The Long-Term View: Arsenal, Arsene and desire

Date published: Tuesday 3rd January 2017 11:31

The dynamics of motivation – how you keep on wanting something – are inextricably linked with the American dream. That country’s willingness to believe, including in who’d make a good President and what that President might be able to achieve, apparently knows no bounds. How we get motivation, now, as a world, seems inescapably American. I.e you can always find it, if you dig deep enough and don’t be a quitter and put on the right pair of Nikes and hit the road.

Maybe. Maybe it hasn’t escaped your notice, but Arsenal haven’t won the title for a while. I’m just kidding – for some of you I imagine every new day involves a grizzled donning of the old Rambo headband before hitting the internet to defend what is good and true about the lack of titles in N1. For the saner Gooners, there’s an inescapable sense that despite the adding of ever more handsome upgrades to the Emirates squad, something pervasive still isn’t right.

Arsene Wenger is not – and this is important – either Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho. This is why I’m paid the big bucks, to notice these things. He’s nicer, for a start. You feel that if you weren’t particularly good at football he’d be the one most keen to help you improve. The list of Arsenal players who’ve been the beneficiary of his inability to show the cold shoulder is long; I was watching Bournemouth play with an Arsenal-supporting friend and when the commentator mentioned ‘loanee Jack Wilshere’, he noted that if Mourinho was the Arsenal manager it would just be ‘Bournemouth player Jack Wilshere’.

Can you imagine Fergie warmly greeting Abou Diaby for a new season?According to Wiki, growing up, Diaby developed fascinations for religion, philosophy, science and astronomy. Can’t help but imagine long conversations in the treatment room about what, if anything, was the relevance of dark matter to the make-up of the human soul, and Wenger once again concluding he’d give his midfielder the protection of a new contract to figure it out.

There can be no more valuable thing to individual footballers, say Aaron Ramsey, than to truly feel the backing of the manager. Wenger digs out and rescues potential where Mourinho never could. Compare Felipe Luis and Nacho Monreal. But there can be few things more detrimental to the razor-edged atmosphere necessary to put opponents to the sword and win titles than knowing that the second-raters are coming along with you for the ride, because the manager can’t help his fatherly nature. No-one wins the league with Olivier Giroud up front, it has been recognised and was the sticking point that Wenger could never look into his beautiful eyes and say, ‘Benzema’s turning up next week’? I know, I know – but I’m pretty sure most Arsenal fans would swap 15 scorpions against Palace for one coolly slotted one-on-one at 0-0 against City.

Wenger’s drive to win titles always seemed a fragile thing; though I think of his pre-Emirates Arsenal at their best as the finest Premier League-era team by a mile, in the end it was only three titles in ten years. And of course no Champions Leagues, where the toughest winner-takes-all nature surfaces. In hindsight, a full body-length in importance above the rest to those teams was Patrick Vieira, given the steel he provided to underpin Wenger’s stubborn refusal to see anything but beauty flourish.

And what could be more beautiful than going unbeaten over a season? The most ultimately aesthetic league table as the reward for the most ultimately aesthetic kind of football – what could top that? What could make you want to? So, dear reader, I speculate, in the private secrecy of human hearts, that Wenger bid farewell to title-winning urges, and found some new goals. To show that he wasn’t swept up by the loopy billionaire economics of his rivals, and could run a tight financial ship; and that he could be a father figure to young footballers. Dunno how consciously he thought the last one, but we’ve all heard him speak about how clubs like City and Chelsea approach life, and it might have been that he just decided that nurturing players like Nicklas Bendtner and Denilson and not simply buying Mateja Kezman and Jo was a suitable antidote to modernity.

Yes, the new stadium. But it insults our intelligences to pretend he didn’t go above and beyond what financial constraints were placed on him, to an almost pathological degree. It had to have some other cause. As mentioned, he’s not Mourinho, whose desire to win seems toxic and joyless and one for the therapist’s chair; and he isn’t Ferguson, whose will to keep on renewing success is a wonder of the modern world. Wenger, you sense, had his goal, to be the beautiful, indisputable best, and once he’d achieved it, there aren’t enough go-be-a-winner Nike adverts under the sun that could stop his focus from waning.

So now Arsenal make a complicated beast: a squad that on paper is absolute 100% competing for the title, and who with the wind in their sails play the best football in the league, although – this is a ballache – Chelsea are coming up strong on that one. And yet, for whatever reasons embedded in the day-to-day and minutes-to-minutes of the club, it’s a team that doesn’t seem capable of doing the necessary killing of teams who might also want the crown. When the weapons were being wielded by Henry and Bergkamp and Pires and Stathis Tavlaridis you could almost forget how sharp they were; until you saw Vieira start the move by taking out someone’s intestine with a tackle.

It makes a kind of sense that Wenger’s greatest signing is the player who could do what he couldn’t – keep the pedal to the metal and splash a little bloodsport among the oil paintings.

Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter

More Related Articles