Saturday 17 March 2018

James Lawton: Arsene Wenger is a prisoner of his own dreams

Wenger's loss of control typical of a manager whose ambitions outstrip his team's ability

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is sent to the stands by referee Jonathan Moss during last week’s game against Burnley. Photo: PA
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is sent to the stands by referee Jonathan Moss during last week’s game against Burnley. Photo: PA
James Lawton

James Lawton

Sometimes a man worthy of the greatest respect behaves in a way which makes even his warmest admirers wince. And provokes the question: why doesn't he walk, why doesn't he see that it has become hopeless? In this case it is because he is Arsene Wenger and his rage to win is something threatening to eat him up.

No matter how many years drag by, how many times the title that he claimed so brilliantly three times in his early years in North London slips through his fingers like a grain of sand, he refuses to let go of the old imperative.

Each failure enlarges the obsession, the tendency to see conspiracies which exist only in his own mind.

This week it has plunged him into fresh ridicule and a humiliating date with the Football Association disciplinary commission. At 67, he has to explain why he shoved a fourth official in the manner of some peeved ungovernable schoolboy and then, allegedly, called the referee a cheat.


Unfortunately the main, and most potentially destructive, charge against Wenger is not the one which will be made at the disciplinary hearing - and almost certainly lead to a large fine and an embarrassing ban from the touchline.

Rather more, it is the wider one that he is in danger of being submerged by that passion to win his first Premier League title since 2004. With each frustrating season he seems to ache a little more for the old glory. And with the desire, and the desperation, comes the increasing impression that he is becoming a martyr to faded, broken ambition.

Jose Mourinho, in his style of inimitable cruelty, has described Wenger as a "serial loser" but even by his own standards this has to be rated both excessive and vindictive. Serial losers do not qualify for the Champions League as automatically as workers clocking on at the factory gates. They do not stand behind only Antonio Conte in his first, so far near perfect season at Chelsea. They do not kindle football sometimes still guaranteed to bring a glow to the sky.

No, Wenger's battered dream is not so pathetically unfounded. Arsenal recovered from a shattering opening-day defeat by Liverpool to force on Conte a complete tactical overhaul with a superb 3-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium. They continue to conjure the results that keep them in second place, ahead of the recently brilliant Tottenham, the misfiring Manchester City and a Liverpool suddenly treading water.

So why is it not impertinent to suggest that it may well be time for Wenger to concede that really his time is up? It is because of the pain and the agitation he wears on the touchline like an extra winter coat. It is because of his plummeting ability to keep any kind of control over his sharpest frustrations.

There was a time when he strode joyfully to the touchline to celebrate some piece of artistry from his team. He had the glow of a football architect enchanted by his creation. Now a face drained by tension flashes a smile of relief. Increasingly he resembles less a man on the mountain top but as one on the edge of an abyss.

His self-damaging explosion against Burnley seemed uncomfortably close to breaking point.

It came at the end of a match which so ironically saw Arsenal claim the three points when the referee labelled a cheat by Wenger plainly made a decisive human error in awarding a penalty. Where did that leave the football man once revered for his grasp on the workings of the beautiful game, the maker of the Arsenal Invincibles of Henry, Vieira and Pires? Peeking up the tunnel at the action from which he had been dismissed, not a master of the game but that recalcitrant schoolboy.

There is the still pervading sense that the Arsenal hierarchy recoils at the idea, even the suggestion, of dismissing Wenger, and that he will be granted a new contract extension at the end of the season, even if another title bid has failed, this time with Chelsea under a manager previously untried in English football, easing unchallenged to the finish line.

It couldn't, wouldn't happen anywhere else along the peaks of European football.

Bayern Munich said goodbye to the veteran Jupp Heynckes after delivering the Bundesliga, the German Cup and the Champions League in 2013. How long would Barcelona or Real Madrid, Juventus, Paris S-G, the two Manchester clubs or Chelsea stay patient with a manager unable to deliver a title? Two years, three? Thirteen years? It is unthinkable. But not of course at Arsenal. Here the pact between the businessmen so pleased by the huge profit of a successful transfer from archaic Highbury to the cash-cow Emirates and the man who, uncomplainingly, makes fine if not ultimately winning football from the resources he is allowed holds against the restive fans. The cry of 'Wenger Out' is heard in these quarters not as a protest, a snapping of long strained patience, but a heresy.


Such reaction is bedded in the belief that hopes unharnessed to any time frame can still be fuelled by such old glory as a sublime Thierry Henry, who came so close to delivering the Champions League title at the Stade de France. That, though, was more than a decade ago. It was when Arsenal could believe that under Arsene Wenger they had the means to meet any challenge.

Now, who can blame those who conclude that all the yearnings have indeed run their course? And that Arsene Wenger is no longer a maker of those dreams but their most desperate prisoner.

Irish Independent

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