Thursday 26 April 2018

Wenger: Trapped between mediocrity and crisis

Arsenal have asked far too much of a great football man

Dion Fanning

Arsene Wenger discovered once again last week that there are no prizes for being rational in an irrational world. Yet even pure reason has its limitations when Gervinho is the front-of-house man for a philosophy.

If Arsenal are going to take the League Cup seriously, the least they can do is beat a team from the fourth division of English football or go down trying.

Arsene Wenger may just be the scapegoat for the club's entire financial model, but scapegoats usually end up, well, as the scapegoat. "I am here for that," Wenger said on Friday when he was asked if he had a problem being blamed for everything, "and you do it very well."

Wenger is being squeezed from all sides. For years he had a preternatural ability to remove himself from the criticism and screaming headlines. Each week he would meet the press and act like their world had no bearing on his. He did this in the most beguiling way, answering every question, expanding on any topic.

In recent times, he has become less relaxed and it is easy to glimpse the strain he feels.

This is entirely natural but Arsene Wenger's genius allowed him to move beyond the normal.

Tomorrow night, Arsenal play Reading in a game that offers very little for Arsenal except more despair. Arsenal are trapped between mediocrity and crisis. If Arsenal win as they should, Wenger is likely to say, as he did when they beat West Brom last Saturday, that this was the mark of the top-level sportsman. His side had won when facing a crisis.

Yet even that answer provokes questions. Arsenal beat West Brom last weekend when the external pressure was great after the defeat at home to Swansea. This seemed to inspire some sort of effort in Wenger's side but it had disappeared by the time of the Bradford game. Are the team only reacting now when the pressure outside becomes great? Are they still listening to the manager and what is the manager saying?

Did they also believe that it was okay for them to lose at Old Trafford because they certainly approached that game without ambition? Wenger's philosophy has many strands but he remains admirably committed to defending his players in public. Yet there are variations of this that don't involve remarking after the Bradford game that he could not fault the effort of the players.

So Wenger took the criticism for his players and he takes the criticism for the failure to spend money and the apathy of majority shareholder Stan Kroenke.

Wenger may not be the reason of Arsenal's failure to spend but he might enjoy having a non-interventionist owner. Yet he is not just the face of Arsenal, he embodies everything about the club and its recent history.

"When the football doesn't work, you can't expect Stan Kroenke to intervene," Wenger said on Friday. "It's my job to do that."

Wenger continues to absorb all responsibility, an admirable flipside to his alleged dictatorial way at the club and his refusal to delegate responsibility.

He insisted that everything was harmonious on Friday, but even if his dispute with Steve Bould has been exaggerated, the club is not harmonious.

Arsenal's second-largest shareholder, Alisher Usmanov, remains a disruptive presence, making the bizarre call last week that Thierry Henry needs to return to the club in an ambassadorial role.

Usmanov remains on the outside offering an alternative to Kroenke, unwelcome as it is to many. Usmanov's association with Henry offers layers of intrigue thanks to Henry's relationship with Darren Dein, son of the man who sold his shares to Usmanov, and agent to many of the players who have left the club in recent times.

Wenger remains committed to the establishment at the club and the players he has brought in.

On Friday, he repeated that he wants to buy players from the resources available at the club rather than spend Usmanov's money. He had made a similar point at the recent AGM.

"My job is to deliver a team with the resources we have, and I have never complained about that. I want a club to pay players from its own resources, there is no shame in that," he said at the time.

He may have felt that a victory in the Carling Cup would have allowed him to point to a trophy and say he was giving them what they want. But he knows that it would mean nothing if Arsenal missed out on the Champions League which is the most essential prize of all.

In pursuit of that, Wenger will defend his club and all who work for it.

On Friday, he wanted to point out that Gervinho hadn't cost as much as is usually reported while it has been necessary for many to roll out Arsenal's net spend as an example of what they have achieved. Wenger's time has been a story of over-achievement.

Arsenal have cut their costs and Wenger has responded loyally, as he believes is his duty.

Right now, it might not sate the bloodlust. As the football statistician Zach Slaton wrote last month, "Perhaps a few supporters would love to see Wenger throw the club's leadership team under the bus in a very public fashion.

That might be gratifying for a moment in time, but it wouldn't solve anything and would likely lead to Wenger getting sacked for public insubordination.

That would then leave the club with a multitude of far less skilled managers they could hire, none of whom would ever deliver results like Wenger has."

Wenger has committed to the programme of austerity and he has surpassed projections. Yet, like all programmes of austerity, values that don't involve the bottom line are overlooked. Football, like life, should also produce some hope but Arsenal now only specialise in the tormented and thwarted kind.

Arsenal's real problems will come if they fail to qualify for the Champions League this season, a financial and emotional calamity for the club.

"I give my best for the club," Wenger reminded people on Friday. Only the most deluded needed to be told that, but the ranks of the disaffected are growing,

Yet during the years of austerity, Wenger lost something too. He has been damaged by the denial of his fierce competitive instinct. He contributed to its loss but the danger for Arsenal is that he may not discover it again.

Wenger has made many mistakes and his gifts in the transfer market have diminished. He has also taken too many hits for too many players who did not deserve it.

As they rebuilt the club and created a stadium on the back of the players he bought and sold, Arsenal made impossible demands of a great football man. They turned him into a money man and they dulled his edge.

Wenger will not end up on the after-dinner circuit or writing pitiful letters to chairmen as other football men have been forced to do in the past, but his genius has been exploited and betrayed too.

The chief executive Ivan Gazidis is promising a massive financial armoury in two years' time. He is asking supporters to be rational and he is asking them to be patient. In the world of football, he's asking for the impossible.

Arsene Wenger deserves to reach Arsenal's promised land. He may be the only one who does.

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