For Arsenal, it is a matter of principle

Arsene Wenger has stood by his ideals, which over 15 years have brought Arsenal success and plaudits. But with no trophies over six seasons, is it time to re-think them?
Arsene Wenger is facing a crisis of faith in his system at Arsenal by players and fans.
Arsene Wenger is facing a crisis of faith in his system at Arsenal by players and fans.

Arsene Wenger has stood by his ideals, which over 15 years have brought Arsenal success and plaudits. But, asks Ian Hawkey, with nothing to show for recent effort, maybe it is time to re-think them

With Arsene Wenger, principles have always been a conspicuous part of the package. But he has seldom come into a season under such scrutiny, his principles so questioned.

When the Frenchman arrived at Arsenal from Japan in 1996, British headlines asked "Arsene Who?" By the time he had won a Premier League title for the North London club, at the end of his first full season, he was hailed as a revolutionary, a dynamic force for progress in everything from preparation of players to man-management, technical uplift of the English game and astute financial planning.

Those principles have been his alibis in tough times. But six seasons without a trophy means patience among players, and supporters, is dwindling.

1. Loyalty

In December 1995, when the great centre-forward George Weah became the first African international to lift the Ballon d'Or, he used his speech to say a special thank-you to one individual.

Weah has a back story as tough and varied as any man to have been named the world's outstanding footballer.

But he did not single out his inspirational grandmother in Liberia or other family members. He made his biggest gesture of gratitude towards Wenger, who had spotted him in West Africa and brought him to Monaco, honing Weah's raw talent in the French league.

That speech has had echoes among Wenger players ever since.

Thierry Henry, at Monaco and then at Arsenal, soared under Wenger's management, and was grateful enough to postpone his desired transfer to Barcelona for at least year because Wenger asked him to. Cesc Fabregas, desperate to return to Spain, made the same deal, praising Wenger even as he brought to an end the saga of his move from London to Catalonia last week.

The posture of Samir Nasri, ready to join Manchester City after enhancing his reputation under Wenger at Arsenal, seems different. Is Wenger losing his paternal touch?

2. The Wenger way

Theo Walcott, who has just published his autobiography at the age of 22 in Britain, uses the phrase "The Wenger Way" as if it is an internationally recognised shorthand.

That is a tribute to the Arsenal manager, who took very few of the 15 years he has been in charge at the club to transform the reputation of Arsenal from the cagey, defensive-minded side of George Graham in the late 1980s and 1990s into a committed passing, and often spectacularly entertaining, team - one that is celebrated as the most consistently elegant side to watch of English football's last decade and a half.

At their best, Arsenal are praised as the team most in touch with a creative Zeitgeist now epitomised by fluent Barcelona. "You join Arsenal and you know the type of football they want to play," Walcott said.

Critics would respond that you watch Arsenal and suspect their defensive organisation will sooner or later be found wanting.

Curiously, Wenger's biggest single signings in the last two completed transfer windows were both central defenders, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny.

Neither exactly fit the bill of the towering, imposing centre-half that, stereotypically, is associated with successful English teams.

3. Prudence pays

Arsenal's broad economic model is envied by many clubs, notably those who have not constructed their own modern, city-centre stadiums, those whose owners change frequently and those who build up growing debts.

Wenger proudly advertises his fiscal responsibility to Arsenal, and the fact that he regards his job as entailing a commitment to his employers' long-term solvency and a future legacy.

Arsenal under Wenger have tended to record lower net spending on transfer fees and salaries than most of the clubs who rival them in England's and Europe's elite set.

How much does that matter? Wenger hopes it matters a lot. This summer he has urged Uefa to make good on its pledges that heavy losses will be penalised, and he has singled out Manchester City's stadium naming rights deal with Etihad Airways, claiming it is potentially unfair.

A few years ago, he coined the phrase "financial doping" to criticise big borrowers.

He has always felt strongly on that.

Wenger's early career, as head coach of Monaco, was shaped by the 1990s rivalry with Olympique Marseille, a club who were notoriously loose with their finances, and indeed the law: OM would be relegated, after winning trophies ahead of Monaco, for match-fixing.

"We fought against people who did not use regular methods," he would say.

4. Fidelity

Just as Wenger has inspired huge loyalty among important players, he has also been faithful to Arsenal in a way that would be considered freakishly exceptional were it not that Sir Alex Ferguson has managed Manchester United for quarter of a century.

Wenger's 15 years with Arsenal would otherwise have set records for modern managerial longevity among Champions League heavyweight clubs. Naturally, he has had offers to go elsewhere: Real Madrid have tried to tempt him several times and, despite what he sometimes maintains, he met them to listen.

Paris St-Germain, newly enriched, wanted him this summer as technical overseer, on a lavish salary. He said "no".

There is something in Wenger's motivations that goes well beyond salary raises and the professional restlessness that characterises many in his line of work.

When German giants Bayern Munich and Japan's more obscure Nagoya Grampus Eight both offered him jobs, post Monaco, he opted for Japan because he was intrigued by learning about a new, distant culture.

As for Monaco, by the time he left there, he had noticed something lacking at a club located in a principality of tax-exiles. He called it "a difficult job because there are no supporters". Arsenal have plenty.

But, at the moment, many of them must seem an ungrateful, unforgiving set, as his team is booed from the pitch, and banners are held up suggesting the manger's principles no longer work.

Published: August 20, 2011 04:00 AM


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