By Paul Gardner
Sadness -- though the rather lovelier French word tristesse seems more fitting -- haunts me when I consider what is happening to Arsene Wenger.
It does not matter that most of Wenger’s present woes are self-inflicted. Never mind that he has lately been making rather foolish statements about his predicament.
What hurts is to see the strained face, the red eyes, the deepening facial lines and the frightening -- but frightened -- glare of a man at bay.
Wenger does not deserve this. Not because he has been a loyal servant of Arsenal. And certainly not because of his now rather distant days of glory with the club -- frankly, I don’t give a damn about Arsenal. But Wenger deserves better as a forthright champion of The Beautiful Game.
For me, he is one of the few coaches with a right to that description. During the past two decades, years that have seen the relentlessly depressing advance of defensive, negative -- and overtly physical -- soccer, Wenger’s has been the most reliable voice reminding us, over and over, that soccer should not be played that way, that it should be a game of skill and artistry.
Mind you, being faithful to Wenger has not always been easy -- he did, after all, stick by Patrick Vieira, hardly a paragon of clean play, and somehow he never seemed to see the action whenever one if his players was red-carded, something that happened much more than it should have done. But Wenger’s voice has been the rallying cry, the only one that has spoken out clearly against the crudeness of the English game’s Neanderthal wing, the only one that upbraided Tony Pulis’s Stoke City for their overtly rough-house play.
The belief in The Beautiful Game was the rock on which Wenger built his early Arsenal teams. Teams that everyone admired for the beauty of their play. Teams that won trophies regularly.
But that was then. Things have been going downhill for quite a while now. No trophies for -- how long is it? Eight years? Sorry, Arsene, but when things are not working -- for eight years, ye gods! -- change has to be at least considered. And that is something that Wenger has been finding difficult.
The change must not be in Wenger’s devotion to skillful soccer -- but in how he sets about achieving it. As to that, one thing needs to be recognized from the start: Arsenal, under Wenger, has not been among soccer’s major spenders. It simply does not have the money that Manchester United and Chelsea -- and now Manchester City -- can fling around.
Wenger has been wondrously clever at signing excellent players at bargain prices. Sometimes his cleverness has looked rather unpleasantly too clever: His poaching of the teenage Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona, without paying a fee, may have been technically spotless, but it left a nasty taste. Most of Wenger’s targets were French -- half of the famous unbeaten team of the 2003-04 season were French -- including Thierry Henry, bought for $11 million from Juventus.
Wenger’s preferred players have continued to be French, or French-speaking, but the quality has dropped off alarmingly. Marouane Chamakh? Abou Diaby? Sebastien Squillaci? Gervinho? Johan Djourou? But the old acuity was at work with the signing of Robin van Persie (just $3.6 million!), while some young Brits -- Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson were showing promise.
Somehow, a team never appeared. For all his brilliance, van Persie, during his eight years at Arsenal, won only the FA Cup, and that was in his first year, 2005. Players came and went and it really did look increasingly as though Arsenal only entered the market late in the day, looking for last-minute bargains. The buildup to the current season was typical, with the late signing of Per Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal, Lucas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. Not, by any means, a hopeless bunch, but this looked more like panic buying than team building.
Top players departed -- Fabregas, van Persie, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy -- either in search of a club that actually won trophies, or simply a club that paid them more money.
Which brings us to the sorry scene of an Arsenal team that gets beaten at home by lower-level Blackburn, and follows that up by getting annihilated by Bayern Munich, also in front of its own fans at the Emirates.
Then we get something we never thought to hear -- Arsenal fans booing this Wenger team. And an ominous absence of all those “In Arsene We Trust” banners that used to festoon the stadium. “What do you expect,” snapped the increasingly short-tempered Wenger after the Blackburn debacle, “People to applaud when you lose a game like that? It's absolutely normal.”
What was not normal, of course, was for Arsenal -- Wenger’s Arsenal -- to play such poor, such ordinary soccer. It is not too fanciful to hear the booing as a lament not for the loss, but for the loss of The Beautiful Game.
Whatever magic Wenger was working in the early days has dried up. The players he is now signing are not good enough. And too many of them do not fit the Beautiful Game motif.
Along with the booing comes all the talk of Wenger departing -- fired, pensioned off, stepping down, moved sideways, kicked upstairs -- whatever, but no longer the man in charge at Arsenal.
