YouTube screengrab and Getty
Show Hide image

Is Arsène Wenger the secret weapon in Jeremy Corbyn’s arsenal?

Can the Arsenal manager help Labour’s leader and football fan inspire his own Red Army?

Jeremy Corbyn was filmed at Arsenal versus Spurs last weekend, clad in a red and white scarf and going on a pre-match demo demanding that all Premier League clubs pay employees the living wage. He even won the unlikely admiration of a Spurs fan, who told him, “you’ve got to be our Prime Minister”. Jeremy grinned and said, “I’ll do my best for you.”

Corbyn then watched an Arsenal team managed by an ascetic, uncompromising idealist. We can confidently assume that Corbyn won’t be modelling his leadership skills on Blair, Brown or Miliband. But might his fellow Islingtonite, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, be a more appealing template for the unlikely leader?

Tony Blair famously sought advice from Sir Alex Ferguson on how to handle a troublesome Chancellor. Corbyn, as a member of the fan group In Arsène We Trust, is already an admirer of Wenger and is more likely to base his style on the Arsenal guru. While Corbyn’s critics might also argue that he displays some of the same flaws as Wenger, such as stubbornness and refusing to compromise on idealism for trophies.

Physically both these 66-year-old men share similar characteristics, such as grey hair, a slim build and a scholarly air. Corbyn has been compared to a geography teacher with his disapproving side-glances at Prime Minister’s Questions, while Arsenal skipper Tony Adams thought on meeting Wenger, “he wears glasses and looks like a schoolteacher.”

One aspect of Wenger’s career that will appeal to Corbyn is that the Arsenal boss spent his playing career on the equivalent of the backbenches, starting off in the French third division with Mutzig and only playing three matches in Strasbourg’s title-winning season before retiring.

When Martin Amis ridiculed Corbyn’s A levels it was very similar to the “show us your medals” jibes aimed at Wenger when he arrived at Arsenal from the Japanese league in 1996. “Arsène who?” was the headline in the Evening Standard. Tony Adams wondered: “What does this Frenchman know about football? Does he even speak English properly?” Midfielder Ray Parlour did impressions of Inspector Clouseau.

Early on in their careers, both annoyed the establishment. Wenger initially refused to have a post-match glass of wine with fellow bosses like Sir Alex Ferguson, while Corbyn wouldn’t sing along to God Save the Queen

And we mustn’t forget the fact both men admire vegetables. Corbyn grows them on his allotment and has posed with a supersized marrow. Wenger revealed upon his arrival: “I think in England you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables.” Wenger then preached the merits of steamed broccoli rather than visiting the Gunner’s chip shop and getting bladdered every night to old-style Arsenal players. Similarly Corbyn is trying to introduce unfashionable concepts to sceptical Blairites, such as believing in something and offering more than vapid managerial soundbites.

Both men take a long-term attitude and are phlegmatic when faced with media panics. Wenger says every game in England brings a crisis, while Corbyn has a conversational style in interviews and says that for all the lurid headlines, on the streets people keep telling him to be himself. Wenger has repeatedly refused to make big-name panic buys, preferring to develop younger, sometimes neglected talents. Similarly Corbyn has energised young Labour Party members and promoted from within the group in the cases of John McDonnell, Seamus Milne and Andrew Fisher — though some Labour MPs clearly feel these signings are more akin to Arsenal’s misfiring former striker Nicklas Bendtner.

Wenger and Corbyn are keen to bring unfashionable concepts into popular debate, such as, in the case of Arsène, the need for a good diet and pre-match stretching, UEFA fair play regulations and a top four place being as good as a trophy. Before Corbyn’s leadership there would have been little discussion of Trident and Saudi jails or questions from the public at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The potential weaknesses of Corbyn and Wenger are surprisingly similar too. Both men can be unexpectedly prickly. For all his intellectual image, Wenger has had memorable pushing matches with Martin Jol and Alan Pardew; while Corbyn looked like he wanted to push Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy for his “tabloid journalism” when challenged on addressing a meeting, including Hamas, as “friends.”

The pair are stubborn on recruitment and unlikely to admit errors; still insisting that Per Mertesacker or Andrew Fisher is the answer. Wenger famously “didn’t see” any incidents where his players were sent off and Corbyn might have a similar blind spot for his staff’s faults.

Both men have been accused of putting principles before trophies. Arsenal recently lost 5-1 at Bayern Munich in the Champions League, mainly due to Wenger not having invested in alternatives to his injured defenders. Might Corbyn too rue a lack of back-up when his defence policy is questioned?

Arsenal won three Premier League titles in Wenger’s early years. But for the past decade Wenger has ignored pleas to spend big on a dominating centre back, a midfield enforcer and world class striker, apparently preferring flowing football to more pragmatic wins – though Arsenal have won two FA Cups and qualified for the Champions League every season. Is Corbyn in danger of producing policies that are pleasing on the socialist eye, but not capable of lasting a whole campaign and nailing the really big prizes?

Chelsea’s José Mourinho taunted that Arsène Wenger was, “a specialist in failure”. Peter Mandelson probably feels the same about Jeremy Corbyn. Though it’s interesting to note that Mourinho is now in a personal meltdown and Wenger, a more likeable figure, might yet capitalise.

These are crucial seasons for Corbyn and Wenger and both will resolutely stick to their approaches. Wenger shifted the debate in British football and Corbyn has in many senses done likewise in politics. The Labour leader has the party fans behind him but will face many calls to compromise or quit from his senior pros and the press – in such moments it’s likely he’ll trust in Arsène.

Pete May is author of The Joy of Essex (The Robson Press).

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496