Arsene Wenger: The Enigma

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The Build up: Apart from some great footballing moments, Arsene Wenger has also given us some timeless quotes. He once very aptly said, “I believe the target of anything in  life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art.”

The above quote almost quite perfectly sums up Arsene Wenger, the person and Arsenal, the club. And aided eerily with almost similar arrangement of alphabets in both names, Arsenal and Arsene are really one and the same. Two bodies so intertwined that is it impossible to separate them, like Siamese twins joined by the hip. Arsenal is Arsene. Arsene is Arsenal.

If a fictional character was to mirror Arsene Wenger, it would most probably be Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s literary masterpiece ‘Fountainhead’, the story of a man going against society & it’s practices and uncompromising in his beliefs and principles to the point of self-destruction.

In the life of the multilingual Arsene Wenger, art plays a huge role both as an inspiration and as a way of life. But art can both be nail-bitingly euphoric and also be a hair-pulling exercise involving boundless frustration and patience, in no standard measure. Arsene and Arsenal supporters will certainly vouch for that.

Arsene Wenger is an Enigma. For his brilliance in bringing forth an era of attractive football and ushering of young talent, there is also his well-documented stubbornness in the transfer market and tactical rigidity. For every Dennis Bergkamp standing in the sun, there is also a Gervinho lurking somewhere in a dark alley.

First-half: Born in Strasbourg, France, Arsene Wenger had limited abilities as a footballer but had all the markings of a manager, while he was still a young player. When people speak of Arsene Wenger, they mostly think about his time at Arsenal. But it was his stints with Monaco and the Japanese side Nagoya Grampus Eight, that really shaped Arsene Wenger, the manager. It was in his tenure at these clubs that he perfected the art of one touch football, quick passing, diet plans, modern training techniques, the belief in youngsters et al.

If success is to be measured in terms of silverware, then the achievements of Arsene Wenger seem average at best given the number of years he has been at the helm of Arsenal (decade long Premier League drought and no Champions League trophy, major sticky points). But if success is defined as the impact of a manager on the way football is played in a country and his imprints on a club, then Arsene Wenger has no equals.

With what is now taken as granted, Arsene’s best gift to Arsenal is the magnificent Emirates stadium. But his revolutionising of London Colney training ground is no less spectacular. These initiatives have secured the financial robustness of the club for decades and have also been a major reason for the transfer spending limbo. If Arsenal are able to comfortably hurdle over the Financial Fair Play regulations, a big pat on the back goes to Arsene Wenger.

Players past and present, even those who supposedly left him and the club in the lurch (branded as traitors by some), sing praises about him and the impact he has had on their careers in particular and their lives in general. No praise is high enough for Arsene Wenger.

Most of the current day managers across leagues have immense respect for what Arsene Wenger has done at Arsenal and what he means to the concept of football. Even those few managers who have ridiculed him publicly must have, at some time, marvelled at him quietly under their breadth, fearing they might agree with him.

Though people seem to forget, it was Arsene Wenger that gave us sight of the mind-numbing talents of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Marc Overmars and the leadership of Patrick Viera playing nimble, easy-on-the-eyes football, away from the rough and tumble of the traditional English football. He also has the unrivaled credit of managing a team undefeated for the entire season. A feat that will most likely not be repeated in the foreseeable future.

At his peak and armed with the Invincibles, Arsene Wenger was a cynosure for sore eyes. And the only one who could look in the eye of his then arch rival, Sir Alex Ferguson and temporarily dethrone him from the pedestal of being the best manager in the Premier League.

Second-half: But all is not hunky dory with Arsenal football club and most of it can be attributed to Arsene Wenger, just as all the laurels rest with him. He or his most ardent supporter can’t accept all the good and reject all the criticism. It cuts both ways.

Arsenal are in a vicious circle of mediocrity. Though getting top 4 position in the Premier League every year is undoubtedly a cherished accomplishment, but are these ambitions enough for a big club like Arsenal? When was the last time Arsenal really competed for the top spot? With Leicester winning the league last year, the decade long argument of big clubs ruining football has gone out of the window. Whether at the start of a campaign or in the middle or at the business end, there are always doubts about the Arsenal mentality and their ability to win. With Arsenal there is this an omnipresent feeling: always the bridesmaid,never the bride.

Also, does only qualifying to the Champions League is enough, only to leave the competition in the round of 16? And what is comical, to the point of being tragic, is the same manner of exiting the competition each year. It is baffling and beggars belief whether Arsenal are heading in the right direction in the long run.

And what about the ever looming injury crisis or the lack of signing of a much-needed world class striker or that of a centre back? Or lack of leadership in the team?

These are the questions which have been asked for years by the footballing world with no concrete answers being offered. Maybe a toothless board has aided and abetted this stagnation of ideas and their execution. Has the change from David Dein to Stan Kroenke resulted in this despairing condition? The ever-absent owners only seem to be interested in the club being run as a financial enterprise than a well-oiled football club. Ask any Chelsea supporter and they will agree that the sight of Roman Abramovich almost every week in the plush seats of Stamford Bridge is a reassuring sight and a belief that the owner cares, whether times are good or bad. When was the last time we saw Mr Kroenke at the Emirates?

In football, there are not many things more taxing than being an Arsenal (and hence Arsene) supporter. With old rivals like Manchester United adding up their trophy count till recently and new rivals like Chelsea and Manchester City dominating the Premier League in the last decade, the frustration of Arsenal supporters is both palpable and also understandable. There is an increasing crescendo of voices questioning the stay of Arsene at Arsenal. Add to this the almost yearly routine of promising big transfers, continued speculation of superstar arrivals, haggling over insignificant amounts and later admissions by the club of being close to major signings but their inability to sign them, makes it seem like a broken record being played over & over again and a cruel joke on the fiercely faithful supporters. Coupled all this with the fact that these very supporters pay through their noses in these tough economic times to see their team play and more importantly win. Plus with Arsene Wenger being one of the most highly paid managers in the world, it seems like a culmination of one’s worst nightmares which has no end in sight.

Being the scorn of rival managers and supporters is a badge most managers will wear with honour. But when your own supporters turn against you, it is like a dagger in the heart. Though the mass protests of last season (2015-16) petered out in the end but in today’s footballing world of instant reactions and judgement, a small flame of dissent can easily become a mutinous wildfire, consuming everything in its wake.

Extra-time: In the day of selfies, Arsenal Wenger still likes his old camera with flash bulbs. In the world of fast food, Arsene Wenger is still waiting at the table for his seven-course meal. The servings will be infinitely better but very few have the taste, appetite or the patience for it.

At the age of 66, it is improbable that Arsene Wenger will shun his long jacket (with it’s zipper problem) for a perfectly cut slim suit as fashioned by Pep Guardiola or his blood brother (pun intended!), Jose Mourinho. But a fusion of ideals and practicality in approach is long overdue. Financial prudence at most times with a healthy dash of occasional extravagance is the most likely way forward.

The statue of Arsenal Wenger at the Emirates ought to be in gold (just like his 2003-04 Premier League trophy). The statue would shine for years, long after Arsene Wenger is gone. But with the lack of trophies and a cacophony of rebellious voices, there is a danger that the sheen of the gold might wear off partially.

Every great professor needs to refresh and update the knowledge acquired by him over the years. The same applies to Le Professeur. The champagne moments of the past are losing their fizz. It’s high time for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal to wake up and smell the coffee before it’s too late.

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