A penny for Arsene Wenger’s thoughts as he ponders one of the lowest days of his career.ANTHONY DEVLIN/Getty Images
Ian Wright will have derived no pleasure from comparing Arsene Wenger to Muhammad Ali in the dying light of the boxer’s career. He still refers to the Frenchman as “the boss”, though when he does so it increasingly reminds of how Tony Soprano’s crew would speak deferentially when checking in on an incapacitated Uncle Junior.
Father Time stops his clock for no man. Arsenal managers, boxers and mob bosses are one and the same.
“Watching him [Arsene Wenger] now is like watching Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes,” said Wright on Sky Sports’ The Debate show, in reference to Arsenal’s 4-0 defeat at Liverpool last weekend.
“You’re watching Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest ever, getting beat up. It was horrible, it was uncomfortable, you don’t want to see that.”
As analogies go, in the aftermath of a performance so thoroughly abysmal it’s hard to think of another in Premier League history so universally derided, it was one of the fairer and more poignant proffered. It is often said there is no lonelier place in sport than the centre of a boxing ring. A Premier League manager’s technical area must run it close, along with roads with no end for long-distance runners.
Watching the tape back of the 1980 Heavyweight Championship bout, billed as The Last Hurrah, it should have been but tragically wasn’t for Ali, it’s heartbreaking to witness how the greatest there has ever been no longer belongs in a game he just can’t give up. Long-serving trainer Angelo Dundee eventually stepped in to stop the contest after ten rounds, his fighter badly beaten.
Wright claims it is a lack of an honest corner man that prevents Wenger from seeing what is blindingly obvious to so many. Effectively stepping up to do the job for his old manager, he lamented: “He ain’t got anyone to throw the towel in for him.”
Yet conversely there were so many towels on the pitch at Anfield, at one point there looked to be a serious threat of postponement. Mesut Ozil getting mugged by Jordan Henderson in the first few minutes looking like a man who had stepped directly from his bed onto the pitch set a tone that proved pitch black all afternoon. An apology posted on Instagram immediately after the game proved his most considered contribution. The German resisted the temptation to post a dressing room selfie of the wake, having seemingly failed to find a coffin emoji.
Picking a lowlight is not easy with such varied offerings to choose from. Hector Bellerin not even getting close to catching Mohamed Salah as he scored on a counter-attack from an Arsenal corner could only have been more comical had it been set to Benny Hill music, while Granit Xhaka’s backheel in his own area to Petr Cech was a mini-masterpiece in ineptitude.
During a decade-long decline Wenger and his players have felt the cold slap of canvas courtesy of a heavy defeat to a rival so often, any commercial manager with a shred of nous would have long-since sold advertising space on the soles of the players’ boots. In fairness, Arsenal and its soul is a mute point at present.
On paper, Sunday’s Merseyside misery was eclipsed in its wretchedness by the 8-2 defeat dished out by Manchester United at Old Trafford at the same stage of the season in 2011, or the 6-0 reverse at Chelsea in what was Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge. It didn’t even mark Wenger’s worst defeat at Anfield, with that dubious honour going to a 5-1 loss in 2014. Yet somehow this felt different, more seismic, despite arriving just 270 minutes into a season that spans some 3420.
At half-time the away end delivered their verdict. A whip-round was instigated; hiring private jets isn’t cheap. At least they won’t have to pay for a new banner. If felt ludicrous and justified all at the same time. Arsenal are an island, this is what they do.
A joke doing the rounds this week was when a manager loses a dressing room a club gets rid of him. But when Wenger loses a dressing room, Arsenal get rid of the dressing room. To borrow a line from the king of bleakness, Morrissey, “this joke isn’t funny anymore. It’s too close to home, and it’s too near the bone.”
One of the oldest and most revered clubs in the history of English football is in crisis on a match-by-match basis and that will continue until Wenger calls time on a tenure spanning over two decades. It is tragic in this instance how familiarity really does breed contempt. The only real surprise given the predictability of it all, was how anyone could muster enough energy to throw a punch. It’s like getting furious over water being wet.
“If I am the problem, I am sorry, but I believe all together we lose,” Wenger told Sky Sports when asked about fan frustration.
To call for a manager’s head three games into a new season, indeed as many matches since he finished the previous campaign with the FA Cup in his hands, would in normal circumstances have provoked a unilateral response of the game having gone among the more even-handed pundits.
There is nothing normal about Arsenal and Wenger.
It was practically a pile-on. After two defeats in three matches and eight goals conceded in the process, Arsenal are in the unique position of both literally and metaphorically having no defence.
