Monday 20 November 2017

The slow disintegration of Arsene Wenger

He has never been the cool detached manager he portrays, but now Wenger is lashing out, says Dion Fanning

Arsene Wenger's first revolution in English football had many willing followers. For his second, he has found English football to be a less fruitful place to foment radical ideas.

When Wenger changed the game, English football saw something in his ideas that could benefit them all. Wenger's more recent ideas involved asking opponents to do whatever is most beneficial to Arsenal and Arsenal alone.

The slow disintegration of Arsene Wenger began on the playing fields of Bolton. When he arrived in English football, it didn't take him long to demonstrate his genius. The last few years have seen the slow, perhaps inevitable, maddening of a genius.

Chelsea will arrive at the Emirates tomorrow with Wenger again talking about Arsneal's title ambitions. These have begun to resemble the ambitions of a child to be an astronaut: it might happen but not because the kid stamps his feet and insists it must be so.

Arsenal's credentials may have looked less impressive after home defeats to West Brom and Newcastle but it was the manner of their defeat at Old Trafford which undermined any claims made by Wenger.

Arsenal could not even do an impression of being Arsenal. Their insipidness was the only thing that marked them out as a modern Wenger side and their attempts to play their way into the game in the second half were notable only for their palpable lack of self-belief. Afterwards Wenger announced it had been a close game and suggested the pitch had prevented his side from playing. If a rutted surface helps to reveal a lack of heart then he had a point.

Wenger has players who can play but not compete. Wenger's attitude has allowed this idea to develop among his players. He is a great competitor but in recent years he has allowed his players to be excused from the idea that they have to battle. His determination to protect them has created a world where they are exempt from competing. This becomes most apparent when they play the teams that like to fight but where that was once Arsenal's sole problem, now they have many.

Wenger was once an aesthete but he is now a preening dandy. He was once Oscar Wilde but is now Stephen Fry. Julie Burchill said Fry was "a stupid person's idea of a clever person" and Arsenal fulfil the same role in football. Their shrill nouveau supporters believe they are playing football as it is meant to be played, forgetting that the way football is meant to be played has always included winning when it matters.

They knew nothing of football before Wenger came along, which has allowed them to claim Arsenal's devotion to beauty for beauty's sake as some sort of hereditary entitlement. They have forgotten about Herbert Chapman, Bertie Mee and even George Graham. Arsenal stood for winning long before they became about entertainment.

The Wenger that remoulded his first great Arsenal side had no need to talk about entertaining either. He might have inherited some of their toughest members but he brought some with him as well.

Tony Adams represented the remodelled English player but Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Martin Keown remained committed to old values. They just ate more broccoli.

The players Wenger brought with him then lacked for nothing in commitment. The team that grew organically from that side to go unbeaten in 2004 was ferocious as well. But that was a different league.

Wenger's methods were copied and when other clubs couldn't find a genius to spot players they spent money. For a time, Chelsea had both. It was the time when Wenger grumbled, with some justification, about "financial doping". Arsenal were priced out of competing as Chelsea bought players with Abramovich's wealth and United used their muscle.

The Abramovich era coincided with Arsenal's decline but Wenger's argument falls to the ground as clubs stop spending money. These are the conditions Arsenal have been waiting for and now is the time to capitalise.

In recent times, there hasn't been a Premier League as open as this season's. Arsenal should be the team to take advantage. They have not lost the key players that Manchester United have, they are not ageing like Chelsea. But they have no goalkeeper and no spine and Wenger looks like running out of excuses.

This is the season Arsenal could claim the title but it is very possible that because of Wenger's mistakes, Manchester City could be allowed to buy the championship. Wenger would undoubtedly claim more financial doping but he has squandered his opportunity.

There is growing dissatisfaction among Arsenal supporters but then there is growing dissatisfaction from Wenger too. He has never been the cool, detached manager commonly portrayed (his tie-removing display at Bolton was almost eight years ago) but he is now lashing out. He became notorious for defending the indefensible (or missing it) but now he has reached a point where the indefensible is his team, not a tackle or a melee.

He can always be guaranteed to offer some kind words for a team that arrives at Arsenal tries to play and loses. The rest are an affront to football and his team which are taken to be synonymous.

The defeat at Old Trafford demonstrated all that is wrong with Arsenal. Two years ago they beat United and Chelsea in one glorious, if slightly fortuitous, month. The year before they had challenged for the title until the spring when William Gallas's sit-down protest at St Andrews personified the new Arsenal. They stomped their feet if they didn't get their way. Increasingly they don't get their way.

Wenger is expecting a challenge from his team tomorrow. The league is so close that even if they lose he will be able to regroup and talk up his side's chances for another month. Barcelona then loom in the Champions League so there may be more reason for taking the Carling Cup seriously.

Wenger has a point when he says his achievement in qualifying for the Champions League every year is ignored. It has been taken for granted and it is a measure of the consistency he has brought even as he changes the side. He wants more, he always has. The increasingly frazzled comments mask a competitive instinct that has had to be suppressed as Arsenal lose their competitiveness.

The disintegration that was isolated to the playing fields of Bolton and Blackburn now encompasses all of England and includes north London.

Arsenal might get something tomorrow. They might win. Wenger says they must win but if Chelsea are returning to their best then Arsenal could be brushed aside. They have no depth of character. They are now just about frippery and indulgence. Shallowness, as Wilde would have told them, is the only vice.

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