The old wise man had a special place in pre-technological societies. If you wanted information, there weren’t many places you could go. There’s wisdom and knowledge, but on top of that experience is vital. The village elder knew when the storm is coming by looking at the birds and the sheep, or he could feel it in the air. Telling the weather was a quirk of experience, but it’s what made wise men seem wise to the rest.
Arsene Wenger knows exactly when the storm is coming. As wise men go these days, the closest the Premier League gets is the Frenchman, yet as top six super-managers go, he’s at the bottom of the pile. In a measurable way, he’s at the bottom of the mini-table. In a less tangible way, he stands out as the most tactically inflexible of the lot. These days, that experience seems to count for very little.
He is the man that time forgot, a soldier still fighting a guerilla war from the forest years after a peace has been brokered. Stubborn, determined and worthy of infinite respect – but he’ll never, ever win.
He seems incapable of incorporating some of the central tenets of modern football coaching at a club which seems, paradoxically, to be one of the most modern around. He has more control over his club than any other manager in world football has at theirs. Yet his teams play in a rigid style and never seem to get any better.
Things have become so bad that you could probably write a book on pundits’ musings about Arsenal alone: everyone can pinpoint various different problems in the team, and it’s not as though any are wrong. Arsenal lack leaders, they lack defensive cohesion, they have lacked investment in world class talent, they have unhappy players, no defensive midfielder to shield the shaky backline and a manager who stubbornly sticks to what made his sides great 15 years ago.
None of these things are wrong and taken together they paint the picture well. The problem is, there’s too much to fix.
A storm arrived some years ago, but it has intensified of late. Knowing when it would arrive, it’s as though he’s stocked up and dug in. He surely knows he’s unlikely to see its end, however. At a club who have been starved of success, Wenger seems incapable of bringing much back, and to the extent that three FA Cups in four years doesn’t sate the hunger, the manager appears doomed to failure.
The problem he faces isn’t so much comparisons to his former glories, though. Legendary teams that Wenger used to manage aren’t the comparisons which hurt the Frenchman these days. The comparisons that sting are the ones with other managers: the new ones at the five clubs above him.
Wenger has yet to beat Jose Mourinho in the Premier League, despite being seemingly Invincible when the Portuguese showed up at Chelsea in 2004. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola seem to outdo him with innovative tactics, where the Arsenal boss used to excel. Antonio Conte is ahead of him there, too, but the Chelsea boss also has the edge in intensity and will to win, and yet Wenger is nothing if not stubborn.
And then there’s the worst comparison of all, Mauricio Pochettino: a man who has taken the Tottenham, the second team in north London, and turned them to a team who have finished above Arsenal for the first time in the Premier League era, and who are set to do so again this time. Whereas Spurs have always been the Europa League to Arsenal’s Champions League, the roles are reversed and they don’t look like changing.
To make matters worse, Pochettino has achieved all of that by turning young potential into world class talent, playing a thoroughly modern brand of thrilling football, and he’s done it all without breaking the bank. These are principles that the older and wiser of the north London coaches holds dear, and yet only one seems to be able to succeed with them.
Indeed, it’s the same ignominy that Alex Ferguson was forced to suffer when Manchester City, the noisy neighbours, overcame United in 2012, but the legendary Scot was able to leave on a high. You sense that Wenger won’t be able to do that.
The storm has intensified and it now looks too great to ride out. The longer he holds out, the worse things get, but Wenger is nothing if not stubborn. The sooner the Arsenal boss accepts that the war is over, the better, but it’s more likely that he fights on until the very bitter end.