Happy birthday, Arsène Wenger? It most certainly will be on Tuesday night if on the occasion of the Arsenal manager’s 64th his resurgent young team beat last season’s Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund to confirm their position as one of the most exciting teams in Europe.
It is saying something that Dortmund, the darlings of European football last season with a collection of brilliant young players and a maverick coach, are in town and yet they are still the underdogs at the Emirates. Last season’s conquerors of Real Madrid are second in the Bundesliga but for now the buzz is around Arsenal, especially their first goal against Norwich City on Saturday and the kind of football that has put them top of the Premier League.
It is enough to make a man one year short of the United Kingdom’s official retirement age very happy indeed, although Wenger welcomed the note of caution that was put to him yesterday about the calibre of opposition his side have faced thus far. With the possible exception of Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli, Arsenal are yet to face a team from Europe’s very top drawer, although that changes tonight.
“Of course, I agree,” Wenger said. “I have said that we will know more about ourselves after Dortmund, at the end of November [a month in which Arsenal play Liverpool at home, and both Dortmund and Manchester United away]. The real test is in front of us. We can’t be triumphant at the moment. We have big targets, big teams and big fixtures in front of us.”
Put simply, Wenger, who will not risk Mathieu Flamini after the concussion he suffered on Saturday, wants more from his team. He is still without Theo Walcott, Lucas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Yaya Sanogo and poor old Abou Diaby, and he feels strongly that his team can play better – “We are always looking for perfection and our game was not perfect”. Even so, quite understandably, currently top of the Premier League, he is enjoying the moment.
Champions League football means a rare glimpse of an Arsenal training session and so there was Wenger, on Monday, out in the drifting October rain, talking to his players before their session. He says that his birthday today will involve a few cards and phone-calls from friends but “if nobody reminds me I forget. It was always like that. Even when I was 25 or 30.” As for his players tonight he said, “I don’t want them to play for my birthday. I want them to enjoy playing together.”
Yet, even for a man as remorselessly focused on the fixture list as Wenger, the passing of time cannot be ignored. He still looks in good shape and his passion for his job, as the Arsenal board prepare to give him that new contract, is utterly undimmed by the years.
“Yes, of course,” he said on Monday when asked if he still felt the same way about his job as he did as a younger man. “Honestly? Yes. You will see when you are 64, what is amazing in life is that you don’t change. The second thing is that you don’t believe your age. When you say to me that I am at 64, I look behind me! Who is this guy who is 64? It is as simple as that. You never believe you are 64. When you are 50, you don’t believe you are 50. The only thing that is good is that internally you are still young, externally you become old.”
This time last year, Arsenal lost back-to-back games to Norwich away in the league and Schalke at home in the Champions League, part of a run of one win in seven games in all competitions. Now the mood has changed to the extent that there will scarcely be a murmur of protest when Wenger is, inevitably, handed a new contract.
In spite of the good run at the end of last season following the victory over Bayern Munich in Germany in March, it was very different on the first day of this season and that defeat at home to Aston Villa. Reflecting on that yesterday, Wenger said his relationship with the fans was important but so too was his wider belief that he could entertain a wider audience.
“I want to make our fans happy but, as well, make people who love football [enjoy watching Arsenal],” he said. “It is as simple as that. In a world where you are spoiled for choice, it is important that when you wake up you think ‘Oh, Arsenal play today, I will [watch]’. That you have a hope to see something that is good, a moment when you are happy in your life. That’s all. It is not more complicated than that.”
As for his young team, these are early days. A win tonight would put them in an extremely strong position to qualify out of what Wenger identifies as the strongest group in the Champions League. It would also be a pretty impressive statement. The start of November presents some tough tests for Arsenal, and then in the run-up to Christmas they play Napoli and Manchester City away and Chelsea at home. By then everyone will have a measure of how good this team is.
“It depends on what they achieve,” Wenger said in answer to a question about the quality of this team. “You want people to look back and say ‘that was a fantastic season’ but that will be decided in May. Before that, let’s experience some quality.” It sounded like a man whose priority is to win some trophies and hopefully play some good football along the way. He might yet get both.
* Group F: Remaining fixtures
Tonight Arsenal v Borussia Dortmund, Marseilles v Napoli. 6 Nov Borussia Dortmund v Arsenal, Napoli v Marseilles. 26 Nov Arsenal v Marseilles, Borussia Dortmund v Napoli. 11 Dec Marseilles v Borussia Dortmund, Napoli v Arsenal.