Sport Soccer

Sunday 19 November 2017

Brittle foundations demolish Wenger's vanity project

Tommy Conlon

A rsene Wenger is French, he presumably knows a bit about philosophy, which is why it's all the more surprising that he seems to have ignored a fairly fundamental law of existence.

Even the most illiterate footballer could take him aside and remind him of a precept so widely known it's become a cliché: Arsene, he would say, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. So stop faffing around with these touchy-feely little gnomes in your team -- and buy a few men.

Wenger has been building for the future for so long now that the future keeps becoming the past while the building keeps going on. The games come and go, season after season, while he remains busy making plans.

Opposing teams keep rudely intruding, like dogs on wet concrete, fouling up the blueprint and sending him back to the drawing board time after time.

Birmingham City in the Carling Cup, Sunderland in the league, Barcelona on Tuesday night in the European Cup. If only they co-operated, if only they showed more respect for the masterpiece -- if only reality didn't keep getting in the way.

Arsenal haven't won a trophy since 2005. The abiding puzzle about Wenger's later years is that he got the formula right the first time round. He arrived at Highbury from Japan in September '96, a complete outsider in the English game. And he had cracked the code by May '98, winning the double that season. His championship-winning teams had that prized blend of style and steel, belligerence and flair, finesse and power. The names roll off the tongue: Adams, Dixon, Winterburn, Keown, Campbell, Seaman; Vieira, Bergkamp, Petit, Overmars, Pires, Henry. Beautiful to watch and brutal when needed.

He seems to have lost or forgotten the formula. It's a mystery as to why. It seemed that for all his refined sensibilities, he appreciated the blood-and-thunder virtues of those English players who provided the foundation in the first half of his era. They supplied the heart and soul. He seemed to understand how important those qualities were. But he inherited most of those players from George Graham and when they retired he seemed to lose interest in that kind of footballer.

Qualities like heart and soul and leadership can't be measured in Prozone stats. But they were all missing on Tuesday night. Wenger's players were like lost boys at the Camp Nou. And the rock upon which the whole project has been built for the last six years -- their famed possession game -- was destroyed in a storm of pressure by Barcelona. A team that keeps the ball better than any in England couldn't keep it for more than two seconds on the night. Barca beat them by imposing their will first, then inflicting their skills.

It has always been this way in team sport: the battle has to be won first before the ball play can begin. Arsenal had no one to lead from the front. It was the one English player in their ranks, young Jack Wilshere, who showed the necessary spirit and defiance. Their captain Cesc Fabregas, undoubtedly the one field-general Arsenal possess, was physically impaired with a hamstring injury, and seemingly mentally distracted too.

He could be seen hugging the Barca players in the tunnel before the game, shaking hands with them and behaving more like an ambassador than an opponent. "Mmmmm. Wasn't the Gary Neville approach, was it?" remarked Alan Smith, an old Arsenal pro, on commentary for Sky Sports.

It wouldn't have been the Martin Keown approach either. Keown was one of Wenger's dogs of war. On Tuesday night he was a pundit on TV3. When Johan Djourou, Arsenal's Swiss centre-half, was interviewed afterwards, Keown suspected that he wasn't quite feeling the pain. "He didn't look to me like a player who just got beat. Djourou looked as if he's over it already."

Wenger looked like he would never get over it. These days he looks like that after every reversal of fortune: pale and haunted and febrile. But it seems the more that people point to the obvious deficiencies in his team, the more he refuses to accept their argument. The spine of his team needs three commanding players, and has done for several seasons: goalkeeper, centre-half and centre

midfield. Commanding in terms of personality as well as ability, leaders as well as footballers. But it seems he would prefer to spend years trying to develop them from his academy than opening the cheque book and buying them readymade from outside. It's as if the building of his next great team has become something of a personal vanity project.

In the city of Barcelona they know a thing or two about unfinished projects. Construction of the famous La Sagrada Familia church began in 1882. It will take decades more to complete.

In the city's other great cathedral, the work is done. Pep Guardiola has built a complete team. The irony is that it has as many, if not more, touchy-feely little gnomes as Arsenal. But they play with their hearts as well as their feet. Their skills are universally acclaimed, the work ethic duly appreciated. But there is also the third ingredient: their emotional commitment. They play with a loyalty to club and jersey that is steely and tribal.

For Guardiola and his band of men, the future has arrived, the future is now.

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