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Opinion: Why We Will Regret Our Hounding Of Arsene Wenger

Opinion: Why We Will Regret Our Hounding Of Arsene Wenger
By Gavin Cooney Updated

Before Arsenal Fan TV, there was Manchester's Free Trade Hall.

In 1966, folk hero Bob Dylan appeared before an audience anxious whether he would play what they wanted to hear: namely the acoustic protest songs which took him to number one in the UK three years earlier. A year previous, however, Dylan went electric, and decided to eschew the lyrics that made an establishment squirm for an entirely uneasy sound. This was the Great Betrayal; the man who sang the curbed rebellions of thousands had binned prophecy for profits.

In Manchester, a fan roared 'Judas', to which Dylan responded: "I don't believe you...you're a liar". He then stepped back, swore, told his band to "play it loud", and launched into the raucously insolent crashing of Like A Rolling Stone, the lyrics of which were intended to be as uncomfortable as the piercing sound of the harmonica: how does it feel to be on your own?

However it felt to be alone, there was one dominant emotion in unity: disgust.


For "Bob Dylan was a bastard in the second half", substitute the man for a footballer and add a 'blood' at the end of the sentence and you've got yourself Arsenal Fan TV.



Dylan did not go electric for the sake of making more money, he says he writes songs that he feels need to be written, and has always flitted about the edges of popular culture as a kind of genius who tells people not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. Dylan has been blessed with the great clarity of understanding that everything in life is, essentially, fucked.

This brings us to the source of Arsenal Fan TV's exquisite ire: Arsene Wenger.

In the last ten years, with the Premier League's dominance buttressed by the rise of satellite television and social media, football has become less an escape from modern life than a microcosm for it. Whereas once it could be enjoyed for a few hours of important frivolity on a Saturday, now it is increasingly a parallel world to our own: where today's winners are tomorrow's losers and the weekend's redemption story; in which, to quote the great man, money doesn't talk but swears.


The sheer size of football's news cycle demands blood sacrifices hourly. And although the face of the man under the red-topped guillotine is fluid, there has been one consistent victim: perspective.

In this world where petulant barbs become steeped in the paper-shifting, click-driving mythology of the Mind Game, where the ability to waste money and treat everybody with contempt are seen as virtues of pragmatism and winning, Wenger stands alone, knowing, above anyone, that everything in football, is essentially, fucked.

While this may seem ironic for the man who pleads frequent blindness of in-game incidents, he is the one who has frequently denounced the larger issues that football prefers not to talk about: doping, for example: both biological and financial. It was Wenger and Arsenal who had to call concussion on Hector Bellerin against Chelsea, such was the absurd disregard it was treated with.


In recent years, he has flirted with embracing the monied aspects of the game: most notably in the signing of Sanchez and Ozil. But you get the feeling he was never entirely comfortable treading the well-worn, trophy-laden 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em' path, and, his bidding of a single pound over Luis Suarez' escape clause is indicative of a man who remains sceptical of a game in which lack of reason is fought with irrationality.

Wenger undoubtedly hates losing, and can be as deeply unpleasant as most (if not all) managers when things don't go his way, but increasingly, he is placing something above it. If he focused solely on winning, then he would have chosen his best player at Anfield. No, Wenger is chasing something else: happiness.



There has been a noticeable shift in Wenger's rhetoric in the last couple of years. Amid questions searching for quantity, Wenger has responded with the great intangible, stressing that his aim at Arsenal is simply to make the fans happy. The problem for Wenger is many fans simply cannot be happy: for Arsenal Fan TV there must be fury. This isn't just an Arsenal Fan TV conspiracy to drive Youtube subscriptions, it's a wider problem among supporters everywhere: somewhere, somebody is out there doing better than you, so there's always another player, or another manager that can give you want you want. Fans across the world support transition, because the bells of change is what the want to hear, but almost never is it what they need.

Wenger has meditated upon happiness before, in a 2015 interview with L'Equipe so remarkably insightful and lucid that it negates the need for any biography of the man.

The philosophical definition of happiness is a match between what you want and what you have. And what you want changes as soon as you’ve got it. Always more. Always better. Hence the difficulty to satisfy.

An Arsenal fan, when you finish fourth, will say, “Hey, we’ve been in the top four for twenty years. We want to win the league!”. They don’t care that Manchester City or Chelsea have spent 300 or 400 million euros. They just want to beat them. But if you finish fifteenth two years running, they will be happy if you finish fourth after that.

