Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Wenger admirers cannot remain in denial

Maybe Arsène Wenger's latest conqueror, the embattled Blackburn manager, Steve Kean, has a workable excuse in that he had just been given some unexpected relief from pressure on his own job.

Or perhaps it was a flash of fraternal compassion for a man who he believes demands the respect of everyone involved, professionally or otherwise, in football.

No one, certainly, wants to single out Kean for an argument over his respect for one of the greatest football managers of the modern era – especially on a weekend when Roberto Mancini came up with the staggering complaint that his Manchester City surrendered a two-goal lead at Fulham because of a lack of players.

However, if we strip Kean's remark of its good intentions we are left with a rival absurdity that appears to be growing exponentially with each new piece of evidence that Arsenal look to be locked for quite some time into irrecoverable decline.

Kean declared: "To even question his [Wenger's] leadership of the club is frightening. What the man has done for Arsenal is sensational."

There are times when professional football men really ought to count out a few numbers before insulting the intelligence of those who, one way or another, keep the whole show on the road, the people who pay the ever-inflating ticket prices and satellite dishes. But then while Mancini would no doubt wish to qualify his bizarre comment at Craven Cottage, we can be sure Kean would have to have his hand thrust into burning oil before beginning to question his own professional solidarity with Wenger.

This is odd because it is possible to identify every particle of Wenger's career brilliance, list his every triumph, and haunting near miss like the one in the Stade de France five years ago when if Thierry Henry, of all people, had pulled the trigger near the end, he might have given the manager his first Champions League title, and still accept that if ever a football club needed new strength, new priorities, new direction, it is Arsenal.

At a time when the dividing lines between winning and losing can be so fine – and are subject to so many attempts at redrawing each summer and January transfer window – Arsenal's current impasse and forlorn record this season make Kean's statement of support unreal.

Of course, Wenger has earned respect that can never be reasonably withdrawn. His reputation was secured many years ago – in the same way as those of other great managers who could not sustain the weight of their past success, men like Shankly, Stein and Busby and Clough, if we are looking for some classic examples.

But Kean says it is frightening to "even question" Wenger's leadership of Arsenal. No, not frightening, you have to say, but inevitable.

Football has always had the capacity to ambush a successful manager and who can say with any seriousness that such a fate has not overcome Wenger in the last few years – and most catastrophically in the months since Arsenal lost their chance of winning their first, even half-significant trophy in six years when they were defeated by relegation-bound Birmingham City in the League Cup final?

Is anyone saying that Wenger, so recently sought by clubs like Real Madrid and Paris St-Germain, did not have the personal weight or means to make a better job of preparing for this season, which is now crumbling so desperately in the Premier League?

Is anyone saying that a run which now threatens to stretch to seven years of declining impact does not represent a crisis of leadership?

Well, Steve Kean, exhilarated by his own escape, however brief it proves, from the threat of protest marches, suggests as much despite the fact that Arsenal's defence has become the most porous in the Premier League while sliding to the club's worst start for 58 years. Kean's position would be considered at best romantic, at worst utterly detached from reality, if applied to any other Premier League manager who had slipped so far, so quickly.

"There are no excuses," said Wenger. "We dominated but in our weak moments we were not strong enough to resist. This is not more humiliating [than the 8-2 loss to Manchester United]. They are two different results."

Unfortunately, however, they tell a similar story. It is of ground lost, playing resources shredded and the ever more oppressive feel of a losing cause.

Wenger loyalists, heaven knows, scarcely have to ransack their memories for reasons to keep their faith. You do not forget easily the pleasure that Wenger has given down the years, the idea not so much of impending triumph but the certainty that the goal will be pursued with grace and brilliance, and that if it happens you lose, you will do so with football that so often drugs the senses against the worst pain of defeat.

The trouble is that you cannot live in your memory because if you do too much of it you generally lose the point of being alive. This, surely, is to exist in a state of reasonable hope, and if you cannot do this it is surely necessary to ask why.

Those who say that it is unthinkable Arsenal look for new leadership, new force, reject such a need.

They say what they have been saying for some years now. They say that Arsenal and Arsène Wenger have a relationship that is unique and in this, at least, they are right. It couldn't, for the most pressing reasons, happen anywhere else in the football world. It never has since the game took its present form – and it never will.

Belfast Telegraph


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