CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Papal letter was a disgraceful deceit (Independent)

The letter is clearly an effort to restore the credibility of the Church, says Colm O'Gorman, yet, disgracefully, it was used to attack secularisation, displaying more concern for preserving the Church than for the safety of children.

2. Pope Benedict XVI's challenge (Daily Telegraph)

Conversely, Telegraph View defends the letter, saying that the Pope must continue to take calm and decisive action that will prevent his visit to Britain being overshadowed by the paedophilia scandal.

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3. Post offices can kickstart Labour's radical agenda (Guardian)

Jackie Ashley says that a People's Bank, operating from post offices, would herald a new version of back to basics -- valuing the reality of people's lives and their institutions.

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4. Take a 13 per cent pay cut. You know it makes sense (Times)

Libby Purves looks at Ireland, where public-sector pay has been sharply cut. Unlike the whingeing public-service unions here, Middle Ireland knows that a secure job is a privilege.

5. Why are we paying to educate EU students in our universities? (Daily Telegraph)

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, says the next PM should take a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book and demand a rebate. It is unfair that the stretched university system should subsidise EU students.

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6. Our defence policy is caught between pride and guilt (Guardian)

Fear of looking weak drives everything, says Julian Glover. Britain keeps buying the wrong equipment at the wrong price for the wrong wars. The army will be brilliantly equipped to fight in Helmand by the time we pull out.

7. Designs that ignore a wider terrain (Financial Times)

A consensus on US financial reform is emerging, says Clive Crook, but international co-operation is necessary to make regulation work.

8. The way to control the banks is through their accounts (Independent)

Looking at the financial system a little closer to home, Nicholas Jones says that although politicians have the power to stop the gambling at the heart of the way our banks work, they encourage it.

9. Berlusconi's bubble is almost at bursting point (Times)

Bill Emmott discusses the current state of Italian politics, which is anything but amusing. If Italian voters put the boot in, Silvio Berlusconi's coalition partners can seize the chance to bring him down.

10. MPs stuck in the lobbyist mire (Guardian)

It is 16 years since the big Tory MPs' cash-for-questions scandal, but standards in public life still fall short, says Peter Preston, discussing the Channel 4/Sunday Times lobbyist exercise.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit