Friday 26 May 2017

Wenger the pragmatist hasn't mislaid his sense of adventure

Dion Fanning

Arsenal's interests will always be uppermost in Arsene Wenger's thoughts, writes Dion Fanning

Arsene Wenger's radicalism might have been dulled by recent experiences, but he has never had any problem being a man apart. Like all football managers, Wenger is governed by his own self-interest, even if sometimes in advancing it he can make a valid point.

His latest complaints about TV scheduling illustrate this. In September, Alex Ferguson complained that clubs had "shaken hands with the devil" in allowing television to arrange matches.

At the time, Wenger saw it differently. "We have to accept that to be the best league in the world we have to play at 12.45 on Saturday morning because in Asia they can watch us and I am happy to do that. We have to give away something, some privileges, and you can only do that in any deal you need both winners."

On Friday, he said football had "sold its soul" as he gave out about the schedule television imposed on them and hinted that some clubs were given an advantage. Arsenal were not among them, which is why he was mentioning it.

Wenger has had sympathy with Roberto Mancini this season. In the league, City were asked to play on a Sunday against Sunderland and two days later against Liverpool.

Their main rivals for the title, Manchester United, played on a Saturday and Wednesday and had the gentlest Christmas fixture list of the top four clubs, getting a four-day rest on two occasions. Arsenal, City and Chelsea played games with only a day's rest between them. Last week, City played United in the FA Cup on Sunday and then had a Carling Cup semi-final against Liverpool on the Wednesday.

"I have great sympathy for Mancini. No matter who it is, Arsenal, Spurs, Man Utd, it's not right. We have been in that case many times. Look at last year."

He is talking again about the week before the Carling Cup final. Arsenal played Stoke on the Wednesday, Fabregas and Walcott were injured and on the Sunday, they threw away the game against Birmingham in the final minute. Arsenal's season unravelled shortly afterwards.

Wenger once accused everyone in English football of bowing down in front of Alex Ferguson but he was eager to point out that he had nobody in mind this time.

The fight at the top may not be Arsenal's fight but he has not ruled his side out. The defeat to Fulham over Christmas and seven points out of a possible 15 since they beat Everton a month ago brought an end to their recovery.

"I don't deny that it would be very difficult for us to win the league but it is not impossible. It looks like that there is no team that can maintain the consistency they have shown in the first part of the season and that's what we need. If they make 45 points again, for us that's impossible."

Arsenal under Wenger have hunted down teams before but it is their local rivals that people are talking of as title challengers.

The emergence of Tottenham has forced Wenger to answer questions he says he has no interest in answering. "I don't speculate on Tottenham, everybody wants to make an obsession of Tottenham, I'm not obsessed by Tottenham. They live their lives and we live ours. We play in the Champions League but suddenly every day we have to look to Tottenham. Let's be realistic and look at what's happening."

Arsenal's true objective is to be, once more, in the Champions League next season. Their permanent place in that competition since Wenger arrived is something of which he is rightly proud and, given their overhaul at the beginning of the season, it would be a great accomplishment this time.

Wenger has had to become more of a pragmatist. Tony Adams once said that Wenger told him that a player is "finished when they are over 30. It's not possible to play at that age".

On Friday, Wenger hailed Thierry Henry's physical condition. This season he has already signed Mikel Arteta, 30 this year, and taken Yossi Benayoun, 31, on loan. Something had to be done in those last desperate days of August after Fabregas and Nasri had gone and Arsenal have slowly climbed back.

Wenger says he has no interest in signing any players in January, believing that by the time any signings have settled in, the players they are covering for will have returned to fitness.

Henry is clearly a special case and after his magical return against Leeds, he will be asked to lighten the load on Robin van Persie at the Liberty Stadium today.

Swansea are a team that Wenger is expected to admire and he does, but with caveats. When he is told they have a better passing percentage than Manchester United this season, Wenger smiles and replies, "Yes, in their own half. Not in the opponent's half. They pass the ball, I don't deny that. They remind me a little bit of Blackpool -- they play with freedom, a positive style but they are a bit more cautious than Blackpool. They were a very offensive-minded team but Swansea don't concede goals. They have a conservative possession. They are brave but not adventurous."

Brendan Rodgers is part of a new wave of managers who is encouraging his side to play football. "That doesn't mean that teams like Stoke will be less efficient," Wenger says, "the opposite maybe as they will give you a problem you're not used to facing and that makes them even more dangerous."

In England, Wenger has become used to taking risks. This side does not have the sense of his great dreams when, like Fitzcarraldo, he embarked on projects that he may have cared even more passionately about because they were doomed.

He has not been able to build the all-conquering team from the ground up and while the August signings consolidated, they brought with them a sense of desperation and resignation.

But still he advances Arsenal's interests. He had said that it was difficult to say these things in England and I asked him why. "You are English?" he said. I told him I was Irish. "Ah," he says, beginning to smile, "maybe I have found a friend here. In England, the guy who says something that looks like a complaint is always slaughtered, it is traditional. You end up with press conferences where nobody says anything. What I say today, it is difficult to say it is wrong."

He is right, of course, but even when he is wrong, Wenger believes he is doing the best for Arsenal and doing what is right.

Swansea v Arsenal,

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