Wednesday 22 November 2017

Wenger's moment of truth

Cup final result will not affect his future but pressure still on Arsenal manager

Arsene Wenger deep in thought at yesterday’s training session. Photo: Getty
Arsene Wenger deep in thought at yesterday’s training session. Photo: Getty

Jeremy Wilson

It was when the conversation turned to the supposedly declining importance of the FA Cup that Arsene Wenger's patience - already receding quicker than his defensive options - finally approached breaking point.

"I don't think the Cup has lost anything," he said. "The 18 other managers in the league would like to be in our position. Believe me."

Petr Cech and David Ospina. Photo: Getty
Petr Cech and David Ospina. Photo: Getty

They would probably also envy his wider job security - and resilience, amid the most pressurised four months of his Arsenal tenure.

Wenger has been told very clearly that today's final against Chelsea will have no bearing on whether he remains manager - both he and the club agree that it would be illogical for 90 minutes today at Wembley to decide a 21-year partnership - and the expectation is that a new two-year contract will be finalised next week.

The Premier League's longest-serving manager has been re-assured over the parameters of changes behind the scenes.

Yet, while Wenger and his employers will place today's result in the context of two previous FA Cup triumphs in the last three years, as well as Premier League finishes of fourth, third, second and now fifth (with the fourth largest budget), he knows that most wider assessments today will ultimately again fall at either end of the hero/zero spectrum.

'Critical in all this, of course, will be majority owner Stan Kroenke, and he very firmly still regards Wenger as one of the best people he has ever met in more than 20 years across numerous professional sports.' Photo: Getty
'Critical in all this, of course, will be majority owner Stan Kroenke, and he very firmly still regards Wenger as one of the best people he has ever met in more than 20 years across numerous professional sports.' Photo: Getty

An edgy press conference perfectly summed up the backdrop to an FA Cup final that has rarely been more polarised.

Unprecedented

One moment Wenger was being asked about the chance to further underline his status among the managerial giants of English football history with an unprecedented seventh FA Cup win.

The very next, he was back to addressing the suggestion that he should retire or find another job.

Wenger loves a sociological trend and has wearily christened it all the "horizontal society" where the once "vertical" nature of public life - with people looking upwards and respecting expertise - has been replaced by a mass of self-important and reactive noise.

"Today, everybody has an opinion," he said. "They do little and they talk a lot.

"One of the big problems in modern society is that the big companies don't sit there any more to make the decisions that are good for the company, but whether it is popular or not.

"I don't care about that. I just want to always make a decision based on, is it right or is it wrong? Is it good or not? All the rest for me is artificial debate."

For anyone wanting to really understand what is happening just now at Arsenal, as well as how Wenger has ridden through what his old nemesis Alex Ferguson this week admiringly called a "forest of criticism without ever bowing", it is worth re-reading those comments.

Wenger might have been speaking generally but, at the absolute heart of whether he continued as Arsenal manager has been a discussion over a series of structural changes around him.

Chief executive Ivan Gazidis wants to appoint a sporting director/operations figure to help co-ordinate and inspire best practice in areas ranging from sports science and medicine to recruitment, contracts and scouting.

Wenger has been told that it is about collective improvement and streamlining how the clubs works rather than challenging his core areas of decision-making.

The suspicion, though, is that there is also a cosmetic element to this amid a desire to sell some aspect of modernisation to disgruntled fans.

It is clearly also a sensitive subject for Wenger, as well as his staff, and an innocent question about whether anyone could ever break his FA Cup record suggested the issue is still rattling around his brain.

"It's difficult to predict what will happen in the next 20 years," he said.

"Maybe we'll have a robot on the bench who will make the decisions and the computer will analyse exactly what decisions he makes during the game."

It was unclear whether he was completely joking and, while he does want go on, it underlined how next week's talks could yet turn tense.

Critical in all this, of course, will be majority owner Stan Kroenke, and he very firmly still regards Wenger as one of the best people he has ever met in more than 20 years across numerous professional sports.

It can be safely assumed that he also shares the manager's certainty that good decisions are made independent of the emotion and noise that might surround them.

Isolate

Wenger's ability to isolate his focus is key to understanding not just how he has survived a nightmare February and March to oversee a run of eight wins in nine matches but also his ongoing appetite for football management.

His routines, according to friends, have wavered little from when he was first leading out Arsenal at the old Wembley Stadium in 1998.

For example, there was a League Managers' Association celebration on Tuesday at which past winners of the award were honoured.

Wenger, who still follows the diets and expected early nights of the players, was predictably conspicuous by his absence.

It was also instructive when he was asked about his six previous FA Cup winners' medals.

"You come to my home and you will be surprised," he said. "You would not even guess that I am a football manager, apart from the fact that a football game is on. There is no trophy, no medal, nothing.

"I give them away. There is always a member of staff at the club who did not get one."

So when will he ever look back? Wenger has been teasing us for years about how he will eventually reveal all in a book but, at 67, nothing seems further from his mind.

"Maybe one day I will have to look back but, if I have health, certainly no," he said.

"I will not always manage but I will always be involved in the game. I am not a back looker. I am always forward. What is next?" (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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