There is something noble about Arsene Wenger. He doesn’t go in for quite as much nonsense as many of the other managers in the league. Everton manager Roberto Martinez is a man obsessed with blaming absolutely everyone else for absolutely everything that ever goes wrong. Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal will say that he is pleased with a small squad, which is his decision, and then bemoan the problems with having a small squad when there are injuries. Jose Mourinho will poke a man in the eye, get sued in a case of discrimination, and spend two hours on Sunday morning television darkly hinting at conspiracies working against his side.
But not Wenger. Of course, the Arsenal manager isn’t perfect when it comes to dealing with the press. For a decade, he would fatuously claim not to have seen obvious misdeeds from the Elbow Twins, Dennis Bergkamp, and Patrick Vieira. At the same time he would plaintively cry out for protection on his own, softer players, like Jose Antonio Reyes. Thuggish behavior was fine when his players did it, and a national outrage when it inconvenienced him.
For all his positioning as the moral force in football, Wenger was happy to try to buy Luis Suarez, a man who indulges in racist abuse, and was also complicit in raising season ticket prices to absurd levels in a London borough with striking amounts of poverty. Add to that his happiness to buy children from around the globe, and he is clearly not a flawless ambassador for all that is good in football.
Nevertheless, his press conferences are often insightful. His particular way with English is enjoyable, particularly when he delivers a decent barb — “everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife.” He’s not as boringly aggressive as many managers who become human yawns when they are under pressure. Steve McClaren, Nigel Pearson and Alex Ferguson, for example, all used their position of relative authority to turn on the press when it was far from reasonable. Wenger doesn’t really do that.
All of which suggests that there is reason to believe that when Wenger retires, which surely cannot be too many years away, he might provide the kind of autobiography that his old rival Ferguson never could. One that isn’t about settling scores, raising hackles, or defending every single action he has taken in the last decade.
Wenger, you get the impression, will be happy to weigh up the course of his career, and you can make the case that he should probably be content with what he has achieved. Financially, Arsenal keeps its head above water. It isn’t a club that indulges in the vulgar and self-defeating transfer policies that Manchester United and Real Madrid pursue. The London-based outfit attempts to undercut the market and demonstrate that there really is value if you want to find it. When fully functioning, Arsenal is one of the best sides in the world. The side that reached its height at Highbury was one of the most terrifying sides in the history of the Premier League, and whatever came before that, although we don’t really know what that is because there were no Diaries back then.
What is sad is that Wenger appears to have turned his exceptional handful of talents into a dogma that also needs to be dismantled. That perhaps when he looks back on his career, his stubbornness will continue to hold about what is the best way to attempt to win trophies. Ask him: “Do you have to be mentally strong to win the title? Do you need a strong squad? Are you always looking forward for the best players available?” He would probably say “yes” to every question. Because, obviously, “yes,” is the only possible answer to any of them.
But in practice, Wenger has ignored these requirements for the best part of a decade. To have a buffoon like Jack Wilshere hanging around, instead of bombing him out to QPR, is unforgivable. A chippy, short bundle of potential, assured of his own excellence despite the fact that he will never be excellent, he is the archetypal North London Gooner. A card-carrying leader of the selfie brigade movement, Wilshere might just be enjoying himself as young men do. Sure, even Barcelona players are part of the selfie movement, but Barcelona players do it after winning trophies for several years, not after winning against Stoke.
Photo-loving Olivier Giroud shares a similar ailment. The Frenchman can score plenty of goals, because he’s pretty talented, but he can’t get close to Sergio Aguero because alchemy is an impossibility.
The truth of all this is obvious to everybody else; this is why Watford were able to walk into the Emirates with a plan, execute that plan, and walk off whistling. This is why Heurelho Gomes — Heurelho Gomes! — is able to come out the following morning and say that Arsenal “look like a small team,” and that Watford “knew once we had the ball we’d be able to pass it around since Arsenal gives you too much space. They are not strong defensively.” Of course Watford knew it. Everybody knows it. Everybody except for Wenger.
Wenger still appears to genuinely believe what he is saying when he talks of his team. Not in terms of the political dismissal of referees or small incidents in a match — any manager worth the job has to lie over things like that — but when he discusses whether his players stand a chance. He doesn’t think it’s a problem with confidence. He thinks he has the best players he can afford, and he thinks the squad is ready. Every single year. There is something noble about Wenger, but there’s something tragic, which he appears incapable of escaping. And given the way that final acts tend to be definitive, this might well be what he is remembered for.