Saturday 16 December 2017

James Lawton: Old master or old hat - it's Wenger's final shot at glory

Doubts remain over Arsenal boss's ability to claim another title in era of transfer 'madness'

Alexis Sanchez (left) has long-announced his world class but Arsene Wenger still lacks players to take hold of a title race and may not hold onto the Chile striker for much longer. Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Alexis Sanchez (left) has long-announced his world class but Arsene Wenger still lacks players to take hold of a title race and may not hold onto the Chile striker for much longer. Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

If Arsene Wenger really does it, if he finds again the chemistry of commitment and touch which last won him a major trophy 13 years ago, what will we truly make of it?

Will we talk of the Resurrection Man, the indefatigable visionary who just wouldn't take defeat for an answer? Or will we adopt the position of his most ferocious critic Jose Mourinho, who some years ago spat out the venomous view that his rival had been given unbelievable rewards and opportunities despite being a serial loser?

About one thing we can be sure. It is that the debate will be waged nowhere more fiercely than at the Emirates Stadium where Arsenal launch the new Premier League season against Leicester City tonight.

Some Arsenal fans still draw a degree of masochistic pleasure from keeping the faith, like so many martyrs waiting for a light in the sky, with the wonder coach of more than a decade ago. However, there will no doubt be at least as many willing to voice long-standing frustration if Arsenal are less than commanding against the fantasy champions Leicester who were so roughly deposed last season.

The latter position is that Wenger, despite the FA Cup win and Community Cup triumphs over champions Chelsea, is still about the business of window dressing rather than the sure-footed title-building that he crowned all those years ago with the brilliant Invincibles Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires.

The hard view is that Wenger's latest reprieve has brought not a new dawn but the promise of more of the same pretty failure.

Praise At £52m, new French striker Alexandre Lacazette is quick and clever and the power and drive of Bosnian recruit Sead Kolasinac has drawn considerable praise.

But there is still the sense that Arsenal lack the kind of players to take hold of a title race. The injured Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil have long announced their world class but not quite so evident is their belief they can be part of a team dominant in England and threatening in Europe.

So is Mourinho likely to be proved right? Is Wenger's old flair indeed beyond redemption? Are Arsenal guilty of unpardonable complacency, the view of many season-ticket holders who believe they are paying top prices for marginal expectations?

Maybe, though, the look of satisfaction on Wenger's face at Wembley last weekend, as Chelsea's title winner Antonio Conte fought to contain his anger at the course of a deeply dissatisfying summer, went beyond the pleasure of an impressive performance against reigning champions and had more to do with his belief he may just finally be about to prove a point he has long held.

It is that the problem is not that his employers have been stuck in the mud through too many under-performing years but that the rest of the game has gone mad.

A convincing win over Leicester might just underline his point that the recent champions are among the lunatics. Less than 18 months ago their manager Claudio Ranieri was celebrated across England and Europe as an authentic miracle worker. Soon enough he was gone, another victim of football's accelerating conviction that the most important trick is to live for today without any care for tomorrow. Ranieri shook his head sadly and said that the game he loved so much was sometimes quite hard to recognise.

Yesterday that sad perspective of the author of a stunning triumph was endorsed by a great figure from another age of football, when men like Busby and Shankly and Stein played the game of empire-building rather than Russian roulette. It was Shankly's protégé Ian St John, who said: "Ranieri's right. You look at the way things are going and you have to believe that football is gripped by madness. I happen to think Arsene Wenger is an extremely good manager, a far better judge of the game than a lot of guys jumping in and out of jobs. If he won the title this year, and I wouldn't put it past him, I think it would send out a message of sanity."

Nowhere would such a triumph detonate more strongly than at Chelsea, where the growing perception is that Conte will take his pay rise and leave at the end of this season. His emotions, apparently, currently reside on a quite separate planet to that of Wenger.

Disgruntled by a frustrating summer in the transfer market, Conte thought he would be building from a position of great, passionately and at times brilliantly created strength. Instead he has learned of the God-like philosophy of owner Roman Abramovich, which says that the manager may propose but he disposes.

Mourinho got that treatment twice after title-winning seasons and Roberto Di Matteo suffered it less than a year after winning Chelsea's only Champions League title. The turnover statistics at Chelsea are bizarre and perhaps one reason for the bite in Mourinho's language when he discusses the unchallenged tenure of Wenger.

Since Abramovich axed Ranieri in favour of Mourinho eight years after Wenger's arrival at Arsenal, he has changed his manager no fewer than 11 times. The fallen include five winners of the Champions League or European Cup (Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Di Matteo, Guus Hiddink, Rafa Benitez) and one of the World Cup, Luiz Felipe Scolari.

The policy has brought Chelsea five Premier League titles and one Champions League. In his time Wenger won early three Premier League titles and might fairly be reckoned to have been unlucky to lose a Champions League final to Barcelona, when Henry, of all people, failed to pull the trigger.

He also produced one of the most beautiful, and effective, teams in the history of English football.

So who are right, those who say that Wenger lives on because of a once-magnificent pedigree or the others who dismiss him as old hat? It is maybe still a little too early to say, at least without the risk of being fitted not for a new hat but a new head.

Irish Independent

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