Under-fire Wenger bites back at Henry after cutting attack
Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30
Arsene Wenger has learned over the years that dismissing an outspoken critic is the art of delicately reminding all concerned that he remains one of the game's most enduring figures, still in charge of one of its biggest clubs, and that the rest is just offstage noise.
There are few attacks on the culture and track record of Wenger's Arsenal over the past 11 years that he cannot dismiss with his standard expression of wry amusement, supplemented by the occasional devastating put-down.
Yet when that criticism comes from arguably the club's greatest player, and a man who still works at the training ground every week, it is harder to ignore.
That was why Wenger found himself so discomfited, ahead of today's north London derby, that it was Thierry Henry who should venture into print with perhaps his most cutting description yet of the status quo at the Emirates.
After defeat by Swansea City last Wednesday, Henry wrote in his newspaper column, he had "never heard the Arsenal supporters as angry as they were", although he may have to revise that opinion if they lose at White Hart Lane.
For Wenger, trying to pick his players up after three successive defeats, and galvanise the club, this was a most unwelcome turn of events.
With his 228 goals for Arsenal and statue outside, Henry (above) is as unimpeachable a voice to the fans as there is, but the fact that the French striker is also coaching at the club, with the U-19s, makes it especially awkward.
At first, Wenger delivered a riposte that was not as crisp as some of his best lines and suggested a deeper irritation at being placed in such a difficult position.
"Thierry Henry has his opinions," he said. "He has not found the measurement of the fans' angriness, of 60,000 people straight away, because he sits in the best seats of the stadium."
A dangerous game to pontificate on who does, or does not have the right to judge Arsenal these days, but this is a manager who must secretly fear he is walking into an ambush at Spurs this lunchtime.
He is without the injured Petr Cech for up to four weeks, and there will be no Laurent Koscielny until the home game against West Brom.
Asked again, away from the cameras, about the conflicting positions of Henry - both critic and insider - there was a rare instance of Wenger refusing to comment on a matter.
He said at first that Henry was "in a difficult role", then twice refused to comment, before finally conceding that he would rather say what needed to be said "face to face".
"Look, Thierry Henry will not play tomorrow for Arsenal. His comments are like any other comments, they cannot help us to win, nor be an excuse to lose.
"You cannot say they (the fans) were never as angry as that. Who can measure that? Who can compare that?
"Do you want your fans to be happy to lose a game? Where do you see that? So, it doesn't look to me as a major statement. Our fans are unhappy, I am unhappy, we're all unhappy.
"If you were in our dressing-room after the game, you would see that we were absolutely devastated to lose the game.
"The players. . . nobody moved for minutes and minutes. Why do you want people to be happy when you lose? It's remarkable that you are shocked by statements like that."
Wenger was also asked about Alexis Sanchez's frustrated outburst after the midweek loss that Arsenal were letting the title drift away through a "lack of hunger".
"You have to take these comments a bit into perspective," replied Wenger. "Belief comes with results. Maybe our confidence has been a bit jaded, but we do 98pc of things right and we have to add the 2pc that are down to maybe finding back our collective qualities and even put more effort in."
The last line was telling. Wenger rarely criticises his players' effort.
Arsenal could win today and change the title race again, moving them up to level points with Spurs, although only an unprecedented scoreline would see them overtake their neighbours' goal difference.
The title race would change but not, you suspect, the sheer unpredictability of Arsenal under Wenger in this latest decade where they could just as likely lose to Hull City in the FA Cup on Tuesday or West Brom next weekend.
"Crunch time" was how Wenger described the situation for Spurs' upwardly mobile squad, but it is also crunch time for his players.
His team had to be "immune" he said, to the mood of doubt and frustration at the Emirates.
For now it is White Hart Lane they must deal with and even as we approach the 20th anniversary of Wenger at Arsenal, during which he has never finished a league season beneath Spurs, it would be fair that no one can be sure what his team will deliver. (© Daily Telegraph, London.)