That must not be. Not only Arsenal, but the entire sport of soccer needs Arsene Wenger, needs him as a stalwart who has stuck to his vision of skillful soccer through thick and thin. If things are not going so well, a hefty part of the blame for that lies with the club itself, with owner Stan Kroenke.
It is clear that Wenger -- restricted by the club’s frugality, can no longer conjure star players out of thin air. Things have changed -- maybe the rest of the world has gotten wise to Wenger’s sleight of hand operations. He needs help -- money -- from Kroenke to go out and buy a couple of really top players. It may be argued that the coming UEFA regulations on fiscal prudence make that impossible -- or even unnecessary.
Even if that be so, there is another step that needs to be taken, and this one is entirely up to Wenger himself. No one else is involved. I’ve mentioned 17 Arsenal players already, some good, some not at all good -- but they do all have one thing in common: none of them is from Latin America.
That omission -- better call it an aberration -- of Wenger’s defies explanation. Here we have a man ferociously faithful to the Beautiful Game -- yet he will not sign the very players, the Latin Americans, who are most likely to give him that game. That very phrase, The Beautiful Game, was Pele’s way of describing the soccer that he and his fellow Brazilians played back in the 1960s. And it is still Latins who are responsible for most of the top creative ball artists in the game. But not at Arsenal.
Sure, Wenger has signed a handful of Brazilians and Argentines -- but none of top quality, and none who could be classified as major exponents of the beautiful game. The Latins he has employed have often been defensive players, almost never creative players. The unlucky Eduardo probably comes closest to representing the Beautiful game. The Brazilian who lasted longest was Gilberto -- a defensive midfielder -- with nothing particularly Brazilian about his game. More recently there have been Denilson and Andre Santos, both of them now on loan to other clubs. Then there was the Mexican Carlos Vela, signed as a promising youngster, repeatedly praised by Wenger -- yet rarely put on the field. He too was eventually loaned out -- he is now a regular scorer with his new club, Real Sociedad.
Wenger’s aversion to Latin American players cannot be a matter of money. There are plenty of low-priced young players available to a coach who scouts and assesses them correctly. When Luis Suarez went, as a 19-year-old, to the non-fashionable Groningen in Holland, he surely didn’t cost them a fortune. Palermo paid Huracan only $6.5 million for the 20-year-old Javier Pastore (and when you consider that Wenger paid twice that for Gervinho ...).
Now, it needs to be said that there is in England a very obvious attitude, a very English dislike of South American players. Maybe you have to be a psychologist to work out the reasons for that, but the discrimination is clear. England is way behind every other European country in signing Latin Americans. Just as England is way ahead of everyone else in finding excuses for not doing so.
The Latins can’t adapt to the English game, they don’t like the weather, they miss their food, they won’t learn the language and on it goes. Never mind the amazing success that Juninho had at Middlesbrough in the early years of this century -- that must have been a fluke. His triumphs did not encourage English clubs to go on a Brazilian spending spree. Just as the success of Ossie Ardiles in the early 1980s had failed to ignite an Argentine boom.
Basically, the English see the Latins as lazy, and that is all there all there to it. I’m using the present tense. Because ... just ponder this quote from Michael Owen, a skillful and intelligent English player, as he contemplated -- just this past week -- Liverpool’s signing of the Brazilian Philipe Coutinho: "His challenge for the next few years will be to make sure he doesn't drift in and out of games and has an impact over the full 90 minutes. You don't normally associate work rate with players from South America ...”
Maybe Wenger has subconsciously absorbed that insidious bias. It is clear that Wenger is not that interested in Latin American players. He rarely signs them, evidently has little interest in scouting them. It is a quite inexplicable blindspot for the man who is widely regarded as among the most intelligent and perceptive coaches in the modern game.
So -- please, Arsenal, give Wenger more time -- and more money -- to rebuild a team that can once again delight us with The Beautiful Game. The sport needs Arsene Wenger, and it needs him to be with a big club that backs him to the hilt.
But please, M.Wenger, come to your senses and overcome this ridiculous mental block that is depriving your team of the very players who would help you most. Please, dispel the melancholy tristesse that is settling on those of us who admire the man, and who love The Beautiful Game.