Monday 19 March 2018

‘Polar bear’ Wenger tries to protect young guns from ‘bullets’

Sam Wallace

the pressure might be on Arsene Wenger, but the Arsenal manager demonstrated yesterday that he still has the ability to come up with some of football's most striking metaphors when he compared himself to a polar bear, protecting his brood from the "bullets" of those who would seek to destroy them.

For Wenger's brood, read the latest generation of young players that he is trying to develop, with his team four places off the foot of the Premier League ahead of today's crucial home game against Bolton Wanderers.

There are no prizes for guessing the identity of the hunters: they are Wenger's critics among sections of the Arsenal support and in the media.

While in many cases it appears to have been the more senior players in his squad who have let him down, Wenger still painted a picture of himself as the protector of a young team, taking the flak himself for poor performances.

"Since I arrived in England there have been a lot of things said that are wrong but on the positive side as well," he said. "I personally do not complain. When you have heavy criticism of a young player I am more worried about it. I am supposed to take the bullets and absorb them. Like a bear."

Asked to specify what kind of bear he had in mind, Wenger replied decisively: "A polar bear."

He added: "In fairness it does not hurt me too much. You worry more about the young players who get in the team at the moment and get slaughtered. When I was 19 that was much more difficult for me to take."

Wenger was speaking in a briefing only for newspaper journalists after a tetchy exchange with television reporters in which he offered up "no comment" in response to questions about whether he tried to sign Joey Barton in the summer, whether he was still interested in Bolton defender Gary Cahill and whether former striker Dennis Bergkamp may return to the club as a coach.

Asked how many more of the metaphorical bullets he could take, the Frenchman mimed the impact of being shot repeatedly.

"Endless," he replied. "It is because I understand the game. But when it is positive (coverage) it is the same. I'm a human being and I prefer it when you say I am not an idiot."

Wenger also warned for the first time that even Arsenal's best wage offers to the likes of Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Thomas Vermaelen might not be enough to keep the players, as the club enters another period of contract re-negotiation with some of their biggest names.

Van Persie, Walcott, Vermaelen and Andrey Arshavin will all have just one year left on their deals come next summer if they do not agree new contracts -- the same situation that the Gunners faced with Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy in the last transfer window.

The problem with that dynamic is that the power rests with the player, who can see out his deal and leave for nothing. Alex Song still has another two seasons left on his deal after next summer.

"We will try, but we tried before. The gap on that front has become bigger for us so I cannot say today that if we go to the maximum (wage) we are sure to sign a player -- even if we do that we are not sure."

The obvious problem for Arsenal is that they simply cannot compete with the £165,000-a-week wages paid to Nasri by Manchester City.

Wenger has coped with the sense of early-season crisis by immersing himself in his work, which is not cerebral and theoretical but about getting turf on his boots in among the players at the training ground.

"I have a hands-on style because I'm not an intellectual and my job is to prove practically that what I think is right," he said. "The most difficult thing to give to a team is the style of play. And you manage better to transmit that when you are on pitch.

"I learn every day, every game I watch I learn. There is no better teacher of humility than football, or team sport because it has so many ingredients in there that you learn always in every game. I watched plenty of games this week and you go to bed thinking about what was surprising, interesting."

This obsessive strain has made him the meticulous manager he is -- he does not seem like the type who is much interested in sleep anyway.

But he will certainly sleep easier if Bolton are dealt with today. Otherwise it will be another restive night for Arsenal's bear with a sore head.

(© Independent News Service)

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