Europe is a nice break for Arsene Wenger these days. He can toddle off to the mainland where his brand of possession football is highly regarded and, to a limited extent, successful (you might say he gets nice easy qualifying groups if you’re Mancini). Whether Athens, with its seething hordes of disenchanted people jeering at authority, felt any different from the Emirates is a moot point.
Part of the joy of football punditry these days comes in the form of the annual ‘Is it time for Wenger to hang up his puffer jacket?’ debate. It’s woven into the fabric of the domestic season like a Chelsea sacking or a ‘plucky newcomer to the top flight’. Or even the phrase ‘Mark Hughes is the early favourite to take over at Anywhere FC.’
It’s hard to recall quite when a Gunners team has been so roundly booed as the one that departed after being beaten by Swansea on Saturday. It’s one thing to be overturned by a bunch of alehouse meatheads playing route one plebeian footy the likes of which wouldn’t look out of place on a windswept park in Northallerton (aka Sam Allardyce’s Bolton – YES I KNOW there’s more to Sam’s game than that, but not against Arsenal) – but it’s another thing entirely to be outpassed and outclassed by a bunch of no-marks that cost tuppence.
Of course Swansea have a wonderful player as their manager and he’s done brilliantly to move Swansea on from Rodgers’ team, even while losing the likes of Sigurdsson and Allen. It must be particularly galling for a Gooner to have to watch their latest costly imitation centre-forward when Laudrup’s wafting the cut-price PleasedTo Michu under their noses. Giroud, Chamakh – they’re not so much target men as targets. Of abuse.
So is the writing on the wall for Wenger this time? Well you’d have to think so. He’s found a decent-ish centre-half in Mertesacker – whose name my mate Chris Charles always insists sounds like Mark Lawrenson saying ‘motor-cycle’.
And he’s bought a wonderful player in Cazorla too, but he does look like he’s been manufactured from Arsene’s Prototype For A Perfect Player. He’s dinky, neat, good feet, can’t kick it all that hard, really, but he's very good at keeping it and he's easy on the eye.
You wonder whether Arsene can see anything in any other type of player: Rosicky, Arshavin, Arteta, Coquelin, etc, etc. Most independent observers would tell you that Arsene’s glory years were underpinned by a couple of vital things: a defence that took care of itself (and which was largely assembled by that niggardly envelope-passer George Graham) and a couple of midfielders who knew how to tackle – Vieira, Petit, Gilberto, Flamini, Edu….
Good tacklers aren’t necessary if the opposition keep giving it back to you. Arsenal would have no problem against, say, the full England team. But if the opposition can keep it and all you’ve got are little scurrying tippy-tapsters who couldn’t remove a lollipop from a toddler’s grasp without a struggle then you’ve got problems.
It doesn’t help that Wenger seems resigned – Freudian slip there – resigned to losing his best players even if one of them is that annoying nerk Nasri.
Now many of us have admired the way Wenger set about the job of transforming a side that had built its former success on not conceding and bagging the odd goal by Ian Wright. God they were fecking boring that team. The football equivalent of Cliff Thorburn.
Wenger’s Arsenal flowed. It oozed quality. Upfront you had Thierry Henry rolling right-footers into the bottom right-hand corner like a master crown green bowler. Bergkamp must have come into this world feet first he was so adept with them. Anelka, briefly, was lethal. But if they got past you they had Keown, Winterburn, Adams, Bould, Dixon… central casting for the heavy mob.
Now, to be frank, Arsenal are just a bit prissy. And so is the manager. He talks of ‘desire, technicality, quality’ but the first one’s pretty much lacking these days. He’s always been offended by an up and at ‘em attitude to playing Arsenal. Sometimes he’s come across like someone whose night at the ballet has been ruined cos some oiks ran on and started congaing.
Yes football can be art, but not all art has to be beautiful. Or good. Or even art. In a perfect world, Arsene’s home ground would be the Gardens of Versailles and his team would play against eleven elegant water features. It feels to me like the game has moved on and left an old school romantic behind.
It’s lovely to stick to the old philosophies come hell or high water. It’s great to have a proper wage structure when Manchester City are paying obscene amounts of money to the pedestrian likes of Gareth Barry. But tippy-tappy and club loyalty are distant memories for most of us. Wenger should know that when his team lines up against Citeh, the club his feeds.
So it’s not now a question of whether he should go but how he should go. He’s an obstinate old so-and-so. It’s not going to be easy. But you wouldn’t want to see him sacked – cast aside like some Stamford Bridge dishcloth. There should be a dignified moving on. He’s brought them as far as he can. Stand in the middle of the Emirates, wave everyone goodbye. Not a dry eye in the house. Move upstairs to an ‘administrative role’.
And then, in a perfect world, nick Guardiola and leave Abramovich flailing around with Faffer Benitez at the helm…
Maybe not the last bit. But definitely, au revoir et merci, monsieur.