Monday 19 February 2018

James Lawton: Wenger haunted by misguided belief in players

'Wenger, for all his recent mistakes, is out of place as the sole occupant of the dock.' Photo: AP
'Wenger, for all his recent mistakes, is out of place as the sole occupant of the dock.' Photo: AP
James Lawton

James Lawton

It may be Arsene Wenger's excruciating public ordeal, a day-by-day disintegration of a superbly built reputation that is becoming so harsh it seems almost ghoulish not to avert your gaze. But it's also a football morality tale which has called into question a lot more than a once brilliant coach's loss of nerve and touch.

Yes, of course, the ultimate responsibility rests with the man whose face has become a little more haggard with each recent appearance - and certainly it has become inconceivable that his agony will go on any longer than the end of a season which in Munich this week touched a new and utterly dispiriting low.

However, it represented another instalment in a shocking example of the consequences of a great football club losing any kind of understanding of its most important purpose.

It means that Wenger, for all his recent mistakes, is out of place as the sole occupant of the dock.

Roy Keane, from the high ground of the unimpeachable example he set over his playing career, was certainly quick to slaughter the players whose spinelessness left their coach and protector so broken he had to retreat from a post-game press conference after just a few fraught minutes.

Did that public humiliation for a 67-year-old who once sparkled with urbanity and wit create much individual or collective soul-searching in the Arsenal dressing-room? It is difficult to believe so.

Indeed, what could a Wenger even in a much better state of psychological repair really have said to counter the disdain of Keane, the man who routinely turned matches by the sheer force of his will?

Only that he had invested catastrophically in players without the beginnings of the fighting character or defensive nous it takes to prosper enduringly at the highest level of the game.

Bayern Munich had some brilliant moments in their 5-1 victory but all of them were accompanied by stomach-churning examples of breakdowns in acceptable professional standards by the men in Arsenal shirts.

Ultimately the buck stops with Wenger but on its way to the manager's lap this one has had many other resting places.

In a match so pivotal to Arsenal's season only three players were free of the charge of dereliction of duty. Despite conceding five goals, reserve goalkeeper David Ospina, whose selection by Wenger was a source of pre-match criticism, never lost his nerve and made some fine saves as Bayern ran at his goal almost at will.

Laurent Koscielny was again a source of strength and leadership, as grimly illuminated by the collapse which followed his departure through injury. And Alexis Sanchez, though agitated to the point of near disaster, did what he generally does. He fought.

The rest? Disgracefully, on this vital occasion they were simply not worthy of their hire.

Inevitably, Germany's World Cup winner Mesut Ozil is in the eye of the critical storm . At a transfer fee of £42m, he has come to embody the competitive weakness of what, surely, is Wenger's last Arsenal team. A beautiful talent if given space and time and some significant team momentum, in tighter circumstances he is the polar opposite of his ferocious critic Keane.

Keane came alive at the prospect of a battle. Ozil's preferred option, especially of late, is to enter a coma.

So abject were Arsenal at the Allianz Stadium that another strand of the morality tale took on still more new life. Thirteen years after their last league title, Arsenal were failing in the Champions League round of 16 for a straight seventh year.

This wasn't just another disappointment in the foothills of the tournament in which great clubs are obliged to regularly show up in the late stages if not the ultimate one. It was terminal ineptitude and if Wenger and his players had to take the first blasts of criticism, where did it leave the leadership of the club?


The short and brutal answer: in the same place it has languished since Wenger first supervised the financially successful move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium.

His record in the profit and loss columns is exemplary. It is in the measurement of the hope and the uplift that he has given to a large and high-paying audience that we are staring at the scandalous neglect of an element taken for granted by the supporters of the truly elite clubs.

It is not the certainty of major victories, they can never be guaranteed, but some reason to believe in their possibility. In Munich that was made to look a threadbare and rather pathetic fantasy.

It is enough have some Arsenal supporters crying more keenly than ever for a change of command.

In Italy, there is a suspicion that the challenge may appeal to Antonio Conte's Juventus successor Massimiliano Allegri, a sharp-tongued 49-year-old who is taking English lessons and has led Juve to two straight Italian doubles and a Champions League final against Barcelona in 2015.

He says he intends to quit football in six years and maybe in that time fit in a spell with the Italian national team. This would preclude another epic stint by a new Czar of the Emirates Stadium.

However, looking at the expression of Arsene Wenger in the last few days who would dare say this necessarily would be a bad thing?

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport