By Tony Attwood
“Wenger can signal power shift to Arsenal – but only by ending his Mourinho hoodoo” screamed the Telegraph this week. They and the rest of the press will follow this up with a piece that says “Five things we learned this weekend.”
It is all nonsense of course, based on the childish vision that a single event can give us an insight into the way the world – or even just the football bit of the world – actually works.
But this week a refreshingly different vision of football in general and Arsène Wenger in particular appeared, first in Eight by Eight and then in the Guardian and then in hundreds of other places, called Arsène Wenger, the Martyr of Islington.
Refreshingly different, but, for me, not right.
Now I am not going to do a literary critique of the piece, for there is so much discussion of the article now available that pretty much most things about it that can be said have been said. I want to draw forward a different perspective; one that I have been mulling over for years, one that may one day actually appear as the book, “Arsène Wenger: the beautiful pragmatist.” At least that is what the title currently says, but it tends to change as time goes by.
Just in case you missed it, here is a tiny flavour of the Eight by Eight article…
‘This is Wenger: Pope Arsène, recently the Martyr of Islington, the Premier League’s last magical perfectionist, last crusading aesthete, last Catholic.” The Catholic theme runs through the piece along with many others, and what struck me reading it was that in my own sketches for my book on Arsène Wenger I don’t touch on his Catholicism at all. Time for a rethink?
In the end I think not, and I’ll try and explain why I am holding on to my approach.
What I have are seven headings that seem between them to mark out the essence of Arsène Wenger. In some versions of the notes for the book there are six, sometimes eight, once even ten, but this year it has been seven. Who knows where it will end up – if I ever finish the book.
1. The point is he doesn’t do instant, he has a theory.
This is where I agree with the Martyr of Islington approach: Arsène Wenger he doesn’t respond to sudden issues with sudden new visions and insights. He has an over riding vision; a theory.
Now this is what annoys journalists day by day and week by day, as it means Arsène doesn’t play their game. In fact he doesn’t play the English game either for theories are very much out of fashion in England, and indeed they have been for much of my life.
In the 1950s anyone with a theory was described as “clever clever” – a typically meaningless phrase used by those who felt that common sense rules the day and is basically all you need.
Common sense however is gibberish, and leaves us no better than a bunch of shaggy haired enthusiasts howling at the sky during an eclipse of the sun sometime around 2000BC. It seeks to explain without explanation, it ignores science and evidence. It says the world is what you see, and quite obviously, it isn’t.
The world, the real world of gravity, burst water pipes, caterpillers into butterflies, racial hatred, love, society, left handedness… all these things are several hundred thousand billion more, are understood only through theory. Try explaining the journey of the sun across the sky without a theory and it’s pretty hard to come up with anything that has much to do with the truth.
But theories of course can be wrong. The Marxist inevitability of history and the view of kings as divine are both interesting theories, but both appear to be wrong when measured, as all theories must be in the end, against the facts, the observations and the experiments.
And that is the great thing about theories, they can be tested. Arsène has his theories, and like all good scientists he tweaks them step by step like a scientific experiment. Which is why so many fans get rather annoyed by him. If something doesn’t work, he doesn’t suddenly learn five things from this weekend’s matches, like a rampant journalist on heat. Rather he tweaks his vision, to see what happens if he does it this way, or that.
This is why we get good runs and bad runs with Arsène. Why the great advocate of attacking football can give us four 0-0 games in a row as he tweaks the system, and modifies the theory just a little and attempts to get the club back on track. Why we can have a fairly modest first half of the second double season, followed by the period of utter bliss and joy which gave us cup and league. Why the opening part of this season can lead to wild and woolly claims about it being the worst start to a season in 25 years, and yet lead to this rather enjoyable new year.
He has a vision, but like all good visionaries he tweaks it according to reality. No he is not at heart a Catholic, he is at heart a scientist.
2. Relationship with journalits
Most of the time we learn Arsène Wenger’s views through journalists, and of course we see and hear highly edited and often deliberately mis-edited versions of what he says. True, we do hear him speak without editing in the live pre and post-match interviews but these are quick snapshots which it is fairly clear he does as his duty, not out of a love for this type of communication nor out of a desire to put across his vision to the people.
When I have heard him speak without the mediation of journalists – for example at the club’s AGM, we get a different Arsène – speaking without notes, clearly, passionately and with an organised agenda in his head. He has a style which is transfixing and energising.
But this whole business of communication most of the time via journalists is coloured by the incident of 1 October 1996, when a veritable horde of journalists gathered on the steps of Highbury demanding to talk with the manager whose job officially began that day. They were there to shout, “what do you have to say about the rumours Mr Wenger?”
Arsène, acting the advice of the directors, went out and called back, “what rumours?” and this went on for a while before the journalists wandered away.
The rumours were of the most foul and repulsive kind, and of course no shred of evidence has ever appeared to support them. By asking the journalists to be specific about the claim, Arsène Wenger outmaneuvered the Neanderthals on Day One, for if they had mentioned a single word of the story he could have sued for slander – and of course they had no proof. By refusing to speak, he outwitted them, and they knew it.
But journalists have allies, and they were quick to encourage Man U fans to invent songs about the allegations – songs that even turned up on CDs that were on Man U websites. The abject failure of Man U to do anything about the chants and songs was the starting point of the break between the clubs and between Arsène and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Of course Man U argued that they could not control crowd chanting, but Arsenal showed them how, with the successful demand that anti-semitic references in anti-Tottenham chants were stopped.
Arsène Wenger made a reference back to his first day on the job in November 2010 when the newspapers defeated on 1 October 1996 started to run stories about an alleged affair that Arsène was having. Asked about it, Arsène commented that he had been the subject of slander and libel of the most appalling kind from his first day in the job, and this was small scale stuff compared to much of what had been said. He would, he suggested, not dignify the nonsense with a reply, any more than he had the earlier rubbish.
Overall journalists by and large don’t like him, not just because of these incidents but because he is palpably so much cleverer than them. Add that to the fact that he doesn’t respond to today’s sudden issues and you have the issue. He takes the broader view, the more general perspective, and he’s a hell of a lot brighter than they are.
3. Arsène has preferences which are simply his preferences, ideals which are his ideals.
He loves quick passing attacking football and thinks it is better than long ball defensive football. That is a view. Football played Arsène’s way is aesthetically better than football played the Mourinho way, at least according to Arsène.
Aesthetics is a difficult topic to argue, and the theoretical base of it is tortured in the extreme, but that doesn’t stop commentators on the arts from having such points of view; so why not in football?
One can argue and say that functionality is always superior to aesthetics; better to win with a long ball game than to draw beautifully. I think Arsène’s reply would always be, “But it is better still to win beautifully.”
And the fact is that we have seen, in the Arsène years, football played in ways that I don’t think we have seen before, football that is certainly more exciting than anything produced by Arsenal before.
4. But he is pragmatic; it is part of his theory. He is realist with visions.
Aestheticism alone is not enough; one also needs pragmatism, and it is in the combination of the two factors that Arsène Wenger has his ultimate strength.
Between 13 November 2008 and 28 February 2009 Arsenal played 15 league games. In only three of these games did Arsenal score more than one goal. So had Arsène Wenger totally lost the ability to create a team that could attack? Had he changed his ideals?
No, he was being pragmatic. In late October and early November 2008 Arsenal won just one match in five. One was a 4-4 draw with Tottenham and three were defeats to Stoke, Villa and Man City – the last by 3-0.
Clearly things were not right, so Arsène started to put them right, not with wholesale changes of personnel, but with gradual step by step changes in the playing style. He started to removing all gun-ho attacking options, and focussing on defence. Starting on 30 November 2008 Arsenal went 20 matches undefeated – which turned the season around.
But that run included five consecutive draws – four of which were 0-0 draws. Indeed it was worse than that because in the midst of those 0-0 league draws was also a 0-0 cup draw at Cardiff.
As a result of this dramatic change around, and this new vision of the defence Arsenal made it to fourth in the league, nine points ahead of the fifth team. Some would have demanded much more, but through this pragmatism Arsène Wenger stopped the club drifting down to mid-table and missing out on the vital Champions League money.
It is sequences and stories like this that those who try to knock Arsène Wenger ignore. They don’t fit with the mad professor telling his teams to attack attack attack – but the results of the winter and spring 2008/9 are as valid a part of Arsène at Arsenal as twice winning the double.
Arsène Wenger is the master tactician, not just in terms of playing Man City and Man U away as we have seen in 2014/15 but in terms of reworking the entire team from basics and rebuilding the tactics of the team when things are not working.
It is through this approach that the absolute legacy of Arsène Wenger has been achieved: the constant appearance in the Champions League while the Stadium was built and paid for. Arsène, required to curtail his buying, did not wreck the club for one final hurrah before leaving, as was the approach of Sir Alex Ferguson at Man U. He found ways of delivering what the club needed – not just for now, but for the future, so that long after he has gone, and long after I and my fellow season ticket holders have gone, Arsenal as a leading club, survives.
Arsenal has been in the top league since 1919, far longer than any other team, and Arsène Wenger has set it on a course that will allow it to stay there for many more years to come because of Stadium Wenger.
Thus, yes I would go along with Arsène as “the Premier League’s last magical perfectionist” – sometimes. I’d also call him the Premier League’s perfect pragmatist. He is both. That is his magic.
5. Arsène has patterns of activity, as do we all. He is not thrown off track by set backs but he is always flexible.
Why should he be thrown off course? He has an amazing record of cup wins, doubles and the Unbeaten Season, not to mention the minor matter of not getting the club in unpayable debt.
One of his greatest virtues – which is often portrayed as his greatest failing – is that he does not deviate from his vision through upsets. Journalists do their pathetic “5 things we learned” and the aaa throw all sorts of nonsense at him (my personal favourite this season was the aaa site that said, “Giroud’s not playing today” and all the little aaa beings crept under the door mat and said, “thank God for that”). But none of that affects him, because he has a broader plan, and his broader plans work.
He is in short far more flexible than he is given credit for. One only has to go back over the way he has re-worked the squad when something has gone wrong, and then triumphed once again, to know what he does.
6. Arsène sees the broad picture
One of the biggest problems with trying to critique Arsène is that he knows so much more than we do. He played Ramsey out wide during Ramsey’s developmental stage, so that Ramsey would become a better player all round and so that should he need to, he could use the undoubted talents of Ramsey on the right, allowing someone else to play in the centre. Who else would have done that?
That someone else was of course Ozil, and had Ozil never arrived Ramsey could have moved into the centre and stayed there, having simply developed as a player from his trip to the right.
But now we have a better player who can play in either position.
Arsène thus doesn’t rush into the transfer market to buy whoever is available at whatever price is demanded. He knows players develop, players become available, players change. And he knows who he really wants.
For a long time he was doing all this on a very restricted budget, but with money available he is doing it faster. But all that ability to find youngsters and bring them to Arsenal has not disappeared. So whereas in the past we might have been looking at the youngsters like Gnabry, Zelalem, Akpom, Bellerin, Chambers, Crowley, Hayden, Maitland-Niles, Ormonde-Ottewill, Toral etc, and hoping that one or two would come to the rescue, this time we are hoping that somehow they get enough chances in the squad to keep them at the club.
But we have no worry about Arsène in this situation because…
7. He adjusts
In point of fact I could have called these notes, “The four ages of Arsène” because that is what we have seen of Arsène at Arsenal.
The First Age
Here the job was simple: rebuild the club. Arsenal in 1994/5 sacked their manager half way through the season and we ended the season 11th. The three previous years (the last three complete years of Graham’s reign), we came 4th, 10th, 4th.
In Rioch’s one year in charge Bergkamp and Platt were added to the squad and we came 5th.
So to pull that together, the club that Arsène took over had, in the years before his arrival, come 4th, 10th, 4th, 11th, 5th.
His opening response was to buy Patrick Vieira before he even got here. His first two seasons gave us 3rd and the Double.
Arsène also did something about the attack. In the Rioch year we scored 49 in the league, six fewer than Wimbledon. In his first two years Arsène took us up to 62 and then 68.
As a sub-plot he started a side-line in miracles. He bought Nic Anelka for around £250,000 and sold him after 50 league starts for £25 million or thereabouts. It is said that the money paid for the new training centre that was designed by… Arsène Wenger.
It was all going so well, but then…
The Second Age
In November 2000 Arsenal submitted planning applications for the new stadium.
On 4 May 2003, after Arsenal had lost out on the title to Man U, the press were full of statements that Arsenal’s season had been a failure. On Radio London Arsène said, “Of course we want to win the league, but I think the most difficult thing for the club is to be consistent and we have been remarkably consistent. We lose the league to a team who spends 50% more money every year – last year they bought a player for £30m pounds when they lost the championship. They will do the same next year and we have done miracles just to fight with them.”
