James Lawton: Old invincibility now only serves to haunt Wenger
The tyranny of results invariably exerts itself. For Arsène Wenger it is now knocking on his door
One of Arsène Wenger's most passionate admirers, Arsenal's old Double-winning goalkeeper Bob Wilson, has rather brought matters to a head. While charging the media with an active, pernicious conspiracy against the great manager, he wonders, disdainfully, about their idea of a replacement.
Loyalty is a wonderful quality but it doesn't always place you slap bang in the middle of reality.
Really, is it still an irreplaceable Wenger? The concept, let's face it, may have served its time, however dismal a statement this makes about the durability of respect for brilliant achievement in modern football.
The truth, painful though it may be to all those who have for so long held the embattled Frenchman in the highest esteem, is that if the man who fashioned and inspired the unbeatable side of 2004 was utterly indispensable, the same cannot be said, at least with anything like the same confidence, of the one wearing his clothes seven years later.
Of course, it is tempting to believe that Wenger can recreate some of that old aura – and certainly it is no hardship acknowledging the superb principles he has followed in transferring the team he once lifted so sublimely to the splendours of the Emirates Stadium.
Wenger's approach is more than a business model. It is a moral statement. Unfortunately, something more is required.
It is the competitive edge which he once produced with such casual elegance of mind and action that he might have been meeting a challenge no greater than turning the page of his morning newspaper. This is not the picture we have now. It is of a man driven into a most discouraging corner, one who has just lost in Cesc Fabregas one great protégé to Barcelona and understands that another, Samir Nasri, is preparing to leave with much unfinished business at the ground where he was so quickly celebrated. Like every other manager at every level of the game, Wenger no doubt is buoyed by recurring hope, in his case that Jack Wilshere will justify the belief that he is the English player of his generation by some distance, that the mantle of Fabregas will be worn without a flicker of self-doubt and that Aaron Ramsey will be another proven example of an unrivalled flair for identifying exceptional talent.
Maybe Gervinho's skill will quickly dismiss the memory of his catastrophic misjudgement at St James' Park last weekend and perhaps, like a besieged conjuror, Wenger will at the last moment produce a white rabbit with some propensity to defend.
Still, it is idle to ignore the odds building against Wenger's ability to maintain any sense that Arsenal remain one of the more serious forces at the top of English and European football. Increasingly voluble voices say that Wenger has been encouraged to buy by the board but that he continues to sit in the face of a menacing tide. Certainly, there were reasons for concern this week when the great prize of Champions League revenue, under Wenger for so long such a seamless source of major income, was put under threat by Udinese – and at the end of the game was protected by someone as raw as young Carl Jenkinson.
Wenger's achievements scarcely need listing here. But none of them removes him from the obligation that sooner or later confronts the greatest of football managers. It is the need not only to win but also to make an indisputable case for such a possibility.
Rightly, Chelsea were castigated for their treatment of Carlo Ancelotti, sent on his way a season after winning the Double. But sooner or later, the tyranny of results invariably exerts itself. For Wenger, six years after his last trophy, it is only now knocking lightly on his door.
This may outrage his admirers, may provoke that talk of conspiracy and envy and a colossal lack of understanding about the weight of the manager's contribution to the life and the horizons of the club, but it hardly offends a truth that in football cannot be ultimately denied.
Sooner or later all the great managers are required to show their teams are moving forward. When they cannot do this, they are reminded that the greatest achievements in football have never proofed a man against the possibility of being asked to walk away.
In so many ways it is unthinkable that this might be the fate of Wenger. Even in defeat, his team still offers haunting promise. Even in defeat, the dream persists that one day his football will be triumphant again, as it was when Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira were in their great pomp and a kid like Fabregas was just an underpinning of unbroken success.
Wenger could do anything then, of course. He could make beautiful, winning football – he could ransack the world for the best of its young talent. But that was before the conspiracy, the one football always has up its sleeve – and from which no one will ever be exempt.
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