Not for nothing is the manager of Arsenal Football Club also known as Le Professeur. There have been times when Arsene Wenger, 62, has seemed to be the very definition of erudition in professional sport.
When he was growing up in Alsace, a soccer player of modest capability but serious coaching ambition, he decided he needed to talk English. Night school would not do. He got on his bicycle and rode to Cambridge University. Yet if Wenger came to represent great knowledge, and a brilliant knack for recognizing outstanding talent in his career as manager of Arsenal, which is now stretching into its 16th year, he is currently enduring his most demanding lesson.
It is the one about the need to refurbish even a reputation as glowing as his own and today, with a seventh straight season threatening to end in futility, he is obliged to do it against a man whose career he had dwarfed for so long.
Harry Redknapp, 64 — who admitted in the court where he recently beat charges of tax evasion that he is virtually illiterate and would be hard put to compose a letter much superior to that of the average two-year-old — was until recently seen as one of the football survivors, a knowing pro who enjoyed the highlight of his career when he led Portsmouth to the FA Cup four years ago.
Yet Redknapp takes his Tottenham Hotspur to Arsenal this day ten points clear of his North London rival and is the runaway favourite to take over from departed national coach Fabio Capello. The billing is for an intriguing football match but this will distract few from the human drama.
Its most compelling theme is Wenger’s dogged refusal to accept that Redknapp’s Spurs have indeed overtaken his team to become the most serious challengers to the might of the Manchester front runners City and United.
“You judge at the end of the season,” Wenger stated going into today’s collision. “The only thing you can state is that in the last 15 years Spurs have completed behind Arsenal.”
Those who claim that the great man is in serious denial certainly do not have to reach far for the evidence. Last weekend, Sunderland ejected Arsenal from the FA Cup, Wenger’s last realistic chance of adding some silverware to the last trophy he won, the FA Cup in 2005, just a few days after a crushing 4-0 defeat by Milan in the first leg of a Champions’ League tie.
The loss in the great San Siro was especially shattering because four years ago a young Arsenal team inspired by Cesc Fabregas put the then reigning champions of Europe to the sword.
Fabregas, of course, moved to Barcelona last summer and this time Arsenal looked a mere shell of a once superb team. Before this month’s game Wenger returned to that old glory, saying, “That night we were almost perfect and now, after some disappointments, we are building to that level again.” There followed one of the direst performances of the Wenger regime.
Before the humiliation, Arsenal’s former Dutch superstar Dennis Bergkamp made the usual tributes to his old manager, but then concurred that Arsenal had become weak and had too many players who lacked the instinct to win. Wenger concurred that it had been a shocking performance before fresh criticism came in from other former players, most notably George Graham, who led the team to the Premier League title before losing his job over transfer irregularities, and Irish international David O’Leary.
Today is still another moment of truth for the man who unearthed such brilliant players as Thierry Henry, Fabregas, Nicolas Anelka and Patrick Vieira and who in the currently injured young Jack Wilshere may have the English player of his generation.
Yet Wenger rejects out of hand the worst implications of a defeat by a team which won its last league title more than 50 years ago — with the sublime team of Danny Blanchflower and Dave Mackay — but has played some of the English game’s most creative football this season.
Sometimes, indeed, it seems that he courts new levels of criticism simply in order to make the moment of redemption all the sweeter. One example came this week when he casually confirmed that a few years ago he had the chance to sign Tottenham’s dynamic Welsh star Gareth Bale, but was far more interested in acquiring his teammate at Southampton, Theo Walcott.
The young Englishman is currently the despair of the Arsenal fans after a series of irresolute and generally clueless performances. Bale, by the comparison, is stated to be at the top of the shopping lists of Real Madrid and Barcelona, a situation which recently persuaded Spurs to value him at a stunning $240 million.
Wenger’s reaction is to look into the middle distance and state that all will be well. If this is still more evidence of denial, this day it might be, in the short term at least, the wisest cause. A close up of Bale in his most lacerating form is certainly not likely to improve the mood of one of football’s greatest but most seriously embattled men.
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