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Ed Smith

Reading the Game

Arsenal are stuck in a stylish rut, forever finishing fourth. Has Arsène Wenger’s brain deserted him?

Ed Smith | January/February 2015

“Sports do not build character,” argued the American writer Heywood Broun, “they reveal it.” Except when they don’t. There is a class of athlete or coach who remains resolutely unrevealed. The evidence from the pitch mounts inexorably, yet the verdict becomes harder to reach. The truth of the scorecard—the cold, crystalline truth that sport delivers—will not cut through to the essence of the character. The evidence is diverted, entangled, lost in translation. The more we know a personality, the more elusive it becomes. This is the story of Arsène Wenger.

It is 18 and a half years since Wenger became Arsenal manager—his appointment, as it happens, is the halfway mark of my life (fans care about these things). The judgments of those early days have unravelled. Then he was the ultimate moderniser; now he seems oddly old-fashioned. Then his cool rationality challenged the red-blooded machismo of English football; now he clings to faith in abstract principles, evidence be damned. Then he trans­cended the comic-book caricature of the all-powerful gaffer; now he resists delegation. Then he seemed intellectually superior; now we are often left baffled, hoping that there is a better word for what we’ve just seen than “dumb”.

In November, hosting lowly Anderlecht in the Champions League, Arsenal eased into a 3-0 lead. Then they suffered a terrible collapse: 3-2. In the 89th minute of the 90, they surrendered the ball near the opposing penalty area, and Anderlecht scored on the break. Their performance is in freefall, the clock is almost up, a vital home victory nearly secured, and what do Arsenal do? They allow half their outfield players to advance ahead of the ball. This from a team managed by a deep thinker.

It raises the crucial question. Every great person has a weakness; the complete strategist does not exist. It is often said that Wenger is a superb developmental manager, but not really a tactician. True enough, as far as it goes: he is happier identifying talent and then honing it. He specialises in recruiting gifted players, prematurely discarded by other clubs, and building their confidence and sophistication. The classic example is Thierry Henry, the latest Danny Welbeck, who started scoring more goals the minute he left Manchester United for Arsenal.

But the ability to feint and adapt, to hustle, to be savvy and ruthless and light on your feet—the less said about all that the better. It seems almost beneath him. Wenger finds a principle where he lacks a capacity. Not every triumph is years in the making: facing George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, Muhammad Ali abandoned his game plan on a whim, inside the ropes, after the first bell. The wisdom of that decision was beyond rationality, located deep in Ali’s intuitive sporting intelligence.

Here is the staggering thing. Wenger, for all his erudition, clarity of mind and apparent self-awareness, cannot find it within himself to hire someone to fill in where his own talents fall short. He is no Machiavel, but surely he knows that by now? So why not hire one—an assistant to sit next to him in the dug-out and sense the opportunity for stabbing the opposition in the eye? Instead of signing yet another diminutive attacking midfielder, thin enough to be a model, Wenger should be looking to employ José Mourinho’s nastier, more cynical cousin. Having no Machiavellian gift need not be fatal. But refusing to see the value of Machiavellian insights about the world—isn’t that simply a failure of intelligence?

On the field, the old problems persist. Arsenal set up in the grand tradition Wenger has always admired, the bloodline that runs from Ajax in the 1970s to Barcelona in the early 2010s. But something is missing: Arsenal do not really press. They do not hound the opposition to regain the ball. They crave possession without respecting the flip-side of the principle, which is that you have to get the thing back, as a matter of urgency.

Six years ago, writing my first column in these pages, I argued that Wenger needed to become more 
independent from himself, not a slave to his own ideas, because any strategy, no matter how well thought-out, is weakened by over-familiarity. Sam Allardyce, the manager of an over-performing West Ham side, has seen this flaw as an opponent. “There are two types of coaches,” he said recently. “There are coaches who weigh up the opposition and ask the team to adjust.” He mentioned Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson and himself. “Then there is Arsène, who won’t adjust.”

And so Arsenal have found themselves stranded. Stuck at fourth place in the Premier League, for six years in the past nine; stuck coming second in their group in the Champions League, thus facing a top team in the next round and usually losing (four times in a row); stuck eulogising their own virtues while ignoring their weaknesses; stuck with the fragility of elegant brittleness.

So let’s ask the ultimate question: how would an Arsenal fan feel if Wenger resigned? What would it do to Arsenal’s prospects?

I would predict a higher chance of both success and failure. The current stasis would give way to volatility: Arsenal after Arsène would, simultaneously, have a greater chance of proper silverware and also non-qualification for Europe. The fans would be excited and also anxious.

But both those feelings would be outweighed by a far stronger one. I would be sad that the story had not ended as Wenger wanted. Deep down, I cannot suppress my admiration for him. It is that respect and affection that makes me such an eager critic—one who hopes, still, that I will be proved wrong.

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