Saturday 22 October 2016

Old romantic Arsene Wenger seeks ultimate fulfilment

Beating Chelsea would convince Arsene Wenger that his optimistic vision will finally be vindicated

Dion Fanning

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Arsene Wenger: 'I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man. I define myself as an optimist. My never-ending struggle is to release what is beautiful in man. I can be described as naïve in that sense. But it allows me to believe, and I am often proven right.' Photo: Reuters
Arsene Wenger: 'I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man. I define myself as an optimist. My never-ending struggle is to release what is beautiful in man. I can be described as naïve in that sense. But it allows me to believe, and I am often proven right.' Photo: Reuters

Late last year, Paris Saint Germain coach Laurent Blanc expressed frustration with the impatient complaints of his midfielder Adrien Rabiot. "The new generation of players are more or less impossible to handle. They want everything right away," Blanc said.

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Blanc expressed a worldview which looks upon the modern footballer as particularly feckless. It is a belief widely shared by people on the periphery of football, and even some of those more centrally involved like Graeme Souness can often not hide their frustration at the many ways in which today's professional will let you down.

Arsene Wenger does not stand alone in opposition to this view, but his life's work is a monument to romantic patience, to a belief that footballers are more than a source of frustration. They may be irresponsible at times, but they are young men and that is how young men are. More importantly, Wenger believes footballers are capable of the glorious and the magical. They are capable, in Wenger's view, of producing art.

"I enable others to express what they have within them," he told L'Equipe last year. "I didn't create anything. I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man. I define myself as an optimist. My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man. I can be described as naïve in that sense. But it allows me to believe, and I am often proven right."

Footballers are no more or no less capable of this self-expression than they have ever been. Wenger might despair of certain aspects of modern life, but he has endured enough to know that the idea that young footballers are impossible to handle is not a new one.

Souness seemed to feel the same anger and frustration when he was a manager 25 years ago as he does today fuming in the studio. Wenger's own struggles are a reminder that none of this is a recent phenomenon, but has been part of football life for quite a while.

Wenger has endured sagas with players like Nicolas Anelka, ("No matter how much money you earn, you can only eat three meals a day and sleep in one bed," Wenger told him), the rise of the super clubs and the departures of Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas because Arsenal couldn't satisfy their ambitions.

In October, he will have been at the club for 20 years. "I think he might be one of the last to sit on a chair that long," Guus Hiddink said this week. Most remarkably, the experience has not corrupted his optimism, and now Arsenal have a lot to be optimistic about.

Others cannot sustain this suspension of disbelief, this insistence on seeing things as they might be. Vicente Del Bosque, for example, didn't extend the same pastoral care to Anelka. "He was just a pain in the arse," he said after he coached him at Real Madrid.

Wenger has endured through this remarkable vision. "The problem of the media is always to imagine the worst," he has said. "The problem of the manager is always to imagine the best."

This season could be the best in quite a while for Arsenal or it could go the way of so many others. Wenger has always been imagining the best, always saying the same things in January, February and March before the frustrations came.

There have been indications that things could be about to change.

Arsenal might have been helped by the fact that the Premier League this year is very different. Their traditional problems against the big clubs are less pronounced this season because, well, there seems to be fewer big clubs playing as big clubs do.

But Arsenal have improved against them as well. They have already beaten Manchester United at the Emirates, but the key result was the victory in December against Manchester City, a victory which suggested that this Arsenal side can shake off the burdens of the past.

Today there is another test. although one that is not as rigorous as it used to be.

Between August 29 last year and the middle of November, Chelsea won two league games. One was against Aston Villa, the other, after defeats in the league to Everton and Crystal Palace, was against Arsenal.

Wenger's Arsenal had, once again, found a way of losing to Mourinho's Chelsea, this time when the young defender Gabriel Paulista was sent off, after reacting to the provocation of Diego Costa. Forced to play the second half with 10 men, Arsenal succumbed as they had so often, ending the day with a defeat which had a smattering of injustice, but was more of the same old story.

Their chances of victory today might have been greater had Mourinho remained but Chelsea are still vulnerable. Arsenal have an opportunity to secure another win against one of last season's top four, but more importantly they can take another step closer to their first title since 2004.

In that time, Wenger has always preached patience, even if patience looked like it was being forced on him. While Arsenal built a stadium, they watched Chelsea and then Manchester City rise. Wenger insisted the team he was building would be good enough.

He insisted on a wage model that had a certain type of equality "We have no players on £200,000 a week and I think other clubs will come down to us with Financial Fair Play," he said in 2013. "We have a more socialist model."

That summer, Arsenal bought Mesut Ozil. Last year, Alexis Sanchez arrived and, after years of resistance, Wenger appeared to be doing what he had always been urged to do. But still he did it cautiously. Petr Cech was the only signing of last summer when many screamed for more. Arsenal had won two FA Cups, but now was the time to grow, to allow the team to mature, not simply import players because supporters saw signings as the solution to all of life's problems.

In his L'Equipe interview, Wenger said that he still has to fight to be respected. "The accolades you accumulate don't protect you". In the modern era, the manager had to convince in order to win. "The player is rich. The characteristic of the rich man is the need to convince him. Because he has a status. A way of thinking. People nowadays are informed. Therefore they have an opinion. And they think their opinion is right. They don't necessarily share my opinion, so I have to convince them."

Wenger has his best chance of convincing people this season. His side has evolved, but he has stubbornly held to his vision. At the start of the season, he reflected on how some things haven't changed. "When I arrived in England, you could buy or sell the whole season, until April 30. When I drove out of Highbury, when I lost a game, everybody said 'buy a player!'. That has not changed."

The changes in Wenger have been almost imperceptible. He may be more weary now, but, apart from the occasional touchline transgression, he wears it lightly. Whatever happens this season, his greatness as a manager is assured. He may know that, but it provides no consolation. He has learned to manage his expectations or, perhaps, the management of them has been forced upon him.

This season could be different. A victory today will not be decisive in the title race, but it will allow Wenger to believe that the faith he has in this team - in all his teams - will finally be rewarded.

Arsenal v Chelsea, Sky Sports 1, 4.0

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