Thursday 18 October 2018

Fatal flaws made Arsene Wenger's men the neutral's favourite

Arsene Wenger watched Arsenal win 4-1 on Sunday.
Arsene Wenger watched Arsenal win 4-1 on Sunday.
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

In the TV show 'The IT Crowd', two men who know nothing about football try to ingratiate themselves with an unhappy Arsenal fan the morning after a match.

"What's Wenger thinking bringing Walcott on that early?" asks the disgruntled supporter.

Using the only line he knows to make himself sound knowledgeable, the IT person goes to the argument which always finds agreement: "The thing about Arsenal is they always try to walk it in." Both nod sagely, and the conversation is over.

But that was the thing about Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, it always felt like a quest for perfection which is what made them so intriguing for so long.

It wasn't necessarily that they attracted neutrals simply because they might play majestic football, it was that, for two decades, from his best teams to his worst teams, Wenger's players could find a way to win or lose games in the most extraordinary circumstances.

The Wenger-era player spoken of with most reverence by his team-mates had the chance to finish Manchester United's hopes of a treble in the FA Cup semi-final in 1999, but Dennis Bergkamp produced a good-height-for-the-keeper penalty which was saved by Peter Schmeichel. Then, 20 minutes later, as the United fans still sing, Vieira gave Giggsy the ball, and Arsenal won f*** all.

Greatest

When Wenger's greatest signing and Arsenal's record goalscorer had the chance to secure Wenger's greatest achievement, he, too, missed. With 20 minutes left in the 2006 Champions League final, Thierry Henry was one-on-one with Victor Valdes to put his team 2-0 up having played with 10 men for almost an hour. Like Bergkamp, Henry fluffed it, Barcelona scored twice and, again, Arsenal won f*** all.

In between, in the 2001 FA Cup final against Liverpool, they scored once, had one shot stopped by a centre-back with his hand, another cleared off the line and still managed to lose because they couldn't cope with a long, straight ball over the top from which Michael Owen scored. And those moments of snatching defeat from victory came courtesy of some of his greatest players.

That the Wenger era is divided in some quarters as 'first half good, second half bad', misses the point that some of his best teams underachieved by neither retaining the title nor winning a European trophy, and that his second decade of apparent failure was often an over-achievement, especially once the billionaires moved in at Manchester City and Chelsea.

For better or worse, under Wenger, it was always worth watching even the seemingly meaningless Arsenal games because, unlike the likes of Jose Mourinho or Alex Ferguson - whose teams would bludgeon opponents - it was as if Arsenal felt bad about killing an opponent unless they had first given them the chance to have a fair fight.

This, obviously, would be the sort of thing to drive supporters of the club crazy but, for the rest of us, a bog-standard League Cup game at the end of October could be talked about for a week. Only Arsenal under Wenger could get a relatively easy draw of Reading away, be 4-0 down after 37 minutes; still 4-2 down after 88; draw 4-4 to bring the game to extra-time; go 5-4 up; concede in the 116th minute and then score twice in the 120th minute to win 7-5.

Only Arsenal under Wenger could go six years without a trophy, get to a League Cup final against a team that would be relegated and hand the trophy on a plate to Birmingham thanks to a catastrophic cock-up between centre-back and goalkeeper.

Three years later, only Arsenal under Wenger could end the trophy drought by first finding themselves 2-0 down after eight minutes against Hull City before coming back to win 3-2 in the first of three FA Cups in four seasons in an era when the competition has lost its lustre.

Only Arsenal under Wenger could, in five consecutive seasons in the last 16 of the Champions League, beat Barcelona 2-1 and Milan 3-0 at home; draw 1-1 and beat Bayern 2-0 in Munich as well as win 2-0 in Monaco and still manage to be eliminated from the competition on every occasion due to the fatal flaw of shooting themselves in the foot.

Only Arsenal under Wenger could take the momentum of a 95th-minute home winner against the team at the top of the league, which closed to gap to two points with 12 games left, bring it to Old Trafford and lose 3-2 against a Manchester United team which included Guillermo Varela, Tim Fosu-Mensah and James Weir.

Just to ensure the impact of Danny Welbeck's injury-time winner against Leicester was completely destroyed, only Arsenal under Wenger could maintain their inexplicable difficulty against Swansea at home to lose and then end the season with a 10-game unbeaten run to finish second.

Maddening

And, for all that maddening disappointment, it might be only Arsenal under Wenger that could lose at Old Trafford next weekend, meaning they still won't have picked up a single point away from home in 2018 and then go to Madrid, get past Atletico and give themselves a chance to get back in the Champions League with a Europa League title that sends Wenger out on the sort of high that fans and neutrals alike would enjoy.

It is, certainly, only Arsenal under Wenger that, for 21 years in a row, either won a trophy or finished in the top four and find themselves labelled a specialist in failure.

The next manager will probably never spend money on someone like Olivier Giroud then drop him for Yaya Sanogo; never buy a player like Kolo Toure for £100,000 and turn him into a key member of team that goes 49 Premier League games unbeaten or complain about a referee's display after losing 10-2 on aggregate.

Their team might win more than in Wenger's past decade, might cut out the comical mistakes that have cost them and be a bit more pragmatic rather than trying to "walk it in".

It's unlikely, however, to be as much fun to watch.

Irish Independent

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