BY PUNEET GORASIA
Martin Scorsese – a master of filmmaking – and Arsène Wenger, have much in common. More precisely, the two would make an ideal partnership. Martin would sit in the director’s chair, Arsène would be appointed manager of Arsenal and the two would spend 22 years together.
It would be much like the plethora of films in which the protagonists would follow a similar character arc – the demise of a man of once-great stature. What follows, then, is a script, in a sense, for Mr. Scorsese. Let us tread through the career of a Scorsesean tragic hero.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you see Arsène Wenger appear on your television screen? A ‘specialist in failure’, some would say. Others, however, would deem Mr Wenger as an avant-garde professor who shaped the modern game in English football: ‘it [the Premier League] is what it is because of what he has done, his vision.’
In October 1996, Mr Wenger was appointed manager of Arsenal – a club going through a turbulent period for years prior to his arrival. He was welcomed by a number of question marks and lambasts (which he would be the recipient of for decades to come), notably from Sir Alex Ferguson, who would form half of the greatest managerial rivalry in football history. In 1996, Sir Alex took issue to Mr. Wenger’s appointment: ‘He (Mr Wenger) has no experience of English football. He’s come from Japan and now he’s into English football and he is now telling everybody in England how to organise their football. I think he should keep his mouth shut. Firmly shut.’
Football is truly a lightyear away from anything else on this planet. Where fickle minds are quick to forget one’s achievements. “Arsène who?” – an irony that guised the sheer ignorance of English football, a matter that unfortunately seems perpetual. This headline was written – absent of even an inkling of affairs outside Britain – about a coach that had led Monaco, in his debut season, to their first Ligue 1 title in six years.
In this nation, he did not have doubters, he had vilifiers. He was caught in a web of uncertainty, alienation and negativity. But Mr. Wenger would pay no heed to newspaper headlines and fallacies.
The introduction of Mr. Wenger would ultimately have a transformational effect on English football, a rethinking of how the modern game shall be played for generations to come, a new philosophy of contemporary coaching for aspirers to espouse. He brought with him sports scientists and nutritionists and left behind traditions of old.
His first season had a silencing effect on the cynics. Finishing third was a giant leap for a coach that was touted to limp out of the country, shamefaced. Mr Wenger’s ‘red army’ would be bolstered through his famed transfer market nous. Mr. Wenger was a prophet – in retrospect, it seemed – when he unearthed legends that would otherwise have been overlooked as nobodies. Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars joined Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and an English core of David Seaman, Martin Keown and Tony Adams to name a few. The latter is a man that represented the magic of Mr. Wenger; troubled with the bleakness of alcoholism, given the utmost trust of captaincy.
It was here that Mr. Wenger opened up his deep wounds from his childhood in order to close Mr Adams. Mr. Wenger told his now-captain of the literal human deterioration he saw before his eyes during his time working at a local bistro in Alsace.
Mr Wenger: Nurturer.
With the commanding leadership of Adams and the technical subtleties of Vieira, Petit, Overmars, Grimandi, Anelka and Bergkamp, Arsenal Wengerballed their way to the league title ahead of Manchester United.
The country stood up to take a peek at the most technically demanding and attractive football they had ever seen. Eleven footballers were running faster than they had before, pressing the opponents in their own halves, passing the ball with the intricacy of grandma’s stitching fingers.
Mr. Wenger became the first ever know-nothing foreigner to win a domestic double after defeating Newcastle United in the FA Cup final.
Six years into Mr. Wenger’s reign, the Ferguson vs. Wenger rivalry was cantankerous – an odd way of signalling his acceptance in the English game. Uncertainty, alienation and negativity became certainty (of the fact that Mr. Wenger was essentially the deus ex machina that not only Arsenal, but football, deserved), acceptance and sanguinity.
In 2002, Mr. Wenger won a second double – the FA Cup and the Premier League. But, to truly understand what Wenger had done in order to achieve this feat, we ought to turn to none other than David Dein: “He has extended players’ careers, turned average players into good players, good players into very good players and very good players into world-class players.” Look no further than Thierry Henry – a player that lacked the consistency and finishing to prevail at Monaco and Juventus – who became the greatest striker in world football.
