Heart Of Football

In the end, Wenger is still an Arsenal man through and through

As Arsene Wenger starts his third decade with Arsenal today, the media is playing up the prospects of making him the next England manager.

He smiles. He refuses to rule it out. He says for the millionth time he is committed to Arsenal, but if he were free, then why not?

The man is three weeks shy of his 67th birthday. He is French, and if he wanted it, he would have been the national coach of his own country by now.

Why wouldn't he, when Les Bleus have infinitely more potential to win things than England? And, we should know by now, the French are much more capable of playing with the elan, the expression, the sophistication that are hallmarks of Wenger's teams.

The Parisian football paper used English to spell it out on its front page a few days ago: "God Save Wenger".

Mais Oui, the FA in London would not look anywhere else if Wenger said to wait eight months until his current Arsenal contract ends and he would be England's saviour.

Wenger says he accepts that his love affair at Arsenal could end tomorrow. Don't bet on it. What he wants - really, really wants - is to stay right where he is.

It isn't going to happen, and it wouldn't be right. Wenger is as obsessed now with Arsenal as he was the day he began his tenure there in late September 1966.

He doesn't look back, but if he did he would have the Arsenal Invincibles on his CV. And the "new" Arsenal Stadium because, aside from trying to instill a playing style that helped transform Premier League from Olde English to something continental (indeed global), he also championed and helped design not only the move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, but also a purpose-built training establishment out in the green fields north of London as well.

That, at London Colney, about 32km from north London, has been described as Wenger's laboratory.

Give or take the current crop of injuries that will affect his line-up this evening, Wenger can choose from 13 nationalities - English, French, German, Czech, Chilean, Spanish, Brazilian, Argentinian, Colombian, Nigerian, Egyptian, Swiss and Welsh.

The one criterion they must all obey is to love the ball, not to bruise it in the English way.

Unlike Wenger, I do look back to his arrival. He came directly from Nagoya Grampus Eight where he worked in Japanese football.

His first game was away at Blackburn Rovers, a 2-0 win with Ian Wright bagging both goals. The one foreigner in Arsenal red that day was Patrick Vieira.

If an Englishman were to score at Burnley today, just down the road from Blackburn, it is odds on that it will be Theo Walcott.

Indeed, unless Alex Iwobi fails a fitness test on a knee injury today, the Arsenal team will be Walcott and 10 other nationalities - most likely in this selection:

Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Cazorla, Xhaka (or Coquelin), Walcott, Ozil; Iwobi, Sanchez.

Again, if you looked through the teams Wenger has built and had to rebuild in his 20 years at Arsenal, the most played individuals would be Vieira (French), Thierry Henry (French) and Dennis Bergkamp (Dutch). And they would define something the manager said last week, after Arsenal's 3-0 home win over Chelsea.

"Style," he said, "and steel."

He didn't just say it, he purred. For years the critics of Wenger, mostly people who call themselves Arsenal fans, have cast him as a hopeless romantic, a manager who became a loser putting style before steel.

Down the years, I have argued that it takes more courage to pursue style than simply to revert to the so-called steel that has been a core component to English football.

If Wenger has a fault it is that he put Arsenal's financial welfare ahead of the fans' demands to be a winner.

Arsenal's move from their historical home Highbury to the Emirates almost doubled the crowd capacity. It sat the customers in steel and glass modernity that is luxurious and as expensive as any stadium in the world.

You could feel history at Highbury. You feel wealth at the Emirates.

And it's not just in the name that pushes an airline at you rather than feeling enclosed in one of the most famous homes in the football world.

Wenger took Arsenal into the future, he says to sustain it in a league where oligarchs and oil billionaires changed the financing around the game.

He tried not to compromise, but that is a fault in the eyes of detractors.

He would rather nurture a player than throw the kitchen sink at buying one, though a decade without the EPL title has forced Arsenal to spend big on Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.

Even Walcott was bought, though at an age when Wenger felt he could work on the obvious pace (from Jamaican ancestry) that Walcott possessed as a Southampton teenager.

Right now, the emerging Alex Iwobi is a typical Wenger pupil. Born in Nigeria, the nephew of the famous Jay-Jay Okocha, Iwobi enrolled as a Junior Gunner soon after moving to London at the age of four.

Though the Monsieur doesn't personally coach every youngster in the academy, Iwobi, still only 20, has the Wenger hallmark of looking to play with creativity.

If Iwobi doesn't pass his medical test, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, another English talent purchased from Southampton, could get the chance to show that, at age 23, he still can grow into the effervescent talent Wenger hoped he would be.

And, by Gad, a second Englishman in the team.

Burnley away will remind Wenger of Blackburn away because they are Lancashire clubs steeped in English history from the times of the Industrial Revolution.

Wenger says he accepts that his love affair at Arsenal could end tomorrow. Don't bet on it. The clock is running, but if England (or France or Paris St Germain) think that makes him available, it will do no harm to his negotiating position.

What he wants - really, really wants - is to stay right where he is.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'In the end, Wenger is still an Arsenal man through and through'. Print Edition | Subscribe