By Paul Gardner
Defending Arsene Wenger is becoming a rather thankless task. His repeated calamities -- both in the signing of players and then in getting them to perform on the field -- seem almost designed to mock anyone trying to take his side.
But ... once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. The man is worth praising. This is not intended as a sympathy vote for Wenger after the tragedy of losing his 1,000th Arsenal game to, of all people, Jose Mourinho. Losing? This was sheer murder. And of course I felt for Wenger, I was moved by the barely controlled anguish of that tortured man on the sideline suffering a very public humiliation.
But coaching is job that comes with highs and lows, so I’m not offering any solace on that front. One minute you bask in the magnificence of an invincible team, the next minute your team crumbles to incredible ineptitude. OK, this minute marking the descent from glory has lasted quite a few years at Arsenal now, and those years have taken their toll. Yes, I do wonder whether Wenger has lost his touch, whether the time has not come for him to walk away. Let Arsenal find an upstairs job for the man who has served them so well for so long.
While I was pondering those unpalatable thoughts, something came along that brought my cogitations to an immediate halt. Suddenly I was thinking only good thoughts about Wenger, how he had always championed a skill-based game, how he had altered the climate of the professional game in England by insisting on a more methodical approach to training and diet and so on. But above all, it was his persistent faith in the beautiful game that was persuading me. That alone was worth my standing by the beleaguered Frenchman with his silver hair and his articulate thoughts on the game.
Just think how difficult it has been for him, these past 17 years in England, preaching beautiful soccer to a nation that has yet to decide whether that’s what it wants. That attitude of doubt, of scorn, even hostility, to skillful soccer had suddenly reared its ugly head right in front of me. There on my computer were the words of Paul Scholes ...
"Arteta, Cazorla, Rosicky, Ozil, it seems like they go on the pitch with no discipline. It's almost as if [the manager says] ‘you four, five midfielders go out there and do what you want. Try and score us a goal, a few nice one-twos. Tippy-tappy football, don't bother running back.’ I don’t know if that is what the manager does, but there is no discipline, there is no leader for them. There is no Patrick Vieira, no Tony Adams, no Martin Keown. If they go 2-0 down, they just carry on what they are doing -- Ah, I'll walk up front, lose the ball, play a nice little one-two -- and you wonder why they are in the position they are in?”
That, from a player revered by Manchester United, honored in England -- though not elsewhere -- sets out the crudity and the ignorance that Wenger has had to face over his years in England.
Scholes’s words are saturated in contempt and scorn. He names four players -- all non-British -- who have no discipline. They don’t work hard enough, no tracking back for them. They prefer to play “a few nice one-twos” and “tippy-tappy football.” They need a Tony Adams or a Martin Keown (both classically physical English defenders) to teach them how to play, to discipline them. Or maybe a Patrick Vieira might knock them into shape -- a Frenchman and a serial yellow- and red-card offender.
And tippy-tappy football? How’s that for trashing skillful soccer? To Scholes it’s all a joke, just a toy game that features “nice little one-twos.” Look at that word “little.” Heaven knows what a big one-two is supposed to look like, but presumably it’s something more manly than all that tippy-tappy stuff.
Confronted with Scholes parading primitive bias dressed up as wisdom, how can I not back Wenger? And I can’t help wondering why Scholes is ripping into Wenger, when right at home in his own club ManU, he has David Moyes, another coach who is also in trouble because of poor results. But there the similarity to Wenger begins and ends. For Moyes never, during all his 11 years at Everton, fielded a team intent on playing stylish soccer. It was always caution and vigorous physical play that dominated. And during his Everton stint, the club won nothing.
Just how a coach with that record and -- more importantly -- that approach to the way that soccer should be played, could be seen as the man to coach ManU baffles me. But not, presumably, Paul Scholes, who must surely admire Moyes’s reputation as a disciplinarian and the way his teams tend to avoid playing those ludicrous little one-twos.
The staleness, the sheer utter hopelessness of Scholes’ words and the bleak view of soccer that they carried turned me quickly back to admiration of Wenger’s world, to a vision of soccer that promises more than energetic running around, one that allows a richer sport with aesthetic and artistic as well as athletic values.
I don’t subscribe to those stupid “In Arsene We Trust” banners that appear among the Arsenal fans -- in fact I don’t find anything worthwhile in banners and slogans and logos these days. But a gut feeling about the beautiful game tells me that, for all his annoying faults -- particularly his aversion to South American players -- I belong with Wenger.