Monday 21 May 2018

From Brexit to tactics: What it was like to cover Arsene Wenger and why I'll miss it

Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger

Miguel Delaney

It was a vintage Arsene Wenger display, and a classic counter – but not on the pitch. This was instead in an area where he never lost his touch, where he always tended to win people around.

It was in the recent press conference after Arsenal had defeated AC Milan, but Danny Welbeck had been accused of diving for a penalty. When asked, Wenger went back to an old line, although with what felt like a new cheer. "I haven't seen the incident," he of course said, before the hint of a smile grew wider across his face as he leaned forward.

"Do you want to accuse the English players of being divers?" he said.

Wenger was pricking the perceived hypocrisy of the media that covered him, although not in a prickly way this time. It was admittedly something that he regularly did and that occasionally brought tense moments. During one of his periodic rough spells, he turned to one journalist and asked why he was looking at him, only to get the response "it's your press conference".

It was still impossible for that tension to remain, or for there to not be a lot of goodwill towards him, as that Milan exchange illustrated.

Working as a journalist covering Wenger, the bottom line was this: if you asked him a proper football question, you got a proper football answer – and usually a whole lot more.

A perfect example is his pondering from 2014 on why so few centre-forwards were coming through in the game, and why those that were came from South America. Having obviously thought about the issue a lot, Wenger turned it on its head, and pointed to how every positional role was now being coached in a way that all players were effectively becoming midfielders. It removed some core qualities from both centre-forwards and centre-halves, and also removed the hard-edged confrontations from their games that helped hone them.

"Maybe in our history, street football has gone," Wenger said. "In street football, when you are a 10-year-old, you play with 15-year-olds so you have to be shrewd, you have to show that you are good. You have to fight to win impossible balls. When it is all a bit more formulated then it is less about developing your individual skill, your fighting attitude. We have lost that a little bit in football."

When it came to his press conferences, every journalist there gained the debate-starting quote for a big issue in the game, a comment that was so brilliantly insightful that it would pretty much have to be referenced any time the discussion came up.

Wenger remained by far the best at this in the Premier League, probably rivalled only by Jose Mourinho, who is supreme value for such discussions when in in the mood. Even the Portuguese, however, wouldn't go to the sociological levels Wenger was willing to.

The Frenchman would of course start with one of those old much-parodied lines – "we live in a world"; "sometimes in life" – before then offering a deeply original line of thinking.

Take his opinions on criticism – or what actually became thoughts on the process that led to Brexit.

"What has changed, is the society."

"We live in a society that is more demanding, that is more opinionated. The overall problem in Europe is that the respect for basic things has been lost, or is less strong than it was 20 years ago. As well you have positive things: people are better informed, people are better educated. People have more knowledge of the game. You have to think of balance."

Wenger regularly found that balance himself.

Another recent classic was the quip on support, and how "there is not a machine to measure the intensity of love".

It was often before these elaborations that he would lay bare his joyous love of discussion. Wenger would walk into his press conference having made clear to his media team that this would be a short discussion, only to be ushered out mid-answer when he suddenly found himself engrossed in a subject he was clearly enjoying.

The truth was that it was often difficult to square this deeply educated and enlightened individual from the manager who never seemed to learn a single lesson from so many setbacks and so many defeats over the last decade.

But then, as one figure who knows him well puts it, "he is the most insightful man in football about everything but his own club".

It is probably for the exact same reasons that Wenger never learned from such latter-day mistakes that those losses never caused him to lose his sense of humour, either.

The Arsenal boss could have faced one of the worst nights of his career on the Wednesday but still be in a jovial mood on the Friday. It was remarkable, and very impressive, how often that happened.

It also led to a classic scene, as Wenger would crack a joke and then look to make eye contact with those laughing; to show they got it. It showed how such a wizened figure still had a boyish joy to him.

And, for all the criticism that was required, for all the same old themes and stories that were repeated, it remained a joy to cover him.

Independent News Service

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