Sunday 20 January 2019

Tommy Conlon: Brazen Wenger holds all the telltale delusions of leader too long in power


Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters

Tommy Conlon

It is obvious by now to everyone but the man himself that his time is up, that he has hung around far too long, that he's tearing the Arse out of it altogether, as it were.

And yet in an industry famous for its wanton cruelty, there is a sentiment surrounding Arsène Wenger that is alarmingly close to a kind of tenderness. If everyone wants to see him gone, nobody has any appetite to him hurt.

At the epicentre of this ongoing saga are the Arsenal fans, for whom this has become a sort of family psychodrama, with all the emotional ravages that are wrought by a house divided. They have been through the mill in this relationship, from the first decade of intense love and adoration to the difficult break-up and make-up years thereafter.

During this painful phase, months would pass when they'd barely talk to each other. Indeed there were times when he'd come home to find all his clothes in a heap on the driveway. ('Wenger Out!' 'Time for Change' 'Thanks for the Memories') And then, just when they thought they'd weaned themselves off his considerable charms, he'd bowl them over again with another lavish gesture of devotion, such as an FA Cup, and the romance would be rekindled once more.

But the seductions of second-rate silverware have had a diminishing shelf life too. They've only shored things up before the cracks inexorably re-surface. Even the most loyal supporters have finally accepted the reality. They want out; they want to move on; they want a fresh start with someone new.

But Le Professeur cannot see it. He just cannot or will not see it. This most thoroughbred of managers is as stubborn as a donkey. Neither stick nor carrot will make him budge an inch. If anything, the longer he has survived, the deeper he has dug his heels. Wenger has been dealing with intermittent rumblings of discontent for the guts of ten years. He has weathered protests in the stands and sundry humiliations on the field. Last season his waning powers were confirmed by a fifth-place finish in the Premier League. For 20 years he'd delivered Arsenal into the Champions League. This was a landmark aberration in his career.

And he was already on thin ice after the 10-2 aggregate walloping by Bayern Munich in the Champions League in March. But he brazened out this crisis, limped on until the fifth-place finish in May - and then salvaged his position by beating Chelsea in the Cup final.

Last Sunday and again last Thursday they were beaten on a 6-0 aggregate by Manchester City. But if he could survive the 10-2 against Bayern 12 months ago, the latest double whammy was going to leave him predictably immovable. Indeed, so immune has he become to these setbacks, the 3-0 defeat by City in Sunday's League Cup final barely seemed to affect his self-esteem at all.

Asked the inevitable questions about his future, the gaffer never sounded more like an autocrat who has lost touch with his people. He had another year left on his contract after this season, he insisted, so how could the issue even arise? "I have been here for 21 years and I always respected my contract," he said at a press conference on Wednesday, "so I am quite amazed that you ask me the question." He again reminded reporters that he'd rejected offers over the years from other leading powers in Europe. "I turned the whole world down to respect my contracts, so I am still amazed that I still have to answer these types of questions."

Now if a manager presiding over abject performances in big games, and a declining institution in general, feels he shouldn't even be asked questions about his future, then it becomes clear that the telltale delusions of a patriarch too long in power have taken hold. Any lingering self-awareness has been crushed by overwhelming self-importance. The damning statistical evidence in the results is not enough to cause doubt; the sight of players patently not trying is not enough; ten thousand protesting fans are not enough. The leader is lost in his ivory tower.

On Thursday it seemed as if the supporters, and not the manager, had given up; that he had worn them down; that nothing they said or did could make any difference now. They stayed away from the Emirates in their droves. Those who turned up could barely summon anything more than a few desultory boos here and there. Which is why, being now immune apparently to any reasoning, Wenger needed not the compassion which he still elicits for all his admirable qualities, but a thoroughly ruthless and unforgiving comeuppance at the hands of a brilliant Manchester City team. They duly delivered it in the first half.

Ideally for frustrated Arsenal fans everywhere, and despite the short-term pain it would involve, City would have continued to visit further humiliation upon them after the interval. But they didn't. They basically sat on their 3-0 lead, treading water. The home supporters drifted away at the final whistle with barely a whimper.

The Prof navigated the post-match press conference without a bother on him. In his prime, any sort of a defeat would have left him white in the face and seething with emotion. This time it seemed like just another routine inquisition; he sounded almost bored as he batted away the questions. On Friday he said there were "a lot of positives" from the performance. His team had "shown great spirit" and had "refused to give in, even when everything went against them".

Alas, there is only one man refusing to give in when everything is going against him.

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