2004 – a year of glory and promise, no sight of being toppled. Mr. Wenger had a third Premier League title in his sights, but that did not mean he would give less importance to the Champions League…or did it? The Champions League seemed like the easier of the two trophies to win. Arsenal were on course to beat co-quarter-finalists, Chelsea, for a fourth consecutive time. Next up would be Monaco, who went on to beat Chelsea 5-3 on aggregate and faced Porto in the final. Porto – a team with an almost impenetrable wall constructed by bus driver, Jose Mourinho – would dare not fancy themselves against Arsenal’s attack consisting of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Juan Antonio Reyes. It seemed an easy route to Arsenal’s first taste of Champions League success, however they fell short that season, and have done ever since.
Arsenal failed on what seemed like an easy route to achieving elite European status. 2004 was not a total failure, however. A small matter of going the entire Premier League season unbeaten kept fans on side. Arsenal were INVINCIBLE. It was an achievement that put Arsenal in the hall of fame. Forever.
Arsenal were playing total football that made us all swoon.
The Scorsesean demise began in 2006 – on the eve of moving home; bigger, shinier. Finishing fourth in the Premier League wounded Mr. Wenger but coming so close to lifting the Champions League only to be denied by an offside Samuel Eto’o goal added a sprinkle of salt. This signalled the end of an era. Highbury would be demolished and so would the portrayal of Mr Wenger’s legacy. Arsenal finished fourth in the league and were turfed out in the first knockout stage of the Champions League – a signal of what was to come – cyclical in nature.
Arsenal moved into their new home, the Emirates Stadium, three months later. Those three months, however, were months that would push a man into lobotomization. Ashley Cole, still at the peak of his powers, capable of lifting a Champions League away from his boyhood club, made a diagonal shift across London to the ever-growing oil-doused Chelsea.
The wounds are still open, twelve years later, with not a single successor growing into the large boots left by Cole. The wounds showed no signs of healing, rather, they grew deeper. Barcelona – the team that had only just sunk Arsenal’s ship deep into the Mariana Trench – unveiled the signing of Thierry Henry for a mere £17m in June 2007. He jumped ship.
Mr. Wenger had sacrificed the image of his legacy (built on trophies, the masses would argue) to ensure the stability of his club for generations to come. He was a long-termist in the truest sense, building a stadium despite growing question marks over its significance. It literally cost him – his hands were tied, tears sinking into the rope, as he had to sell the players he had moulded into legends.
He was feeding off scraps and yet Arsenal will be feeding off the fruits of his labour for decades. To give you the big picture, Mr. Wenger’s net spend at Arsenal totalled to a mere £136m, incomparable to that of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Pep Guardiola deemed Champions League qualification, essentially, a trophy. Mr. Wenger achieved that for a decade at The Emirates; incidentally, poverty-ridden. He had become an enemy to the fans whom he gave his footballing life to. He was a hero.
Sir Alex, widely regarded as the greatest manager in the history of the game, now recognises Mr. Wenger as “[…] without doubt, one of the greatest Premier League managers.”
Mr. Wenger’s legacy shall transcend his era. He has embedded his philosophies deep into his protégés:
– Patrick Vieira – manager of Nice.
– Dennis Bergkamp – coach of Ajax.
– Sol Campbell – manager of Macclesfield.
– Thierry Henry – manager of Monaco.
Mr. Wenger was the architect of modern football in the Premier League. The masses now demand high tempo, quick passing, pressing. They now demand the magic of Mr. Wenger to be replicated at their club. He would often deflect blame away from his player, and it would ricochet onto his heart. Others would pass up this option in pursuit of an untarnished portrait.
We have seen the rise and fall of a Scorsesean tragic hero. Let us raise a glass for architect, philosopher and father-figure: Mr. Wenger – who came, saw, conquered, saw and fell.
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