“I have officially given up on them,” was Graeme Souness’ measured response in the Sky Sports studio, leaving this viewer to ponder how one would go about officially giving something up. An email would likely suffice, though Souness probably penned a letter to Arsenal’s secretary in his own blood. Either way, Arsenal patches like those of the nicotine variety would prove a hot seller in the club‘s megastore.
Souness soon reverted to type by launching in two-footed: “Arsenal were wishy-washy, weak-willed, pussy-footed, and those are the nice things I can say about them.”
Even Thierry Henry got in on the act: “We’ve seen that movie before. It was unwatchable, at one point I wanted to leave.”
If journalists were given a bonus every time they legitimately slipped a Groundhog Day reference into an Arsenal match report, as a profession they would be the new bankers. As it is they don’t, so have to settle for being just one consonant different.
Gary Neville was no less confrontational than either of his colleagues. Clearly emboldened by the absence of a Patrick Vieira-type character in Arsenal’s ranks, he didn’t even check whether Roy Keane was beside him in the tunnel before naming and shaming. Reeling off the names of Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Ozil and Xhaka as the club’s conscientious objectors, he went as far as to say they were not fit to wear the Arsenal shirt.
Which is convenient given after Thursday’s transfer deadline passes there’s a fair chance at least two of them won’t have to again. Sanchez is no doubt hoping Wenger takes the view you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, having sold Oxlade-Chamberlain to Liverpool despite having spent the whole of the summer saying the one thing he definitely wouldn’t do is sell Oxlade-Chamberlain.
To accept cash for Sanchez from Manchester City would make a mockery of the club’s entire transfer policy. There’s a fair to middling chance Jack Wilshere, Lucas Perez and Shkodran Mustafi could join the exodus. Why Wenger is seemingly so desperate to get rid of the latter at a knockdown price despite the fact he’s actually quite good, is a mystery to anyone that has seen Arsenal defend at any point over the past decade. If Steve Bould is responsible for that backline, the club’s supporters better hope when Wenger eventually retires in 2026 Arsenal don’t plump for an in-house successor.
Having had the whole summer to get their house in order, there’s a fair chance Wenger will spend the final few hours of the transfer window throwing names at his chief executive like confetti at a wedding. Kim Kallstrom is waiting by the phone.
It is a measure of how far a great institution has fallen that sympathy among a fair majority weighs down on the side of Sanchez, a man desperate to leave. After Liverpool’s third goal went in he adopted what is becoming his trademark pose, a rival to Wenger’s thousand-yard stare into the middle distance. Down on his haunches the Chilean drops into the stance of the Auguste Rodin statue, The Thinker. “How the f*** do I get out of here?” he’s thinking.
A cynic might suggest he stays in position just long enough to be sure a TV camera will definitely have spotted how agonised he is. If Sanchez doesn’t make at least the Turner Prize shortlist for his sublime The Sulker, it will be nothing short of a travesty of justice.
A move for Julian Draxler has been mooted if Sanchez is sold to City, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward somehow still just 23 despite having been linked to Arsenal since around the same time Manchester United were supposedly courting David Hirst.
With PSG’s majestic screening midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak having joined West Bromwich Albion on a season-long loan, and Renato Sanches set to swap Bayern Munich for Swansea City in a similar arrangement, it does beg the question how Arsenal ended up with Francis Coquelin and Xhaka being completely overrun in the centre of the pitch at Anfield. Would either of Krychowiak or Sanches not be a significant improvement? It is telling how neither PSG nor Bayern would consider Arsenal a rival.
After last season’s fifth-placed finish and subsequent failure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League for first time under Wenger’s tutelage, it was as though chief executive Ivan Gazidis sensed this was finally his chance to seize a little control. He spoke confidently of how the disappointment would prove a “catalyst for change”, with Wenger sheepishly acknowledging the uncertainly over his future before he signed a new two-contract after the FA Cup final had created a “horrendous” environment to work in.
Clearly learning from personal experience, he then proceeded to explain how allowing his best two players, Ozil and Sanchez, to run down the final year of their contracts so they could leave in the summer for nothing would probably be a good thing. It’s working out pretty good so far.
Essentially nothing has changed. The club’s major shareholder Stan Kroenke spends most of his time 4,600 miles away in Denver and by his own admission has no working knowledge of top-level world football. Wenger still runs Arsenal Football Club, just as he has done since he last knew his place in the hierarchy when David Dein was in charge.
The old adage the buck stops at the manager patently isn’t true at Arsenal. Kroenke may have no qualms about shooting animals for fun having launched a new bloodsports television channel, but seemingly gets a bit squeamish when it comes to pulling the trigger on his managers. If sentimentality was the reason Wenger is still in a job it would be understandable if not excusable, but it genuinely seems to be the case they just can’t be arsed with the hassle change invariably brings. Maybe they have watched Manchester United in the post Sir Alex Ferguson years and concluded better the devil you know.
