James Lawton: Wenger suffers but his impact on English game enriches us all
Saturday 31 January 2009
Could it just be that those who are saying that in the Group One Loony Tune and Lost Plot stakes, Rafa Benitez is streaking away, his lead scarcely touched by a plaintive wobbler from Luiz Felipe Scolari, may need to adjust their binoculars?
This, anyway, is the belief of certain insurrectionary groups in north London, as they claim another candidate is sneaking along the rails. It is, they are arguing with rising vehemence, the sainted Arsène Wenger, no less.
It is a theory that those of us who will never bend the knee in our belief that his vision of how English football should be has already set a brilliant standard don't have to accept – but can hardly dismiss.
The trouble for Wenger is that while great football teams have from time to time to be rebuilt, and re-motivated, they are always obliged to live in today and not some dreamy future.
When they stop doing this, as Arsenal have so frequently in this season of gut-wrenching disappointment, there is generally no question about where the inquiry has to start. It is in the manager's office and even the track record of Wenger is no guarantee against this inevitability.
You could lose a plot in various ways, some more spectacular than others, as Benitez proved after the game at Wigan this week, and Big Phil has been doing with increasing regularity when pointing out that the entire world has entered a conspiracy against Chelsea.
But then you can only lose it because somewhere along the line you have separated yourself from the most basic truth. This is the charge against Wenger. He is accused of making his own world, his own values; too much theory, not enough cold steel.
The most damning view is that all of Wenger's virtues, including his astonishingly consistent ability to identify the highest talent when the rest of the football world is guessing – remember he was on to Cristiano Ronaldo before the bone-breaking pragmatist Sir Alex Ferguson – may be congealing into a killing weakness.
It is the one of vanity, of presuming that because you have done it before you will do it again, and that you can set both your agenda and your clock. Football, of course, is not like this. It devours many things, and complacency has always been among its first victims.
Wenger complacent? Not in the conventional sense, perhaps, not in the way of someone sated by his own success. No, Wenger is too driven for that. Where he may be erring now is in an excess of self-belief and idealism, one in which he has conceived a set of priorities from which he simply refuses to budge. His belief in some current players, like the so far essentially mediocre Denilson and the frequently catastrophic Emmanuel Eboué and the seriously underperforming Emmanuel Adebayor, is surely at odds with the sharpest of his perception.
Of course, few are better equipped to mount their own defence than Wenger. Now he talks of the certainty of the club's future and dismisses claims that he should have done more than to fortify the team after the disappearance of Hleb and Flamini.
He says that the return of Fabregas and Walcott and Eduardo will have the vibrant impact of new signings.
He says that he feels great composure when he looks into the future, but then what is his vantage point? For some it is a tip-toed supported peek out of a vacuum.
The sense of this, no doubt, has heightened since Arsenal's latest dreary performance at Goodison Park on Wednesday night – and because perhaps only Wenger could parody himself and his season in what, on the shining face of it, looks pretty much like the perfect transfer deal.
Consider any box, from the economic to the aesthetic, and his move for Andrei Arshavin, the sensation of last summer's European Championship, and we are surely obliged to make a tick.
Wenger's proposal to pay Zenit St Petersburg £15m, the precise amount reported to have been asked of Manchester City for Kolo Touré (purchase price £150,000) would represent ridiculously good business, especially if, as it appears, Arshavin's admiration for Arsenal's quality of football is apparently such that he might be prepared to conform to the master's desired pay structure.
So why are we unlikely to hear much ringing of bells when West Ham United come to the Emirates today?
It is because most of the punters are impatient with Wenger's impeccable football values and his vision of how, in the best of all worlds, football would be conducted. They would trade most of it, if not all, you have to believe, for the kind of rampaging ambition of Ferguson has once again set in place.
Aston Villa's leapfrogging under the insistent leadership of Martin O'Neill is no doubt a source of serious discomfort, but let's make no mistake about the greatest oppression Wenger feels now. It is that, at a time of life when the fires of every previous great football man had long dwindled, Ferguson is aflame again with the prospect of another title – another run at the peak of Europe. Once, in the middle of one of those frequent eruptions of controversy they could fashion with just one dismissive phrase, even a look, Wenger stormed out of a room with the regal announcement, "Never again mention that man's name to me."
It was a cry worthy of Basil Fawlty and about as effective. Wherever Wenger turns now, he is confronted by the name and the meaning of Ferguson. That meaning has never been more explicit. It concerns, entirely, the need for a relentless pursuit of every possible advantage, psychological, physical, philosophical, and against it, in this season of all seasons, it is as though Wenger has retreated into himself.
Of course, it is not exactly the worst of places to be. Certainly, it wasn't so last season when Wenger conjured such a glorious challenge for the title with a team that most said was too young, too raw. Even after the disaster of Eduardo's injury, of William Gallas's lost head, there were times when Wenger returned to the land he had promised himself and his players, one of supreme redemption. Most unforgettably, there was the performance of Fabregas in San Siro, when the champions of Europe were made to look old before our eyes.
Who, in all of football, wouldn't have wanted to trade places with Wenger that night? He had everything a football man of his nature and calibre could ever have desired. He had youth of quite thrilling potential out on the field and in Fabregas he had a man around whom anyone would be glad to fashion his and his team's future.
Yet undoubtedly a stride has been lost. At Everton the other night Arsenal were saved only by the restated brilliance of Robin van Persie. Drawing with Everton, home or away, is far from a disgrace, as Rafa might remind us when he returns to Planet Earth, but it was not the result but the performance that was depressing. Last season Arsenal had flowered with extraordinary conviction at Goodison. Eduardo ransacked David Moyes' stringently enforced defence with goals of eviscerating brilliance. Fabregas was again the young master, biting and imperious.
This week it all seemed to belong to another age of extraordinary promise, one that the arrival of Arshavin is far from a certainty to revive.
But then, who can really say what the latest alchemy of Arsène Wenger will bring? There are no certainties in football, not even at Old Trafford. We know that well enough, but perhaps there is something we can still say about Wenger in this least promising of his time as one of the greatest football men the English game has ever seen.
It is that if he continues in his failure to return his imprint to the highest level of achievement, if his lapse into a world in which he sets his own borders goes on, there is no question that he will do so with a lack of style or instincts born of the highest integrity.
Wenger is having a bad time, unquestionably, but then we should cast a wary eye on anyone who shows the faintest hint of celebration. This, we should never forget, is a man who has not only lifted sometimes almost beyond sight the ambitions of a great club. He has also enriched every corner of his adopted football land.
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