Wenger Still Has Fire In His Belly
On NLIR today I am delighted to welcome Martijn Stolze (@hahostolze) Follow Martijn!. Martijn is a Dutch history student with a love for Britain and has been a Gooner since 1997. Martijn has written an extremely emotive piece and I’m sure you’re going to love it. Grab a beverage and strap in for an epic ride.Take it away Martijn…..
You can’t blame Arsène Wenger if over the last two or three seasons he has looked glum, burnt out and tired. You can’t blame him if he has felt despondent and absolutely lost. This is a man whose love for Arsenal FC is absolute and unequivocal. But also a man who has seen his hard work, on one of his finest generations, fail and falter at the last hurdle too many times, and seen the lure of money and glory rip apart the teams he set about to mould in his image. A man who was on par with the greatest manager in PL history when the influx of money set the PL alight. Yet during recent weeks Arsène Wenger seems a man repossessed. The fire in his belly that drove his incessant desire for perfection, for better, for prettier, seems to be roaring at its fullest again. And just when we needed it.
Very few things are as harsh on a person as their position in history. In the last few days the glory of Sir Alex Ferguson has been sung by all those who love him, need to suck up to him or those who respect the man’s achievements. Looking through the Guardian’s review of the titles he won it makes it very obvious that the only man who consistently got close to his all conquering teams was Arsène Wenger. But Arsène Wenger is not a man en vogue today. He is not popular. His legacy isn’t being remembered the way it should. Not even with some of the fans of the club he has helped into one of the biggest and most valuable in footballing history. That has got to sting. I know it stings me.
When Arsène Wenger arrived at Arsenal he revolutionised English football. There is no possible way to deny that. He changed the way football was played, he changed the way players lived, trained and behaved, he changed the makeup of nationalities in the league and he added a worldly panache to a league that was getting stodgy and where a career as a solid defender was enough to earn you a position as a manager. In essence he presided over the professionalisation of the game in England to the level we have come to expect today (and indeed that which was already going on in world football). Without an influence such as his I doubt that the PL would be nearly as attractive as it is today, certainly not to viewers and sponsors. I often hear lamentations from old school fans that football has changed. It has. But to me it had changed for the better. Wenger’s role in that should not be overstated, but most certainly not forgotten, as it is being now.
That was the Arsène Wenger we had that won us leagues. When he came to England Arsenal were far from a bad squad, and especially in defence were excellent. Their exploits under George Graham in Europe proved as much. But there was a real sea change when Wenger came in. And with that drive of his he managed to extend the careers of ageing players on the verge of retirement and keep the meanest defence in the league going for another few years. Who would have predicted in 1996 that Martin Keown would still be playing regularly in late 2003? Who would imagine that the PL, normally a league dominated by English footballers, would start depending on foreigners? That the World Cup winners of 1998 would soon be plying their trades in the old stadiums of English tradition? Say what you will but the continental thinking of Arsène Wenger was one of the most important catalysts for that.
Football was different then. When Arsenal won the double in 1997-1998 they did so with 78 points. Not a particularly large amount and typical for a league which was much closer together. The biggest difference between Arsenal at that time and most of the other clubs was not per se in the quality of the players. After all many had been around when Arsenal finished fifth two seasons before or 12th the season before that. The biggest difference came from the attention to coaching, to diet and exercise, and to tactics. Clubs could be beaten by smaller clubs far more regularly than happens now but slowly the difference started creeping into the game. Selling Nicolas Anelka netted Arsenal a £20m+ profit in two years which was invested in Colney which until quite recently was the finest training ground in English football. Having a good training ground (and academy for youth) was something long recognised as important on the continent but only really became important after the mid nineties in England.
In essence, Arsène Wenger was a great reformer. Some of his biggest achievements spring not from the results he achieved but rather the changes he made happen. Perhaps that is partly why Wenger is so well regarded by people like Roy Hogdson and (these days) Sir Alex Ferguson. They realise the effect he has had.
The effect on Arsenal was alarming too. Now to be honest Arsenal were far from a small club before Wenger took over and his ratio of trophies to games is, now, in 2013, not early as impressive as it was in say 2005, but together with the board (who do deserve credit) not only has he overseen a new training ground being built, they also built a new medical centre, new academy at Hale End and they built this shiny oval building just west of Highbury. Catching the wave of success Wenger and SAF created together in England Arsenal managed to build themselves a new stadium, the best (in objective terms) in the country, despite there not being a tournament to build it for or a state wishing to help fund them. The club built it all on their own. Now, I have to watch out with giving Wenger too much credit for this (after all, Ken Friar and Danny Fiszman did most of the work) but had it not been for the success he brought the club, the continued presence in the CL as well as the way English football became attractive to watch (for sponsors and viewers alike) Arsenal could possibly still be in Highbury. I know some wouldn’t have minded that, but without a sugar-daddy, the likelihood of that club competing at CL level every season would have dropped significantly.
