18 years on the throne

28 Dec

A good friend sent me the following text during office hours the other day:

After years of striving I’ve finally reached the level of seniority where I can pick up my Blackberry mid-meeting, say “apologies, but I really must take this”, then slope off to the stalls for a dump. It’s a great feeling.

There was more than a little pride in my chum’s honest words. Here was a man who, like all of us, had done his shift on the bottom rung. He’d battled his way through the mire and could now proudly announce that he was operating at those two special words. Mid-level.

Such behaviour is all part of a growing workplace self-importance that accrues as one’s career progresses. Whether it’s an arm confidently slung over the back of your chair. A foot casually resting on top of the waste paper bin during conversation. Or even some unnecessarily loud humming just to let people know that you’re there. Seniority lends itself to greater ownership of the stage.

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Imagine, then, what it must be like to be Arsene Wenger, and you’ve been operating at the top of your game for twenty years. There probably isn’t even an air of pretence when Wenger senses a pending movement. Barely a moment’s hesitation as the great man punctuates another annual general meeting with a familiar stride to the door. No way was Wenger going to sit through “Any Other Business” when he could be taking care of his own.

And why not? Wenger ought to bow to no-one for what he has achieved in English football. The Premier League’s first modern manager. Arriving on these shores an unknown, he immediately and comprehensively outgeneralled his peers by using such trickeries as diet and ball-playing foreigners. Arsene’s Arsenal would blister through teams with hitherto unseen amounts of movement, precision and a good deal more passes than Charles Hughes would have deemed permissible.

Success came quick and was plentiful. The doubles, the Indomitables, the European finals. Wenger’s band of wily Frenchmen and Ray Parlour went toe-to-toe with Manchester United in the preeminent rivalry of recent times.

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And then it stopped. Suddenly, one fateful day in 2005, the sun went dark and the birds fell out of the sky. Football, quite literally, went post-apocalyptic. All that mattered was oil, and who owned it. And Arsenal didn’t have any of the stuff.

The superstars fled to more profitable springs. The silverware dried up. Murmurings of discontent started to ring around the terraces of a trophyless Ashburton Grove – a gleaming new stadium built to house a successful team, precisely at a time when Arsenal had stopped winning anything.

This was no laughing matter for Wenger. All of a sudden, the porcelain began to feel a little chillier on his hamstrings. The paper less comforting. The man from Alsace wasn’t strolling out of board meetings with the same relaxed and confident lavatorial intent anymore. Faced with his own mortality, the great man began to wonder if he shouldn’t perhaps wait for a break in proceedings, even when his sphincter was telling him it was time to shine.

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For nine long years, Arsenal’s challenge for silverware kept hitting the side netting. Discontent grew until, ridiculously, the whole legacy appeared to hinge on one game against Hull in the cup final last May. Wengerites breathed an almighty sigh of relief when the two-goal deficit that day was reversed. Detractors still pointed to the estranged premier league crown and protruded their bottom lip.

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Like the hunch on a taller woman, Wenger’s failure to land the title in recent years is unfortunate but understandable. Wenger’s tutelage has come to be something of a training bra for young professional footballers. A reassuring set of managerial stabilisers until a player is fully-formed. At which point, Wenger is summarily dispensed with in favour of the more glamorous undergarment options of Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United or, the latest in high class lingerie, Manchester City.

Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie, Ashley Cole, Matthieu Flamini, Alex Song and Emmanuel Adebayor all tossed Wenger into the bin on maturity. Even Gael Clichy – a man who looks and plays like Ashley Cole minus a chromosome – even he decided he was too big for the Gunners. At times over the last decade, Wenger has looked more like a medic performing emergency surgery than a football manager trying to build a team.

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Fate has been cruel to Arsene. The murky presence of sheikhs and oligarchs has meant he has had to deal with a greater imbalance of power than ever existed.   But we’re in danger of letting economic realities obscure very real achievement.

Wenger has never finished outside of the top four in his 18 seasons in charge at Arsenal. Here is a list of teams that have failed to match this feat over the same period:

Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Borussia Dortmund, Paris St. Germain, Lyon, Chelsea, Liverpool, and, most recently (fetch the party poppers…), Manchester United.

Quite a lot, right?

In fact, in the five major European leagues, no-one apart from Bayern Munich has achieved such consistency.

That’s not just quite impressive. That’s a sustained level of performance up there with Sting and Trudy. Wenger’s outlasted an entire generation of Labour government. His brand of fast flowing pass-and-move football bridging the gap between Major and Cameron. Until the Scots lost their bottle in the 89th minute, Wenger very nearly outlived the entire Union.

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3rd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 4th.

You don’t stop being a genius just because your 1st and 2nd place finishes become 3rd and 4th place finishes. Not when such decline coincides with two teams becoming so incredibly rich that they render all hope of genuine competition futile. Any other conclusion is odd and wrong.

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If the nation is critical of Wenger, it is because he is a manager eminently more open to reason than his peers. Mourinho doesn’t care what you think. He might treat you to a response laced with charm – if the mood allows – but he won’t answer a question that he doesn’t like. Make the wrong enquiry of Alex Ferguson and you risked a 3-month ban from the Old Trafford press room.

Wenger, though, sees his life’s work as a scientific study. He feels intellectually obliged to defend his stance when brought under scrutiny. You might struggle to get Arsene to see an incident on the pitch, but he’s one of the few coaches who will engage with a well-reasoned cross-examination off it.

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Arsene never lost it. Magic is real, but only if you believe in it. On a budget that, until recently, was not much greater than Sunderland’s, the French sorcerer has been turning water into wine for years.

Tottenham are shorn of Gareth Bale and they flounder. Liverpool lose Luis Suarez and they look like a team that’s lost its car keys. The Arsenal squad gets rifled through like a lady’s underwear drawer every single summer and those top four places just keep on coming.

I’m prepared to bet all the money in Too Good’s petty cash drawer that the next time Arsenal finish outside of the top four is the first year that Arsene Wenger isn’t at the helm. You want to know why? Because Arsene knows. He knew then. And he knows now.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

Genius at work.

Genius at work.

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