Photo Credit: IKIMAGES/AFP
In a science fiction universe, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger would be the last man standing in a world overrun by peculiar-looking aliens and morbid zombies. After nearly two decades in North London, Wenger, perennially in search of an affirmative fourth league title, is the last steadfast beacon in the mad and chaotic world of Premier League coaches.
“The Invincibles” triumph of 2004, where Wenger guided Arsenal to the Premier League title without a single defeat represents a zenith, even an unmatchable paradigm, in English football history. That Arsenal side played with a style and fortitude hitherto unseen. They were simply a team for the ages.
Fast forward and in recent seasons the preponderant narrative around Wenger has been of failure. The Arsenal manager has been assailed, vilified and crucified by a legion of detractors for being a perpetual choker, an inveterate dweeb, and a ne’er-do-well. Critics lambast Wenger for his failing grand plan, for blindness in the face of countervailing evidence, for impenetrable stubbornness and the false promise of a renaissance. Ultimately, they impute that Arsenal and Wenger only continue to falter, a cardinal sin in the zero-sum game of the Premier League.
And yet, Arsenal once again find themselves in a position to win the English Premier League title. This weekend, they host league leaders Leicester City, the prime exponent of a burgeoning middle class in the league. Leicester’s attacking duo of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have fuelled an improbable, if not absurd, winning roller coaster ride for the Foxes that may well culminate in silverware come May.
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri, who was ridiculed 12 months ago as an incompetent dinosaur for succumbing to a meek defeat with then team Greece against the Faroe Islands, has galvanised Leicester with a simple credo: get the best out of your modest players. They play direct football and hit opponents for speed on the counter. Last week, Leicester brushed aside Liverpool 2-0 before dismantling Manchester City in a magnanimous display of superiority at the Etihad Stadium.
Ranieri’s recent fortunes do not mirror Wenger’s precarious situation. Arsenal’s traditional seasonal relapse is on, notwithstanding a 2-0 victory against Bournemouth last Sunday. They lack pedigree and the Alexis Sanchez-Mesut Ozil combo is hardly likely to bail Arsenal out. The London club have dropped from first to third in the table, trailing Leicester by five points.
An uncertain profession
Wenger is on the edge and his quest for renewed glory in English football is one of the great dramas of our time. He presides over an uncertain profession at best. At Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini is a night-watchman for Pep Guardiola. At Chelsea, Guus Hiddink has an interim role until millionaire owner Roman Abramovich finds a replacement for Jose Mourinho, who was sacked earlier this season. At Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp is struggling to deal with the gallimaufry of players and formations at his disposal. All of these senior coaches have been exposed without remorse.
At traditional rivals Manchester United, Louis Van Gaal’s reign has turned into a funeral procession, failing to deliver a formula for fast-track success. “Loony Louis” with his notebook and intellectualism is an anachronism and the object of much hysteria and ad hominem analysis in England. His academic and methodical approach is not so different from Wenger though.
The Frenchman Wenger and his Dutch counterpart van Gaal belong to the class of philosophers 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 still stands amidst such tribalism and myopia. Wenger still does his thing, 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.
And nothing perturbs him. Wenger cocoons in his own little universe – much to the disgruntlement of Arsenal fans, who are frustrated by Wenger’s visions and by a loop of Premier League top-four finishes, Champions League knockout humiliations and FA Cup trophies.
Wenger is, again, at crossroads in Sunday’s fixture – fail and he will face plebeian derision, win and Arsenal blow the title race wide open again with games against direct rivals Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur to come. Whatever the result against Leicester, it should not depreciate Wenger the coach, the person and his life’s work.