I’ve been feeling pretty hostile towards the manager lately, and it goes back to the end of the window when, for whatever reason, he didn’t bring in the defender and midfielder I think we all agree we needed. It’s been festering since then, bubbling over with every dodgy performance. I imagine I’m not alone.
But I was stopped in my tracks last week when I heard Amy Lawrence’s recall how Wenger handled Edu’s arrival at the club back in 2000. It’s in this list, but I’ve thought of a few more to go with it. And here they are:
1. Trust in potential - In these days of high youth unemployment this quality seems strikes a chord. The list of successful players that AW stood by when they were being questioned by others is long, and requires several articles. One of the great examples is Freddie Ljungberg, who arrived young and needed three years before he blossomed, but hell was it worth the wait. And in 2012 how many people thought Ramsey had a season like last year in him? Not you, so don’t lie.
“I admired Arsene because he was incredibly detailed without ever losing sight of the long-term picture. He understands the path of young players, sees where they could be in two or three years, and has the patience to stand up for them.” Jürgen Klinsmann.
That was in reference to the progress of Youri Djorkaeff’s who AW helped develop at Monaco. Actually, France’s World Cup win in ‘98 looks increasingly unlikely if you disregard AW’s role in bringing a chunk of that squad through.
Of course, there’s Viera, who Wenger rescued from the fringes of the Milan squad. Emmanuel Petit, who was transformed in 1997 to become one of the world’s best central midfielders. Djorkaeff, who we mentioned above, Thierry Henry, who was introduced to AS Monaco’s first team under AW. But perhaps most crucial of all was Lilian Thuram, also given his chance by Wenger, who helped him though after he did his knee as a youngster and thought his career was over before it had begun.
2. Creativity - There are plenty of examples of AW’s non-linear thinking, but this is most obvious in his attitude to player position. Where to start? Well, off the top if my head, George Weah was a winger, Thierry Henry was a winger, so was Ashley Cole, Kolo Toure was a midfielder, that Dutch bloke was a winger, Lauren was a wide-midfielder, Vito Mannone was a playmaker, Petit was a left-back, Gibbs was a central midfielder.
One of those isn’t true, by the way.
When you think about it, that’s an amazing contribution to the football pantheon; these players wouldn’t have been all they could be without his intervention.
3. Humanity - As high-pressure jobs go, football manager has to be up there with the worst. It seems daft, but the scrutiny, the high stakes, the accountability - bloody hell I would not last a day; I get stressed cooking dinner. Yet Wenger’s been at the top for decades but has never lost the human touch. Just listen to what his former players have to say about him. There must be countless stories we’ve never heard about, but a new one for me was Edu, who arrived at Arsenal with his life in turmoil, having lost a member of his family just as he signed. It would be a long time before he became a regular, but Wenger made certain he was settled before anything else, asking him every day how things were going for him. Football was put aside until the player was ready.
Thierry Henry said, "He is the guy that makes you realise you can do anything you want. It is a pleasure to play and train with him. He is a great human being on top of everything."
4. Persistence - He may not always produce it, but AW always aspires to a certain style of play. Problem is, this country hasn’t always been the ideal place to play passing football. In the 90s it had a lot do with pitches that could give you trenchfoot, and then, when we tried to play more of a possession-based game, there were plenty of teams keen to test the idea that our delicate ball-players didn’t like it up ‘em. There were times when it would have been easy to compromise, but Wenger stuck to his guns. And now, passing football is Arsenal’s identity, and will be part of Wenger’s legacy. The league’s changed in his favour too. Muddy pitches are a thing of the past, and English football is no longer synonymous with the long-ball. Safe to say he saw the way the wind was blowing.
5. Fairness - “I don't look at the passport of people, I look at their quality and their attitude.” Sounds obvious doesn’t it? When you’re as enlightened as Wenger, things work in your favour in ways that they won’t for close-minded people. Let’s try not to sound patronising here, but there’s no doubt that Wenger was able to make one of the game’s great left-field signings, buying George Weah from Tonnerre Yaoundé in Cameroon and turning him into one of the best strikers ever. In light of that achievement you can forgive him thinking he could polish up players like Park Chu-young and Bischoff.
“I owe my career to him. He didn’t just treat me as a player, but as a true son. He gave me lots of advice, including how to manage my daily life.” George Weah
6. Dedication - It feels like there are plenty of valid aspersions to cast at Wenger right now, but half-heartedness is not one. The man lives football. I can’t imagine what it’s like for his family, but I bet life is made easier because of the infectiousness of his life’s passion. This is a man who until this season has spent his holidays commentating on football matches. He’s left TF1 now, but only because they sacked him.
7. Learning - Wenger speaks five languages, and can hold conversations on topics that many managers haven’t heard of. In his press conferences people will ask him almost anything football-related and on the spot he’ll give a coherent and quotable answer. I think openness with them gives him an easier ride, and that’s because he’s smart enough to talk about most things. And of course, many of the methods that helped extend the careers of the famous back five he picked up while he was in Japan.
8. Wit - Fans of other clubs see Wenger as this miserable and dour curmudgeon. If they only watch Arsenal play on Match of the Day and hear him talk when we lose, then I can understand how they reached that conclusion. But Arsenal fans know better, or at least they should. Maybe he practices them, but most of his best quotes are extemporaneous, which is very impressive when you remember that English isn’t even his native tongue. He knows the power of a well-timed joke. It’s a handy release valve, disarming people at AGMs and press conferences when the pressure’s on.
9. Forbearance - Safe to say that Wenger’s an elitist in the best sense of the word, and it’s one of the reasons he fits Arsenal so well. “Thank you for your interest in our affairs”, and all that. You can hear when he says, “We live in a society of opinions” for the thousandth time, and when he’s asked whether he will make decisions based on what the fans want. When a pundit criticises him he’ll bring up their non-existent coaching record, which usually kills the discussion. I think deep down he doesn’t care what the fans think, because in the end, what he wants is the same as what they want, difference being that he knows how to achieve it, and has done so before. Yet he still keeps his media duties, facing the same shit-stirrers as many as four times a week, and he’s still calm enough to crack a couple of jokes each time. And let’s not start on the chants he had to put up with for more than a decade.
10. Loyalty - When Wenger’s stock was high he had his pick of any club in Europe. Every time Real Madrid sacked another manager he was top of their list. Funny thing is that this was a time when he knew his job at Arsenal was about to become more difficult, as he negotiated the move to a new stadium, something that no other big club has achieved since. This loyalty has been repaid by the club, and now, for better or worse, he is Arsenal. Everything seems to go through him. It might not be great news for Arsenal football club in 2014, but very few people achieve that kind of recognition within an organisation of Arsenal’s size and history.
So that's about it. He gets a lot of flak these days, and in some quarters it’s anathema to praise him, even obliquely. For me, the worst culprits aren’t the ones that call him a C-word; it’s the glib, “time to move upstairs”, or “thank you and goodbye” comments that rankle most.
Love him or not, he deserves respect for who he is, for what he’s done for Arsenal FC and the wider game. In his way he's made football a little more beautiful. Quibble with match-day tactics and recruitment, even question his competence, but don’t lose sight of the basic principles that make him one of the football's giants and someone to look up to, even when he’s struggling.
He deserves credit for getting Arsenal to the point where we can buy players like Alexis Sánchez and still call him tight-fisted. He deserves not to have history rewritten to make him look worse, and when he decides it’s time to go he’ll leave with his head held high, no matter the circumstances. I hope it won’t be for a few years.