It was hard to disagree with Henry Winter’s steaming polemic over Kroenke’s passivity in The Times this week. Such was its acidity, one can only hope he wore a protective suit when writing it.
Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten them into, Stanley. Well done, Enos Stanley Kroenke. What a wretched mess. Arsenal’s pitiful plight, lying 16th in the Premier League with certain stars briefing that they want out, is rooted in your naive, damaging, alienating “stewardship” of an English institution. So get a grip on this great club, please.
If Kroenke had been there, he might be gently advised that the manager he foolishly believes in tries to play pretty five-a-sides in a ferocious 11-a-side world. He might be warned that he has just given a two-year extension to a 67-year-old who has failed to evolve and is fearful of life after Arsenal.
Gazidis has always insisted having a director of football is crucial to the running of a modern day football club. It’s understandable he wants to ease the burden on a 67-year-old manager, who turns 68 in October, so Wenger can concentrate the vast majority of his time on getting things right on the field. It’s not as though it’s not needed.
“I don’t know what director of football means,” was Wenger’s sniffy response when quizzed about it last season, per the Guardian. So Arsenal shelved plans to appoint one. The tail wags the dog in a billion pound business. Wenger buys the players and probably has final say on which brand of toilet paper is used in the changing room.
Two players arrived over the summer, which given Arsenal trailed Chelsea by 18 points last season seems a bold strategy to bridge the deficit. Especially given those around them are spending with such unrivalled abandon. New boys Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac both started on the substitutes’ bench at Anfield despite having done fairly well in Arsenal’s other two matches. Even before kick-off there was a pervading sense of quiet madness in the air.
From top to bottom, Arsenal is a complete omnishambles. Even the term’s originator, spin king Malcolm Tucker, would struggle to cast a positive light on the club’s current predicament. How Arsenal could do with his iron fist to complement Gazidis’ velvet glove. Tucker would have him in tears before the end of their first meeting. In fairness, an email exchange would probably break the supine Gazidis.
The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci has said Donald Trump’s rise to power has led him to question how you satirise those that satirise themselves, labelling the US President a “walking satire balloon.” He would probably find the same issue if he turned his focus from America to North London.
Still there must be part of him sorely tempted to explore such fertile comedy ground as an absentee owner that lets the club run itself so long as the money keeps rolling in, a manager that takes no notice of his chief executive, and even less of a transfer director called Dick Law who he clearly sees as being more of the former than latter, a set of players split between those that want out and those enjoying semi-retirement, a club mascot that can’t believe he beat extinction for this shower, and a hugely successful fan TV channel that has made celebrities of the type of men that ensure even defeats have a silver lining these days.
Yet even amid this catalogue of wrong calls, the idea Wenger should quit because there is probably somebody else out there that could do it better, still flies against the default setting of pretty much every single person in the history of the universe that has ever had a job. Still it’s easy to be pious when trying to guilt trip somebody into giving up something they have dedicated their life to because you quite fancy having a look at how Thomas Tuchel would fare in England.
If the time is right for Wenger to go, the time is right for Kroenke and Gazidis to grow a pair and issue the necessary P45.
It’s not arrogance or self-delusion that prevents Wenger from calling time on his managerial career, but fear. Fear of what’s out there beyond football. To feel anger rather than pity over a good man’s quandary is to fail to understand what it is to be human.
When legendary manager Bill Shankly quit Liverpool in 1974 he realised it was the worst decision of his life pretty much from the moment he made it. Like Wenger he lived for football and could never deal with the fact the wheel’s kept on turning in his absence. After retirement he would still show up at the club’s Melwood training ground and take sessions as though nothing had happened. His successor Bob Paisley understandably felt embarrassed and undermined. Eventually the club asked Shankly to stay away from the training ground. There would be nothing more tragic than the sight of Wenger rocking up at the Emirates in a tracksuit, to ask his successor if he needs any help laying out the cones.
Raining in barbs at Wenger probably feels not dissimilar to how Holmes must have felt picking out shots against Ali. There’s no satisfaction to be gleaned from desecrating the memory of a legend, as Holmes found out when knocking his friend, mentor and one time sparring partner from pillar to post. The trouble with great men is they are often stubborn. There’s about as much chance of Wenger taking Holmes’ advice as Ali, but still, everyone else has had a go at trying to convince the Frenchman it’s time for a change.
“Number one: he did not know when to stop taking punches and he never knew when to quit. Boxing is about ‘hit and don’t be hit’. What happens is your mind makes a date your body can’t keep, and you have to learn to accept that.”
It seems Wenger is the only one person capable of delivering a knockout blow to his career. Given we are our own worst masters, expect him to keep taking punches for some time yet.