Now all of this seems to be Wenger worship. It is, but it is mainly intended to show just what Arsène Wenger can do when he has the passion to do so. With the reactionary views of modern people something that happened nearly 20 years ago seems so easy to forget but I will not entertain the idea that without Wenger English football would have reached its current (and even more so before the last few years) pedestal. Ask modern journalists and pundits and they seem to forget (or worse, resent) that.
Wenger has also always shown an eye for the fight with adversity. Not only could he outplay and outsmart most opponents and opposition managers, he could out-quip and outwit them too. When he said his Arsenal side (the one he built, with only Ray Parlour, Martin Keown and Dennis Bergkamp really left from the team he inherited) could go a season unbeaten, people laughed. They scoffed. They ridiculed. And in a style befitting of his nationality he managed to achieve something very much unbefitting of his nationality, by proving them all wrong and going a season unbeaten. Call me a revisionist fanboy but that is as great an achievement as any manager in English football has ever made. A team that did not rest on their laurels when it was pretty obvious that they were to be crowned champions, a team that learnt their lessons from seasons in the past. Perhaps the season is forgotten slightly now by Wenger’s recent lack of success, and the fact that we failed against our rivals in the cup competitions, but that season is the crowning achievement of a man filled with passion.
So imagine you are a manager at the top of your game, all your club’s money invested in a new stadium that will protect your future for decades to come (no matter what ten years later stupid people will say) and a team you created yourself winning titles in the most amazing style possible. You have a dedication to the business of buying low and selling high (or raising your own players) and it seems a very sustainable plan. What do you not want to see? Bingo. Roman Abramovich.
Now let me be clear. I am of the opinion that no matter what happens, the club made the right call. This stadium will keep us competitive for decades to come and as a fan who is in it for the long haul (and for the love of the club, not the warm fuzzy feeling of trophies) I would easily sacrifice nine years of trophies in an absolutely impossible time for world football (the time of the billionaires as sports historians will one day call this) for continued stability afterwards. Some seem to disagree, or at least not appreciate the fact that doing both was nigh on impossible. Chants of ‘spend some effing money’ may have held some truths in them but seem to ignore the simple fact that spending money did not, and does not, guarantee trophies. If it did Man City would be champions this year.
When the Invincibles triumphed they were perfectly set up to continue their dominance for years. But the game, ironically, was changing. Faster, stronger players became more important. Chelsea suddenly had the funds to sign a team capable of winning titles and the players at Arsenal like Vieira and Cole, who had always had a chip on their shoulders, left for pastures new. Henry, Pires and Ljungberg were slowly approaching that point where slow decline sets in. Without the onset of oligarchic money perhaps (or probably) Wenger would have been able to keep adding youngsters of the calibre of Cesc, RvP and others to a squad still based on the winning formula of the Invincibles and he could have made it work. Unlike ManU Arsenal don’t quite have the ability to hold onto most of their big names, however. Even in the mid noughties, when we were arguably more successful, our best players were angling for moves, whereas ManU let the players go they could do without. I don’t know what it is, but SAF always played that right. But Arsenal, especially after the 2006 CL final, slowly disintegrated.
With the usual fire Wenger sought to reinvigorate the squad and build it around players like the abovementioned Cesc, RvP and people like Toure. And at times he did so very well. Seasons like 2007-2008 and 2009-2011 got us challenging at the very top echelon only to falter, plummeting to the earth at the final moment. What went wrong is a very good question. Perhaps part of it was luck. Part of it was a media narrative of ‘they don’t like it up them’ leading to three broken legs and two traumatised sets of players. Perhaps it was pivotal players like RvP and Rosicky being out for half the time or the way some players were thrown in the deep end too soon. Ultimately I think it comes down to a combination of factors. I still think that had Martin Taylor not made that tackle we would have been champions in 2008. And the continued injury problems did not help. But I think we just lacked that final bit of quality, that edge that other teams, more experienced and more willing to spend, did have.
Not that Wenger did not make mistakes. Making Gallas captain was criminal. The treatment of Gilberto Silva, and subsequent negotiations with Flamini and sale of Diarra depleted a very strong midfield. Signings like Squillaci, Silvestre and Santos were inexplicable, as was the lack of a good goalkeeper and the reliance on players like Diaby and Rosicky who sadly cannot be relied on. What would have happened had Diaby never met Dan Smith and Eduardo never met Martin Taylor, one can only imagine, but it could and should have been corrected by Wenger.
At their best these teams played the best football in England (and at times in Europe) and excited us with the prospect of new talent. But with the mistakes being repeated and yet another club arriving in England with the most embarrassing of riches things only became harder. Losing your best player and talisman to his boyhood club is excusable. Not replacing him isn’t. Now I know that our finances at the time were precarious (compared to other clubs and because of the stadium) but Wenger was too stubborn. I don’t mind stubborn people. Stubborn people make things happen. But this time stubbornness was detrimental to the team, to the club’s fortunes.
