Lausanne: In a parallel universe, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger would be the last man standing in a world overrun by peculiar-looking aliens and morbid zombies. After an astounding twenty-two years in North London, Wenger, the last steadfast beacon in the mad and chaotic world of Premier League coaches, will leave his club at the end of the season.
The Frenchman reimagined the English league and in part shaped today’s global spectacular. An intransigent Wenger never dropped his values. That purity also to became his downfall.
Atletico Madrid stun
There is to be no last flourish for Wenger - or at least Diego Simeone, with his excellent tactical tinkering and performant game management, and Antoine Griezmann, scoring a vital away goal, have complicated Arsenal’s way to the Europa League final in Lyon. Arsenal’s mini-collapse against the Spanish was, well, predictable. A sequence of defensive howlers, leading up to the Frenchman’s goal, followed a first-half of free-flowing, attacking first-half football with flashes of genius and delightful ‘Wengerian’ interchanges. In the second half, Arsenal simply had to cut off Madrid’s long ball, but they couldn’t.
The ‘Wengerocracy’ at Arsenal stood for a long time amidst English tribalism and myopia. Wenger still does his thing. Nothing perturbs him, he cocoons in his own world. He still talks about ‘the quality and desire’ of his team, still puts his faith in pure football and players that have disappointed too often, still speaks about socio-economic issues when asked. He is unwavering and true to himself.
However, Wenger and his Arsenal have been mentally frail. They displayed their brittleness that so defined Wenger’s team in the last decade against Madrid. Among the fans and the players, that fragility and insecurity were palpable. In total control, Arsenal imploded in slapstick fashion. Their opponents thrived as antagonists and easily dismantled Arsenal’s inner belief.
No plan B
In the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher discussed Arsenal’s paper-thin fortitude. “Losing is not contemplated, and therefore everyone - players and coaches alike - are dumbfounded when it happens… There seems no fallback position from which to regroup. A collective trauma invades. It is as if they have forgotten how to react positively to a defeat, so unexpected is it. Wenger may be a master manager, but it seems that he has no solutions when the unthinkable happens, no way of countering the doubt when the infallibility is disproved.”
In his second decade Wenger, who adapted, tried to apply the Barcelona model. The Catalan club is notable for a systemised style of play that has been ingrained at the club. The approach is holistic. Wenger sought players in the mould of Cesc Fabregas, but his teams lacked a spine and the bravery of Patrick Vieira.
The halycon days - ‘The Invincibles’ triumph of 2004, when Wenger guided Arsenal to the Premier League title without a single defeat still represents a zenith, even an unmatchable paradigm, in English football history. That Arsenal side played with a style and fortitude hitherto unseen. A team for the ages, they exhilarated. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man,” Wenger once said.
A uncertain profession
Wenger’s quest for renewed glory was one of the great dramas of our time. The Frenchman. He presides over an uncertain profession at best. At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola was lambasted throughout his first season. At Chelsea, Antonio Conte has floundered in his second season. At Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp, in his first seasons, struggled to deal with the gallimaufry of players and formations at his disposal. At traditional rivals Manchester United, Louis Van Gaal’s reign turned into a funeral procession, failing to deliver a formula for fast-track success. “In came Mourinho, but the Portuguese has not been able to galvanize United in the post-Ferguson era.
Feat of longevity
Much like his great rival Sir Alex Ferguson, Wenger dedicated his coaching career and life to his club. His departure marks the end of an era. Loyalty to a single club will not return in modern football, the mechanisms simply don’t allow for it. The cult of winning has supplanted all other considerations. Wenger, and Ferguson, achieved great feats of longevity. Today, the average lifespan of a coach in the Premier League stands at just over a year.
As the long goodbye begins, Wenger is, again, at crossroads. Can his Arsenal upset Atletico Madrid in the second leg and progress to the final of the European Cup for a fitting farewell? Can his players deliver one last salute to the great Frenchman? Whatever the result against Atletico Madrid, it should not depreciate Wenger, the coach, the person and his life’s work.
The Frenchman belongs to a class of idealists in elite coaching. They theorise and ideate. They carry their dogmas everywhere and their trope is that method and style may not always yield the desired result, all factors traditionally neglected by English football and capricious owners. The ‘Wengerocracy’ at Arsenal stood for a long time amidst English tribalism and myopia.
(The writer works with AIPS Media)