I’ll start off with a simple fact- I like Arsene Wenger a lot. There are times when I seriously contemplate the difficulty of my choice, if faced with an endless supply of chocolate ice-cream on one side and a meeting with Wenger on the other. Taking my unabashed admiration towards the Arsenal manager into account, this article may seem biased and probably is.
As viewers of Hindi films will no doubt be aware, the star lead usually introduces himself on celluloid in the most explosive manner possible, perfectly chiselled muscles reflecting the sunlight as he does midair loop-the-loops on expensive water scooters. By comparison, Arsene Wenger’s arrival at North London was the definition of ‘tame’.
An emaciated looking man with owl-like glasses, he came armed with coaching experience at Monaco and Japan, hardly the most impressive resume. But Arsenal weren’t exactly looking for world-beater managers themselves, with the club languishing in mid-table and in serious need for something different. And so Wenger arrived unobtrusively at N5 in 1996, and the English media had a field day with headlines like ‘ARSENE WHO?’ screaming out from newspaper front pages. They would soon find out who, in great and glorious detail.
Now while Wenger’s arrival was relatively meek, his first full season in charge had all the makings of a potboiler as his team overcame a 12 point deficit to claim the title. Wenger was now every bit the pistol-toting hero who somersaulted from airplanes in his velvet cape. And his legacy only got bigger, better and more beautiful.
While he inherited what was perhaps the best collective backline in Premier League history of Adams, Keown, Winterburn and Dixon, the methods he used to prolong their careers (proper diet and drink, no voodoo here) were unheard of in sausage-and-scotch obsessed England. Wenger’s early teams had a beautifully subtle balance between planting an opposition player on his backside by running circles around him and planting him on his backside by punching him right in the kisser. He combined twinkle toes like Overmars, Reyes and Ljungberg with hard-boiled eggs like Parlour, Vieira and Campbell in his teams, and this balance was the bedrock from which most of his early successes arose.
The word ‘successes’ used in relation with Wenger immediately brings the word ‘Invincible’ to mind, and there is truly no greater measure of triumph than going through an entire League season with a big, fat zero next to the losses column. That team truly was special and lucky; lucky because so many world class players at their absolute peaks played their best football for 49 games, and the world could only watch, applaud and shake their heads in wondrous bemusement at this red and white monster and the Frenchman with the cheeky smile behind the monster. The owl-like glasses had been replaced by contacts, but he was every bit the visionary he was when he came in, and more.
Albeit his recent years at the club are more akin to a never-ending, monotonous soap opera than masterpieces from Bollywood’s finest, the fact remains that this fiery man armed with a degree in economics has done things for the club which few managers do.
Forget Harry Redknapp and his Houdini acts with Tottenham (I seriously wish I could); here was a man who performed miracles every day.
Turning an outcast winger from Juventus into one of the most ridiculously consistent and feared strikers in the world- check.
Getting our hated rivals most important player for free, TWICE- check.
Sneaking one of the best young midfielders in the world from right under the Catalonian noses- check.
Moving the club to a world class stadium while keeping them in the Champions League and competitive in the League (no, really!) at the same time- check.
Being the only manager in the top four to generate more money than he spends- check.
Selling Pascal Cygan without making a loss- check.
Restraining himself from punching Alex Ferguson in the face every time they meet- check.
It’s best I stop before the list gets any more colourful.
Before you exit this window in derision after uttering a few choice swear words, of course he’s made mistakes apart from buying Pascal Cygan. I’m not going to be completely rose-tinted in my analysis of him.
He’s as stubborn as they come and has got in quite a few fights (which were quite entertaining if truth be told). Other shortcomings include mollycoddling his players (at least in public) being excessively idealistic in a world where the most fake club is called Real Madrid, reluctance to deal with defensive issues, rare transfer errors, being a sore loser (that’s not really a vice in his profession to be honest) and, most irritatingly, trusting his players too much. Trusting them to share his vision and stay on to fulfil his project. Trusting them to not move on to pastures new after trophy-less seasons. This may not always transpire.
Whenever Wenger leaves Arsenal, as we all know he will one day, two things will hold true. Wenger will leave the club in a significantly better state than it was in when he took over. And he will take a huge amount of goodwill with him. After all, it’s hard to be angry with a person who says-
“I believe Arsenal is my club because it is my club, it is the only club. “
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