That team was Man U and the reference to the lack of money related to the fact that Man U had a stadium twice the size of Arsenal’s and as profile that allowed them to generate sums from their worldwide marketing scheme that Arsenal could hardly even imagine.
But it quickly turned out that Man U was not our only problem.
In July 2003 Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea for £140m and announced that he had done so to break the Arsenal/Man U duopoly. He then made a bid for Thierry Henry which was turned down, irrespective of the price.
In February 2004 it was announced that the financing of the new stadium was now in place and the development would begin.
On 15 May 2004 Arsenal completed the whole league season unbeaten.
And herein lies the twist at the very heart of Arsène’s legacy. He had just achieved the impossible at the moment the world was blown upside down (or to use David Dein’s memorable phrase, “Abramovich has parked his Russian tanks on our lawn and is firing £50 notes at us.”)
Arsenal had just done the impossible, and were all set to build a stadium to allow them to challenge Man U, when along had popped Abramovich to make life even harder. It was going to be tough enough to take on Man U with their marketing money, but to take on the unlimited wealth of Chelsea suddenly looked impossible. (The fact that just four years after that Man City moved into the frame with even more money made the whole situation even more impossible).
A lesser man than Arsène Wenger would have said at that point, “I’ve done my bit; two doubles and an unbeaten season, time to move on.” But he didn’t. He stayed.
The Third Age
There was a plan in place to see Arsenal through the difficult years of the building and financing of the stadium – but it was a plan that involved taking on Man U. The arrival of Chelsea and then Man C made the whole plan unviable. It was the utter and absolute genius of Arsène Wenger, plus his extraordinary flexibility, that allowed Arsenal to get through the Third Age era staying in the top four, and so financing their way into a faster than expected return to being able to deal with the transfer market.
But of course, developments such as those seen at Man City and Chelsea don’t just affect the amount of money around. They affected players’ and agents’ attitudes towards transfers. Players want to win things, so they look for clubs that could win things and only three clubs (Man U, Chelsea and Man C) had that sort of wealth.
And strange things started to happen with referees. Arsène Wenger is not a man to comment much on refereeing – although he does let go occasionally, as he has done with the quality of the refereeing in the game against Man U at the end of the 49 unbeaten run.
Once again a lesser man – indeed 99.99% of managers – would have moved on – as Arsène could have done, his reputation in tact. But he stayed to fight the new assaults of money and its effects.
The plan to develop young talent was there from the start – as the purchase of Anelka showed, and this approach doubled and re-doubled during Arsène’s reign. Probably the high point was the beating of Sheffield Utd 6-0 in 2008. Carlos Vela aged 19 got a hat trick. The team for that game (and do remember this was 2008) still makes very interesting reading even today:
Fabianski, Hoyte, Djourou, Song (Lansbury 70), Gibbs, Randall, Ramsey, Merida (Coquelin 71), Wilshere, Bendtner (Simpson 71), Vela.
But of course others were watching. Barcelona began its notorious approaches to bring in young children in breach of Fifa and Uefa laws – a move which finally got them a one year ban from making transfers. Real Madrid spread money around in ways that made the transfer of Anelka look ordinary. Everyone was trying to get in on the act. Clubs without the money of Chelsea regularly spoke of “doing an Arsenal” – which meant, finding the brilliant youngsters.
But just as Arsenal were taking Sheffield Utd apart, on 15 September 2008 Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. The biggest crash in the history of capitalism had begun.
The 4th Age
The effect of the financial crash, caused totally by utterly irresponsible activity by bankers, liberated from political control through the Big Bang process of 1986, threw Arsenal’s refinancing plans up in the air.
All they could do was continue with the plan to sell the naming rights to the new stadium, along with anything else that it was possible to sell, plus some of the best players, and use that money to make early payments on the stadium debt. That would reduce the interest payable and give Arsenal a period of limited income. The job of the manager was to keep the club in the top four and so keep the income rolling. Which he did.
Despite the endless sniping by the media, who had never forgiven him for October 1996, and the insanity of the attacks by the aaa, Arsène delivered, and on 10 July 2014 Arsenal announced the end of the old era and start of the new, the 4th Age, with the signing of Alexis Sanchez.
Thus Arsène for me is not a martyr nor someone who guides himself primarily via an understanding of Catholicism although he is undoubtedly a believer (he has after all had an audience or two with the pope). He is a pragmatist with ideals who believes in the beautiful game.
There’s much more to say, but maybe that’s enough for now.
If you have been, thanks for reading.