit second in the Premier League and are financially stable for decades to come.

His legacy as one of the game's greats is secure despite the attempts by his detractors to find fault in his achievements.

He may be stubborn, he may be a little stuck in his ways, but there are not too many managers who could do a better job at Arsenal than Arsene Wenger.

That reality will become evident sooner rather than later.

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