Arsene Wenger's fear of the void

September 1 2017 / Evening Standard

What is going on at Arsenal? Last weekend they were humiliatingly thrashed by Liverpool. Their best players - Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil - are refusing to sign new contracts and want out. This week Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rejected a contact worth £9 million a year and chose instead to join Liverpool on inferior terms. One of the few English players good enough to be a first team regular, the Ox believed his career had stagnated and, to improve, he felt he had to leave.

Many fans are in open revolt against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, who promises much and delivers little, and the long-serving manager Arsene Wenger, who was once revered as a visionary and innovator.

On match day at Emirates Stadium the atmosphere is sour. There has been fighting between pro- and anti- Wenger factions. I was there for the first game of the season, a frenetic 4-3 win over Leicester City, and the atmosphere turned particularly nasty in the first half when Leicester took a 2-1 lead. Less than 45 minutes into the new season and the hashtag “WengerOut” was once again trending on Twitter.

Yesterday, on transfer deadline day, in desperation and perhaps in an attempt to appease the restive fans, Arsenal tried to sign the Monaco midfielder Thomas Lemar for what would have been a British record of £92 million. The deal did not happen but that such an ludicrous offer was tabled for a young player who cost Monaco just £3.5 million shows how panicked Arsenal have become. The club no longer seems to have any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan - beyond hiking up season ticket prices (the most expensive in the Premier League) and enhancing the profitability of the “franchise”.

Like Gordon Brown, Arsenal used to preach prudence for a purpose. They were England’s most traditional club. It was always a thrill to visit their old Highbury stadium, with its magnificent Art Deco East Stand. It was said that things were done differently at Arsenal. The club had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. Old Etonians were board members. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman.

The club was never profligate and its preference was mostly for nurturing talent rather than paying outlandish fees and grotesquely inflated wages. Wenger once excelled at discovering outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London, when he seemed exotic and mysterious, a polyglot football intellectual who was inevitably nicknamed Le Professor.

Wenger disrupted the old order at Arsenal and his innovations confounded his rivals. He used sports science and data analysis before they were commonplace. He wanted to globalize Arsenal and internationalise the squad. Soon players were arriving from all over the world, but especially from France and Francophone Africa. Wenger’s Arsenal began to play with exceptional fluency and style – and they won titles, though never the Champions League.

As a long-time fan, I looked on in wonder at the transformation effected by Wenger, this continental sophisticate who had arrived in London in October 1996 from his previous job in Japan. I liked his intelligence and articulacy: we had never seen anyone like him before in English football. He was a pathfinder and a cosmopolitan: where he led, others soon followed.

That now seems like a long time ago. Arsenal have not won the Premier League since 2004, the season of the so-called Invincibles. In recent years, however, they have become predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility. They invariably falter when they come up against the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or Chelsea.

Wenger’s struggles and woes are a symbol of all that has gone wrong at the club. This proud man is now routinely traduced. The vitriol and abuse directed at him saddens as much as it startles.

Last weekend’s thrashing by Liverpool was no ordinary defeat. It felt like the moment at which even the Wenger loyalists turned against their man. Arsenal were tactically inept, gutless, and without commitment and togetherness. Working as a pundit on Sky, the former England defender Jamie Carragher called the players “cowards”.

It was painful to watch the game. Sanchez, who has been agitating to leave all summer (despite being offered a new contract reportedly worth £300,000 a week), signalled his exasperation and disgust at his teammates in a display of petulance that should have forced the club to offload him yesterday. Meanwhile, Wenger sat slumped in his seat: impotent, helpless, humiliated.

How has it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. Wenger is more sinned against than sinning, in my view, but he is also an absurdly stubborn man. He suffers from wilful blindness. He cannot see, or refuses to see, what others can: that he is man out of a time who has been surpassed by a new generation of coaches, such as Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino.

Arsene Wenger has spoken of his fear of the void and of how much he “suffers” when Arsenal fail. It’s as if he cannot endure the thought of what life would be like without football. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a fascinating long interview last year. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties.”

In the same interview Wenger described how he wanted his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

But Arsenal no longer play beautiful football. The mood at the Emirates, on and off the pitch, is ugly – as ugly as it has been in Wenger’s two decades at the club. And here’s the thing: the malaise at Arsenal is so deep that we’ve not yet seen the worst of it.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman