Committing Arsène


On the strange, irreplaceable singularity of Le Professeur

By Kevin Alexander | Photo via Ronnie Macdonald
“When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.” — Otto von Bismarck

[B]efore you go to sleep at night, as you’re staring at your ceiling counting Matthew Le Tissier volleys, do you ever get the feeling that Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger is essentially soccer’s Otto von Bismarck? After all, he employs a complicated strategy that only he understands/controls, he is a master of influencing things behind the scenes, and when he retires (or is deposed by Stan Kroenke, aka Kaiser Wilhelm II), it seems more than likely that everything will fall apart. Hyperinflation will occur, and the Arsène-less Gunners management team will somehow end up paying a 41 year old Zlatan Ibrahimovic 32 million wheelbarrows worth of money.

Everything about this man is interesting and weird and complicated in a way that doesn’t necessarily make sense. Save for Newcastle’s John Carver and Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers — both of whom had their careers end at 20 because of injury — every other manager in the EPL is an ex-pro of some caliber. Wenger, on the other hand, was a middling amateur up in Alsace, which is primarily known for producing dry rieslings and dogs that look a suspicious amount like German shepherds.

His first gig as a coach was as an assistant at Ligue 2 club AS Cannes. But then, the next year, he somehow ended up getting the full manager job at (best named club ever) Nancy, a league up from Cannes. Let me repeat that. Arsène Wenger left his assistant job in Ligue 2 for a head coaching job in Ligue 1. It’s basically as if current Rotherham United assistant manager Paul Raynor all of sudden left to go manage Manchester United. On top of this, during Wenger’s tenure Nancy finished 12th, 18th, and 19th and were relegated. And YET, despite leading his team to worse and worse finishes that ended in relegation, AS Monaco– much bigger and wealthier AS Monaco–liked what they saw and brought him on. From there, he had nearly astonishing success, building a top level team that played Champions League football, and, after a brief stint in Japan, landing the job offer at Arsenal in 1996.

Wenger was a middling amateur up in Alsace, which is primarily known for producing dry rieslings and dogs that look a suspicious amount like German shepherds.

That year just happened to coincide with the time I started to really care about EPL soccer in an organized fashion. As a kid, I’d rooted for Celtic, but that was just because everyone Irish and Catholic and from the Boston area supported Celtic. By 1996, as a sophomore in high school playing lots of soccer, and ordering lots of Lanzera Jackals from the Soccer Madness and Eurosport catalogs, I was obsessed with Ian Wright and Arsenal (NOTE: I didn’t make the conversion to Southampton until 1999). And here comes this stork limbed Alsatian coach, whose first orders of business are to purchase a couple of French players and spend an inordinate amount of time making sure the youth program was in top form. At the time, Arsenal players were suspicious of his demeanor/attire/ability to speak English. “I thought: what does this Frenchman know about football?” said Tony Adams, in a 2009 interview with the Telegraph. “He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher… Does he even speak English properly?”

But that teacher (with an advanced degree in economics, by the by) had a plan in place, and a form of football that basically wasn’t really seen in England in the 90s. His probing, possession-keeping, attack-minded style opened my eyes to the different iterations of soccer, and the for the first time I began to understand that witnessing the kick-and-run, or punt-and-pray style was in no way the same as watching a team build an attack through quick passing, deft touch, and movement. It was as if I’d spent my entire life thinking that AM radio was the best way to experience music, and then accidentally stumbled into a symphony orchestra concert.

And that beautiful music was playing in concerto this past weekend versus West Ham. The first goal, by French Adam Levine, er, Olivier Giroud, was the result of nearly seven straight one touch passes. The second featured Giroud and Ramsey playing a one-two in the box the announcer called “Brilliantly simple. Simply brilliant.” And finally, the third consisted of something like infinity one touch passes, a brilliant one-two to Santi Cazorla, and a tap-in goal for Mathieu Flamini, who had just stepped onto the pitch.

Teams that don’t have very strong team defenses get absolutely cut up when Arsenal is on form. Teams that contain Arsenal’s attack are able to break up those small passes, but — as a former center back — I can attest to the fact that this is extremely hard to do when someone isn’t holding up the ball for more than one touch. Defenders can’t tackle, and must actually maintain strict and disciplined positions and avoid following the ball or leaving themselves exposed, all of which goes against defender’s natural instincts, because all you want to do is tackle someone and take the ball off of them, and look handsome and clever and loved. And that is the trap that Wenger’s system sets for you, because — by the time you tackle — the ball has already been laid off and there is a one-two opportunity behind you for goal, and no one will look you in the eyes because you have failed your team and yourself and are now ugly and alone.

That is the trap that Wenger’s system sets for you.

Arsenal, when they play like they did against West Ham, look like the best team in the EPL. At times, when the ball moves so fluidly forward, they look like the best team in the world. But when they fail to live up to Arsène’s crazy, beautiful, utopian strain of total football 3.0, they can also look like the third best team in Canada. It’s a conceit that has dogged Wenger for years: The fact that his team must be playing at such a high level to succeed, whereas other top squads–like Chelsea or Man City–can have off-games and still manage to win ugly. Arsène doesn’t do ugly.

While I was researching this, I asked several diehard Arsenal supporters to name their issues with Wenger, and the same themes came up time and again:

1) He very rarely is willing to spend top money to get top players

2) He gets uncharacteristically conservative in crucial away matches

3) He puts an alarming amount of faith in young players

4) He says things like “the first trophy is to finish in the top four.”

5) He would rather lose his way than compromise his style and win.

Almost every one of the supporters then went on to say that — despite these perceived flaws — they can’t imagine Arsenal without him. After all, you can’t remove the soul from the body, and expect it to keep going. My friend Brad summed it up best, “All that said, if we had to elect a president of the world, we’d do worse than Arsène. He is progressive, passionate about playing attractive football, egalitarian on and off the field, a polyglot, and very much a gentleman, so I still love the dude. I don’t think Arsenal will win the EPL/Champions League while he’s our manager, but still it’s almost always worth having him around.”

President of the world, huh? Sound like anyone else you’ve heard of?

Check back here every week for more EPL talk and references to all the hip indoor soccer shoes of 1996. Or just follow Kevin on Twitter @KAlexander03, and he’ll mail you out his old Soccer Madness catalogues, assuming you pay for shipping and handling.