It was so painful to see, the look on his face last season when we were spanked 8-2. The fire was gone. Two of his project players had just left for differing reasons and his next big thing was out for the season. He was being kicked when he was already down. Yet the next few days he made a few signings that might genuinely be a foundation to build on for the future. And despite the season in the end being one of failure and frustration, finishing third with that squad is a tremendous achievement. Wenger was still capable, but he seemed lost, heartbroken, his age suddenly and irrevocably etched on his face.
Then came the betrayal of last summer and even though Wenger genuinely strengthened his team, it was not enough. We’re not performing worse than we did last season but our opponents have gotten better. And we sold our best player and captain to our recent rival. I don’t know the machinations inside the club. But I refuse to believe Wenger is the culprit in all this. Yes he has made some mistakes, and some of these mistakes led to frustration amongst players like RvP that ultimately made them leave the club. But as long as I don’t know for sure what role the board and ownership play in this, I refuse to judge him.
Anyway, Wenger for large parts of this seemed a deflated man. Only sporadically before late January did we really kick into gear and certainly not enough to warrant a CL position. The new signings were all to varying degrees a success, but in a league that had gotten stronger it was papering over the cracks. I genuinely wondered at times whether Wenger might throw in the towel, whether he might leave the club that owed so much to him.
Instead we beat Bayern, the best team in Europe, in their own stadium. We subsequently went on the sort of run that champions go on. We look a stable team with excellent defending, midfield balance and (on and off) potent attacking. More importantly, Wenger looks back to the days of Invincibles, of double winners, of Wengerballers. The man looks (to me) like he believes again. And there is a lot to be excited about.
Not only do we look good for getting into the top four, but we have a solid base to build on. Excellent fullbacks on both sides and great central defenders, a squad depth that most would envy and a midfield full of passing and movement, all we need is a little bit more sharpness in attack. Wenger is not only lively again; he is showing his ruthless streak. Dropping Szczesny and Vermaelen and loaning out Chamakh and Santos shows he has that fire back. Players like Cazorla, the CBs, and most of our attackers are in the prime of their careers. The squad looks tight and harmonious with only a few bad apples. What we miss most is the sort of players that give us a bit more power (especially in midfield, although we seem to be doing ok right now) and a bit more stardust.
In the summer Wenger finally (and this has been said before) has money to spend, and looks to be willing to do so. Not only that, but he seems ruthless enough to replace those who don’t perform. Perhaps he can be ruthless when trying to sign players too. With the five youngsters who recently signed new deals we also have a fabulous base, all British and all (seemingly) dedicated. Wenger has always been criticised for his focus on foreign talent, making this an even more salient point. The form of players such as Ramsey and Gibbs has vindicated the decision of Wenger to keep using youth with experience. In fact, this team more closely resembles the idea I had of what the aftermath of the Invincibles would look like (albeit far less good) and that combination of future and present is what we need. With the new Emirates deal, large cash reserves in our coffers and a new TV deal for the league this summer should be a moment to spend. If we spend right, and in the places we need it most (IMO CF, DM, CB, GK and perhaps a versatile attacker) we can genuinely challenge for the title again. None of the teams this season looked in any way impressive and whilst ManU won the title at a canter they can be beaten. Knowing how good Arsène Wenger is, and with the right summer, I would not put it past him.
When Wenger is in full flow, he is unlike any man I know. His ability to make sweeping reforms is alike to that of a politician. A man with a vision and the drive to make his vision stick, when he is on form he is one of the greatest football managers in history. Not only did he have a large hand in making Arsenal the iconic football club, with the facilities and financial future, that it absolutely is today, but he has helped make English football competitive in Europe and watchable for people who aren’t English. His desire to integrate youth is a view that is very important for both the future of Arsenal and the progress of our season. More than that he seems to be regaining that absolute drive that helped Arsenal remain unbeaten during a season, won a title in his first full season at the club, turned Thierry Henry into the greatest player in PL history and has changed the club from top to bottom. Perhaps all this is speculative. Certain people say that Wenger is far pricklier and agitated these days, perhaps hounded by the unhappiness of ungrateful fans and the short memories of the media that once relished him. Certainly I can imagine he feels that he is being underappreciated (despite his salary, which I’m sure people will tell me is very big etc.), although I doubt those that really know will do so. What I hope to keep seeing is that passion and that fire in his perfectly toned (I imagine) belly. Because it can do wondrous things. And perhaps this summer things will get better again.
Thanks Martijn. A great post, with great emotion and I couldn’t agree more although I suspect we’ll have our share of disagreeing comments. I believe that this summer is Wenger’s last chance to prove to the fans but most importantly himself that he can still do it and I think he wants to win something so he can either leave on a high or realise that he can still move us forward.
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