Wenger has a healthy aversion to the constant erosion of the past: in the same interview, he says that "a civilisation that does not honour its dead or its values is doomed". If the only value is change, then the only way to honour it is ignoring it and changing it to something else.

So rather than be subject to change, the longest-serving manager in English football has gone about fighting against it, and seeks to create something more permanent. Namely, art.



One of the greatest pieces of writing about football featured two giants: the author was Hugh McIlvanney and the subject was George Best. What McIlvanney writes at the end will resonate with Wenger:

Sport at its finest is often poignant, if only because it is almost a caricature of the ephemerality of human achievements.

This brief flame to Wenger, however, is the antidote to modern football. Something that will make Arsenal fans forget about the time and remember the date; something ephemeral, but memorable. Wenger tells L'Equipe that "there is only one way to live with the idea of death, it is to try and transform the present into art". Amid such highly-wrought rhetoric is his truth: and for Wenger, his art is an Olivier Giroud scorpion kick, a Thierry Henry volley, a Dennis Bergkamp touch.

In a parallel world, Mourinho is the teacher in the expensive grind school who teaches by rote and guarantees Leaving Cert points; Wenger is the third-level bohemian who teaches English and isn't bothered when most of the students turn up to class without having read the book, but is content to give each student the tools needed for independent learning. Wenger sees himself as "first and foremost an educator", who creates an environment in which quality players can thrive, and create something memorable. And in the ever-changing football world, there are few things less memorable than winning.

The environment is key, as Lee Dixon told Amy Lawrence in her fabulous look at Arsenal's unbeaten season, Invincible.

George [Graham] drilled us into very knowledgable individuals, and a defence that could almost play with its eyes shut. I don't know whether Arsene could do that. Well, he couldn't!

That's not his style, he is not knowledegable about the defensive side of the game. He doesn't push people around on the training pitch; he creates environments. A perfect example of that is Ashley Cole: Ash couldn't defend to save his life when he got into the Arsenal team - and he'd agree with me.

But he had arguably one of the best coaches around for him in Tony Adams standing next to him. Tony had him on a piece of string. Arsene didn't coach him once. Arsene doesn't particularly know whether the left-back is in the right position or not! But he knows that Tony knows. So he put Ash next to Tony and said, have a look at him. That blend of experience is the perfect platform for Arsene to do his stuff.

Because that's what he is brilliant at - creating environments to prepare players to be the best they possibly can.

That analysis by Dixon will not be anything of a surprise to anyone who has watched the Arsenal defence at any point in the last ten years.

Even attacking-wise, coaching is not rigid: in his biography of Thierry Henry, Phillipe Auclair described the Arsenal attacking plan as "collective improvisation". Hence the importance of the recruited player: in Lawrence's book, Robert Pires chooses the verb to describe Wenger's scouting process carefully, before settling on "casting".

The right people in those roles allowed Arsenal to be astonishingly successful in his first few seasons, but as they have worn on, Wenger has not found the right personnel to replicate the trophy success. This can be partly put down to the 2007 departure of David Dein, the man who secured Wenger's greatest signings. Gilberto Silva was Wenger's last effective defensive midfielder, and his signing was completed by virtue of Dein camping outside the headquarters of Atletico Mineiro in Brazil for three days.

But even when winning, Wenger always exulted in the style of doing so, and it was a glorious karma which brought made that 03/04 squad,  his most stylistic team, the most memorable.


These days, Bob Dylan remains on tour, and still performs many of his classics. But it is difficult to recognise them, as he rearranges and reinterprets them with abandon. To say that he does this out of a vain attempt to recapture lapsed magic may be partly true, but it also arises from his enduring suspicion of giving people what they want.

Wenger may also be trying to recapture the magic of the turn of the millennium, but he is also trying to give fans what they need: something of such exquisite and audacious achievement that is truly memorable. Increasingly, that is not what the fans want: they want trophies, new signings and renewed vigour in chants against Tottenham. Arsenal fans might some day get that, but it won't be while Wenger is there.

There are few clubs in Europe at which the manager's vision became so discordant with that of his fans.

Now, we've finally reached the end.

But someday in the future, current-day football will be lamented for the exercise in accounting and misanthropy it is, and Wenger will be seen as the visionary, the man who had the perspective, the guy who realised before anyone else that it was all fucked.

And we will all hail the man who knew what it was like to be on his own, and we will lament our treatment of him.

See Also: Quiz: Can You Name The Starting XI The Last Time Arsenal Got Past The Champions League Last 16?



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