Wenger, Warts and All, Is Still the Man

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.
12 comments about "Wenger, Warts and All, Is Still the Man".
  1. Kevin Leahy, March 28, 2014 at 6:37 a.m.

    I like that the world is covered. I believe SA has balance. Moyes team is very vanilla and you can see the difference from previous years. It is hard to see a team like Manchester United play such an unsophisticated style.

  2. ROBERT BOND, March 28, 2014 at 8:33 a.m.

    personally could care less about anything minor league soccer(MLS) does except looking forward to seeing Bayern play in Portland & Arsenal now coming 7/26-please keep us updated on ticket availability, please, Paul.....Wenger has to go unless they get a big time striker this summer, & whatever happened to Gnabrey?

  3. BJ Genovese, March 28, 2014 at 9:34 a.m.

    Its a great article and while it does not directly focus on US Soccer, it does contain important thoughts and ideas that we many people are talking about in the US which is style of play. I see alot of Moyes's out on the US pitch right now. Not to many Wengers. "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 though the article was though provoking and well written.

  4. Brian Something, March 28, 2014 at 10:40 a.m.

    I love the kind of football that Arsenal try to play. But Paul, you perpetuate the myth that there’s good football requires 11 Messis on the field. It’s too easy to portray this as a simplistic dichotomy: Wenger’s style vs the style of Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis. Every successful team needs at least one player with a little steel, a little guts.

    Bayern Munich has Schweinsteiger. Barca have Busquets. Even the old Arsenal Invincibles had Vieira. No one in their right mind would accuse these teams of playing ugly, route one soccer. Even the great Edmonton ice hockey teams, the most high flying attack minded teams the NHL has ever seen... sure they had Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri but also Marty McSorely.

    The problem with Wenger’s mentality is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t challenge for titles. And because of that, it won’t be emulated by other managers. Those of us who want good soccer to be more common need for it to produce results or else its influence won’t expand.

    Other teams – Bayern, Real Madrid, Barca – play what most regard as even better soccer than Arsenal. They do not buy into your myth that a gritty player is antithetical to good soccer, the myth that gritty and technical are incompatible. That’s why they win trophies and Arsenal don’t.

  5. R2 Dad, March 28, 2014 at 11:43 a.m.

    So, Wenger is good for the league, but bad for the club? Or good for the club, but bad for the fans?

  6. Kent James, March 28, 2014 at 12:04 p.m.

    I agree with PG, Wenger is the man. His skill based approach should be emulated. Wenger has always competed with the big boys, and he's done so with many younger (and less expensive) players he's found and/or developed. On the other hand, teams do need defensive cohesion and focus. In addition to offensively skilled players, teams need players with defensive skills also. Can a player be both? Certainly, but they are rarely equally skilled in both realms. And Arsenal (as well as other attack-minded teams) focus more on the offensive than the defensive. This makes entertaining soccer, but does leave them open to the counterattack (occasionally, but that can be difference between 1st and 3rd). So maybe Wenger needs to scale back the offensive thrusts on occasion in order to win the title, but I do love to watch them play. And if you're going to err on one side or the other, being too offensive is the way to go.

  7. Aris Protopapadakis, March 28, 2014 at 3:51 p.m.

    The Scholes attitude permeates much of British commentating; when Barca or some other "high-skill team" scores through a "pretty" play they'll laud it but for the most part they are critical of any non-route 1 play.
    Someone ought to remind Scholes (of the red mists) that Barca beat them TWICE in the Champions League final, and handily, and even Sir Alex in an interview admitted that Man U was inferior.
    Arsenal's problem is not Wenger and his system. Rather it is that Arsenal doesn't have the means to buy or keep top players. So he has to go mining for hidden gems. They lost RVP and got ...Podolski, etc. etc. Ozil was a good acquisition but the plyers that surround them in another story.

  8. Chris Mitchell, March 29, 2014 at 9:47 a.m.

    Good article, but I have to take issue with Paul Gardner's repeated assertion that Wenger has an aversion to South American players. Context is important here. British work permit regulations make it harder to bring in non-EU players unless they are proven to be top-drawer, which is why most other leagues are comparatively more rich with Brazilians and Argentinians. The class of South American player who could get a permit to play in the UK would cost a lot, and Wenger is just not the kind of guy to spend big like that. Perhaps that's why the Brazilians he has bought have been in the less glamorous positions (midfielders Denilson, Gilberto Silva and Edu, left-back Sylvinho) and thus will not cost the earth. And let's not forget that Wenger tried to bring in Luis Suarez, and got Julio Baptista on loan who then flopped. But there's another consideration - South American attacking players seem less interested in coming to England with its cold weather and agricultural tackling, and would rather end up in the other major leagues. And you can't blame them, really.

  9. R2 Dad, March 29, 2014 at 11:45 a.m.

    "agricultural" tackling. Funny, the English press always use that adjective to describe the Scottish Premier League...

  10. Kent James, March 30, 2014 at 9:58 p.m.

    Good point on the South Americans, Chris. I know US players have trouble (I think they have to play for the national team for more than 70% of the national team games, or some other very high standard to get a permit). I've also never heard the term "agricultural tackling"; is that because the defenders "scythe down" their opponents? Though that would be more appropriate for "19th century agricultural tackling"...

  11. Chris Mitchell, March 31, 2014 at 3:40 a.m.

    Well, "agricultural tackling" is what British commentators would call "getting stuck in" or maybe "letting them know you're here". For reference, see how Stephen Nzonzi described Stoke's approach to playing Arsenal (not so coincidentally, the same game when two Arsenal players were stamped on).

  12. Talley Berry, August 16, 2014 at 8:24 a.m.

    "That, from a player revered by Manchester United, honored in England -- though not elsewhere..." - PG

    "The only great English midfielder in my career was Paul Scholes. He had elegance in him. Others were pretenders." - Pirlo

    "(Paul Scholes) good enough to play for Brazil. I love to watch Scholes, to see him pass, the boy with the red hair and the red shirt." - Sócrates

    "Without any doubt the best player in the Premiership has to be Scholes...He knows how to do everything." - Thierry Henry

    "A role model. For me, and I really mean this, he's the best central midfielder I've seen in the last 15, 20 years. He's spectacular, he has it all, the last pass, goals, he's strong, he doesn't lose the ball, vision. If he'd been Spanish he might have been rated more highly. Players love him." - Xavi

    "My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester. He is the complete midfielder. Scholes is undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation." - Zidane

    "I'm not the best. Paul Scholes is. We can all learn from Paul Scholes." - Edgar Davids

    "Out of everyone at Manchester United, I would pick out Scholes – he is the best midfielder of his generation...I would have loved to play alongside him." - Guardiola

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