One Of Us Speaks: Never Kick A Man When He’s Down
Big Al’s reckons Obi-Wan Wenger might just be enjoying himself. Ewan MacGregor as a young Arsène might work but Sir Alec? Oh, yeah, that’s the one…
When you see Arsène Wenger in a few press conferences, you get to know his mannerisms, figures of speech and facial expressions. And there’s one look that he pulls as often as any other. You probably know the one – it’s a knowing smile from the corner of his mouth; not quite a smirk. We saw it a lot in the build-up to the first leg against Barcelona when facing questions about how he’d cope tactically with the best team in the world, and whether Nasri or Walcott had any hope of recovering in time. Wenger now counts that match as one of the best in his career.
This is a man who gets a kick out of overcoming external doubt, and springing surprises on people. That’s to say he’s used to going his own way, and trusts his intuition. And why not, when you’ve helped launch the careers of more world-class footballers than almost anyone else in the game today: George Weah, Lilian Thuram, Emmanuel Petit, Youri Djorkaeff – yup he discovered or nurtured them. And that was long before he took over at Arsenal. After his pre-1996 achievements, he still had to deal with the Arsène-who headlines, and Ferguson calling him a nobody.
So, at the start of the season when he faced a flurry of sustained opprobrium, he bore the abuse with all the pride and class you’d expect. And let’s face it; much of what he was dealing with was obscene. Seriously, he was getting slaughtered in the media by touchline failures or, even worse, people who never had the guts to try coaching in the first place. He accepted some of the more reasonable appraisals with class, subtly swatted away the ones by complete morons and pretended to ignore most of the rest.
But don’t think he has forgotten those few weeks.
Because that’s the problem for the rest of the Premier League; Arsenal was in a bad way in September; Manchester United inflicted a deep wound, blasting us into a tailspin and almost burying us before the season had begun. Sir Alex piled it on after that game, slurring with patronising sympathy. And that was definitely a smirk.
Arsenal was left for dead. But, uh-oh; amid all the rejoicing and the insincere concern for Wenger’s wellbeing, they neglected to land the killer blow. And after skulking off to our lair and patching up our wounds, the club is rising like a pissed-off phoenix. How far we’ll go is hard to say, but one upshot of those dreadful opening weeks is that we now have a season-long antidote to complacency.
After you lose 8-2 and get back to within three points of the top four in the space of eight weeks then there’s not much that’s going to scare you. And that score-line will have stuck with our players ever since – it should remind them of how they can be punished if they’re not prepared. The ridicule will still be gnawing away, but now they’ve demonstrated that they can get results against the financially doped teams, it should help to fortify their resolve and perhaps define their goals more clearly.
Because you can’t help but take stock after a setback like that, and as the season unfolds we might end up grateful that such a jolt happened so early on.
At this stage of the campaign, and apart from goal difference, our league performance in 11-12 doesn’t differ too much from last season. What’s changed is the boss’s language. He’s conceded the title and started focusing on short-term goals.
We were still battling through the ‘Nam-style sh*t at the time so it didn’t seem appropriate to remind anyone of this when he ruled us out, but Arsène Wenger’s second title for Arsenal was won after conceding before the New Year. Considering the players in the squad, and the quality of the rest of the league at the time, we weren’t up to much in late-2001. Almost exactly ten years ago we lost 2-4 at home to Charlton Athletic a couple of days after getting beaten 3-1 at Highbury to Schalke. Then followed a now famous team meeting, an international break, and a new Arsenal slowly began to emerge.
It probably still isn’t appropriate to bring that up, because it seems very unlikely that we’ll win the league at this stage. But what that 8-2 score-line also gives us is humility. After seeing them recover from that mess he’ll hardly be worried about how they’ll deal with less than glowing public comments. We all know that Wenger’s press conferences are another channel to send messages to individuals or the team. So this kind of raises a question – after years of talking up his side’s chances until the very last weeks of the season, is it significant that he’s suddenly taking a cautious tone?
Well, obviously you could say it’s a response to our appalling start, but if you look at the characters in the squad and its average age, you might conclude that Wenger feels he’s assembled a group that doesn’t need the emotional stimulus of getting talked up every couple of weeks.
In the meantime our run continues, and to my eyes the Premier League is looking like a far less daunting competition for our squad.
Arsène’s men are bloodied and have lost their sense of prestige and superiority. Until just a few weeks ago the style had gone as well. What’s left is an imperfect but resolute bunch. Perhaps a little less technical than their forerunners, but definitely more worldly and maybe already a little more cohesive.
And let’s not forget that they’re angry – and it’s not overt rage, but the altogether more sinister, quietly seething fury of an aggrieved underdog. In ten weeks’ time when they step into our joint Manchester United might come to regret kicking us when we were down at the start of the season. But most of all they should fear the master who kept his counsel throughout.