Arsène Wenger is the first to acknowledge that this has been a bad week – "The worst I can remember" – for football, both off and on the pitch. The Arsenal manager is prepared to accept that Thierry Henry should not have reacted so aggressively at the end of his team's damaging 3-1 defeat at home to Newcastle on Tuesday. What the Frenchman will not concede, though, is that his players too often fail to contain themselves during matches.
And yet the statistics do not make pretty reading. In 17 League games, the club have incurred 41 yellow cards and four red this season. At Manchester United, who include fiery characters such as Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Fabien Barthez, the figures are 26 and one. Ray Parlour was the 39th player to be red-carded during Wenger's five-year tenure. He was also the seventh Arsenal player to be dismissed this season. Opposing teams also pick up more cautions when playing the Gunners than against any other Premiership club. It is to their credit that Wenger's troops are not trouble-makers in their spare time, but boy do they cause friction when on duty.
Tuesday's match was a case in point. It was by no means dirty, but there were two red cards and six yellows. Even allowing for Graham Poll's eccentric refereeing, that is a high number.
Wenger's explanation is a simple footballing one. "We try to play very fast," he says. "We are always taking the game to the opponents and that often leads to irregular tackles.
"We try to play a physical football based on pace, movement and commitment. Sometimes it goes a little bit overboard, but we never go looking to kick somebody. What do you want me to say to Ray Parlour? If I tell him not to put the foot in, then he is no longer Ray Parlour."
Despite Wenger's defence, Arsenal enter the festive-season fixtures with a number of suspensions starting or pending. Today's visit to Liverpool will be without the club captain, Patrick Vieira, after he collected his sixth yellow card of the League season recently (he received another on Tuesday). Lauren will miss Wednesday's derby against Chelsea, while Parlour will have to sit out the first match of the new year, against Middlesbrough. Wenger must now hope that Arsenal have piled up points by the time Henry's likely suspension is handed out next month – the Gunners have taken just two from the three Premiership and European matches he has missed to date.
Much like Michael Owen at Liverpool, the French striker is usually the difference between victory and defeat for Arsenal. No wonder, then, that Wenger is so keen to protect his protégé. He does not condone Henry's actions, but he will now defend him, and is perplexed at the treatment his player has received in the press. "At the moment," Wenger says, "football is getting a lot of bad publicity. Is this because the sport is a target or because people are genuinely fed up with footballers' behaviour? I'm honestly not sure, because I live inside the football world. I'm too close to judge."
Wenger believes that many of the problems stem from Britain's drinking culture, but he also feels that the current backlash is due to the change in people's perceptions. "The idea of drinking is less accepted than before," he says. "When I listen to the stories of my older players from 10 years ago, they are much worse. The difficulty for players today is knowing where their duties start and finish. Maradona took cocaine for years, but everybody respected him for what he did on the pitch. The parameters have moved."
Wenger has had a big impact on the way players conduct themselves since his arrival in November 1996. His views on diet, exercise and lifestyle have helped many prolong or better their careers. Equally, though, Wenger has never forced anyone to follow his methods. "There is no point in trying to stop someone from drinking," he explains. "It is impossible. I would actually prefer my players to go out together and build camaraderie rather than sit at home alone and drink. You cannot expect players to live like monks. Some of them are 25 and they should go out once in a while. As long as they are well-behaved, there is no problem. Even if some want to go to a disco that is OK. Why should you not dance when you are 20 years old?"
The Frenchman is a great believer in laissez faire, and it says much about the respect he enjoys that his methods have – so far, at least – helped keep his players out of trouble in the evening. But it is on the fieldduring the daytime, usually around three o'clock on a Saturday, that his laid-back attitude breeds problems. Wenger's tight-knit squad are brimming with talent. It would be a shame if they surrendered the title because of collective indiscipline.Reuse content