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19 March 2016

How Arsène Wenger turned from football’s great moderniser into its stick-in-the-mud

Part of the fascination of Wenger’s Arsenal is the way an institution can come to resemble a dominant person, with the same blind spots and omissions.

By Barney Ronay

I got stuck on a metal gantry with Arsène Wenger once. It was after a match in Innsbruck, Austria. I was wandering around lost in an empty stadium. Suddenly in the distance a figure appeared: pencil-slim suit, arms pumping, ludicrously long legs flapping like stilts as he marched towards me. It looked a bit like – Could it be? Up here? – and indeed it turned out to be the great Arsène, clattering along the same deserted walkway, high above the Tyrol.

We compared notes. After a few wrong turns he led the way down a series of stairwells, then seized the handle of the last door in one of his huge, skinny hands, launching a furious attempt to pull it open. Pulling. And still pulling. Er, Arsène, maybe try pushing? OK. Still pulling. Eventually a puzzled-looking woman peered through the glass and let us in.

That was pretty much it. We haven’t spent a lot of time alone since, or, indeed, any time at all. But we will always have Innsbruck and what feels now like a peculiarly Arsène kind of moment. Up on his gantry. High above the world. Wrenching away majestically at the wrong door.

It’s a terrible time for Wenger right now. English football’s great moderniser-turned-great-stick-in-the-mud will reach 20 years as Arsenal manager this October – that is, if he makes it. For the first time there is genuine doubt, a possibility that he might finally be reaching an endpoint.

“Even Adam wasn’t happy in the Garden of Eden,” Wenger said recently of his oddly toxic relationship with the club’s fans. It’s a good point, although, to be fair to the boy Adam, he hadn’t just lost in the FA Cup to Watford, or failed to win the Premier League in a year when finishing above Leicester City’s band of drifters and pressed men would probably have been enough.

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There is nothing new in this. Things fall apart. Football managers leave. New eras mushroom up and fade away. Wenger is an oddity, with an unrepeatable 19 years in the job. The only pressing concern until recently was how to end this properly, how to let him die well.

This is where things get a bit strange. It turns out that the defining note of late Wenger isn’t fondness, or even mild impatience. It’s rage, fury, the vocal anger of a section of Arsenal’s supporters towards their courtly and honourable 66-year-old manager. Every defeat, every public statement, is met with a fresh social media spasm of eye-gouging despair.

This is both new and odd. Football is crammed with liars, scoundrels and short-termists. Wenger is none of these. Standing on his touchline, fiddling with the zip of his ankle-length sports gown, he has a kind of doomed nobility, so, so consumed, so far out in his own Wenger world.

For all his faults, Wenger is an idealist. He still eats the same sparse diet as his players, still trains when they do, borne along by the same vision of frictionless Wenger-ball, the economist’s dream of football as a series of variables to be analysed, a pitch of stability attained. In Wenger’s version, his life’s work will be left perfectly placed when he goes: rehoused, profitable, a sustainable modern giant.

Part of the fascination of Wenger’s Arsenal is the way an institution can come to resemble a dominant person, with the same blind spots and omissions. Unwilling to compromise, preferring to fall short rather than put a crimp in his ideal of perfectly budgeted success, Wenger has begun to preach, talking too intimately about his disappointment with fans and players. At times, he sounds like your cranky old dad, who always knows best but somehow never knows anything new.

This is perhaps the real point. If the anger of the anti-Wenger fans feels at times like a howl of Oedipal rage, then they are the Generation Y in all this: fleeced, alienated, told to put up and pay more, preached at by the baby boomer Arsène, up there on his gantry, wrenching away at the wrong door, telling them it’s all for their own good. And now, just like a parent, he’s getting closer every day to being gone.

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue