‘The biggest struggle in life is seeing what is on the end of your nose.’ So said George Orwell. Taking a step back from a still unfolding situation and judging it with perspective violates the immediacy of human emotion. Coverage of football and current affairs have become bedfellows over the years. Both are driven by conjecture, sensationalism and immediacy, making perspective ever more illusive.
Though the tempestuousness of the Arsenal fanbase has cooled a little this season, writing about the manager still produces emotive responses. It still dissects the supporters. Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge perhaps gives us all a welcome opportunity to consider the milestone without clinging to the raft of a chosen group or acronym.
When Arsene Wenger took charge of Arsenal, Premier League teams were still only permitted three substitutes, Newcastle had just broken the British transfer record by paying £15m for Alan Shearer and Britpop was still a cultural tour de force. The Arsenal of 1996 is unrecognisable today too. In 1996, “Boring, Boring Arsenal!” was recanted without a hint of irony.
Wenger is described as an intense workaholic by pretty much everybody that has had the briefest liaison with him. There is an implicit irony that a man that overhauled much of English football’s archaisms is now probably the last of the ‘Tsar’ football managers that we will see at the top of modern football. The final benevolent dictator.
That he’s survived 1,000 games is a physical feat as much as anything given his intensity. Wenger very much sees himself as a coach, remarking on the 2007 ‘Arsene’s XI’ DVD, “I love the grass.” It’s often reported that he oversees every aspect of training. On the aforementioned DVD, Wenger also points out that he ought to watch at least the first half of games from the Director’s Box due to the superior panorama.
Yet he can’t bear the physical separation from his team. He is one of the few managers that you never see pictured at other games. The scouting operation is entirely devolved. Again, presumably because he cannot bear the distance from his squad. Players such as Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and George Weah use paternal language to describe his influence.
Wenger is a developmental coach; it’s clearly the facet of the job that brings him the most joy. It’s also why I highly doubt he would ever take on an administrative role in the boardroom or in the intermittent world of international coaching. He loves the grass too much. As such, he has a literal and metaphorical closeness to his players. This is physically and emotionally draining work. That he’s managed it at a single club for 1,000 games is incredible really.
There has also been boardroom upheaval in this time, with the ousting of close ally David Dein, the death of Danny Fiszman, the departures of Keith Edelman and Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith and the twin arrivals of Gazidis and Kroenke. Indeed, in the interim between the removal of Dein and the appointment of Gazidis, Wenger effectively took on the role of Chief Executive too.
A new training ground and stadium have been erected in his tenure under his close supervision. He has been architect, quantity surveyor and hairy-arsed builder rolled into one as he has continued to mould his vision for Arsenal FC. He has had to contend with a revolution in the competitive landscape with the arrivals of Abramovic and Sheikh Mansour. That is a lot of work in the truest sense of the word, even for 17 and a half years.
Herbert Chapman altered the job description for the football manager back in the 1920s. He rendered the Secretary Manager redundant. Where managers were previously glorified administrators, Chapman’s innovations saw them become coaches. In the top echelons of European football, with power structures becoming increasingly centralised, we are probably going full circle back to the Secretary Manager.
That Arsenal are considered the byword for stability in English football, despite the chaotic backdrop of the last 17 years, both at Arsenal and more widely in football, bears testament to the job Wenger has done. It’s unlikely that his successor will come close to 1,000 games in the dugout. Because of Wenger’s transformative effect on Arsenal, we won’t need him to.
As with the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona, the club setup of Arsenal really ought to supersede the importance of individual coaches post Wenger. The aforementioned clubs change coaches often without their status becoming affected. Stability on the touchline just isn’t as important to Europe’s behemoths nowadays. In any case, the only stability worth having is to have somebody good. It’s all very well Manchester United standing against the immediacy of modern football by appointing David Moyes, but he’s an average manager, so it’s not a security worth having.
It’s interesting to consider how popular perceptions of Wenger have altered over the years. When he first arrived, he was renowned for his aloofness on the touchline. He was half mockingly badged ‘The Professor.’ His linguistic skills and education made him a curious figure in the ultra macho, anti-intellectual environment of English football. Lee Dixon once joked, “He looked like my geography teacher.”
Wenger no longer harbours such a bucolic image on the touchline. Since the stadium move and the trophy drought, the pressure has increased. 2006 touchline spats with Messrs Pardew and Jol were precursors that saw his cool persona slowly peel away. A new stadium has impinged on finances, rich men have muscled their clubs into contention and big players have left and trophies dried up. Therefore, the volume of criticism has increased.
Long serving public figures usually find sentiment towards them shifts in a rather linear way, regardless of their achievements. There is usually a honeymoon period, followed by unfettered praise. To the point that even implied criticism is considered heresy. (Think Tony Blair circa 1997). After a few years it becomes possible to catalogue errors that inevitably arise, even if they are rare in the grand scheme of things.
So then a kind of tab of grievances is opened and gentle criticism begins to build into mild opprobrium. Naturally, the tab begins to swell and familiarity bequeaths contempt. Criticism then becomes de rigueur and reaches a crescendo of caterwauling. Basically, people just get sick of you. I often wonder if Wenger privately regrets not leaving Arsenal in 2006 with his stock at an all time high and the incumbent issues of stadium finance left to another man to grapple with.
When he celebrated 10 years in charge of Arsenal on the pitch before a home game with Watford in September 2006, an adoring crowd gushed, “10 more years, 10 more years, 10 more years” at him. There is a feeling that Wenger may be emerging from the other side of the cacophony of critique. He has a good, improving squad, most of whom are tied to long deals, with the resources to add to it.
When long serving public figures achieve true longevity, the stance towards them naturally begins to soften, as Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough found. Even their more hyperbolic moments are held up as the wily work of an aged mastermind or a loved Grandfather who has had a few too many sherries of Christmas. People are much nicer to you when they sense you are close to the end.
Whether Wenger signs a new deal is entirely down to him. You sense he’s just going to see how things play out. There’s any number of permutations that you could configure and interpret from the current scenario to speculate. The truth is, probably only Arsene knows what he’s truly thinking. Whatever he chooses to do, it’s impossible to deny how profound his effect on Arsenal, and indeed English football, has been. LD.
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