When you watch Arsenal these days, what gets your attention isn’t necessarily the match on the pitch. More often than not it’s more fun watching Wenger.
Writing about managers was always fun and my favourites were Benitez and Wenger. I was wont to amuse myself with a satirical riff about Wenger having Tourettes because his behaviour was odd and he developed compulsive mannerisms that he could not control. I thought he was cured but he’s had a relapse.
When they played Liverpool recently, what did he think he was doing marching up to Dalglish and throwing his weight about? Gooner blogs were openly asking the question “Has he lost the plot?” But the diabolical, unspoken notion on every Gooners’ mind is that the ‘condition’ had returned.
And they’re right. The tic’s back. The title is beyond Arsenal but Wenger refuses to acknowledge the truth. In the dugout, the shoulders gyrate uncontrollably round his upper body, the rictus grin tightens the muscles at his neck pulling his twitching face left and right, and the crowd watches helplessly.
A month ago at White Hart Lane the tic went full on. The Tourettes was accompanied by Sydenham’s Chorea (a.k.a. St Vitas Dance) and the full effect was hypnotic. In the seat, out the seat, back in again. Up and down the touchline waving his arms like a lunatic tortured by demons.
You knew it was going to end in tears. Wenger, himself, knew what was coming – his team was going to surrender a 3-1 lead. When a public man wants something not to happen as badly as Wenger wants it not to happen, there’s only one outcome. It’s going to happen. And, of course, it did. Funny as f**k. Nothing personal, you understand, – I had no stake in the result – but it was Pythonesque. I laughed like a drain. And a million others.
And we thought we had blind faith…
After the Spurs match, I read in the press that Wenger still believed that Arsenal could win the title. I’m not making this up. “If Man United did this and City did that and Chelsea did the other thing, Arsenal could win the title.”
Now, of course, all Arsenal are after is respectability – third place. Watching Villa on TV isn’t like being at the match but one thing you do get is close ups of the manager. Two down after fifteen minutes – after Bent had casually strolled through his team’s defence with weapons-grade finishing – Wenger’s face was a picture. You knew every thought and expectation that was going through his head – the cold, bloodless certainty of being passed for third by Man City, the post-match lap of abuse, the terrible indignity of having to explain the inexplicable and the knowledge that the gods were destroying him for their amusement.
Unlike the Spurs debacle Wenger contented himself with sitting passively in his seat. All the fight had left him. He was a broken man.
It’s the pressure. Remorseless, unrelenting, pitiless pressure will do this to a man. The phenomenon has been understood throughout all human history, in all cultures. What successful leaders tried to do before the Football League got going, when nations settled these things by actually going to war, was to take the pressure off their men because it made them fearful and inhibited performance.
The same holds true today when sport has taken the place of war. A manager’s first priority is to take the pressure off the players so that, in the modern idiom, they can “express themselves”. Why do you think that José Mourinho doesn’t act in this unhinged fashion? Because he knows that the players on the pitch can smell their manager’s fear and it unsettles them. It breeds more fear and it spreads to the fans and, pretty soon, the entire stadium is engulfed in it. Tension grips everything and leads to a compelling, overarching dread of making a mistake in front of sixty thousand critical fans. Players start to hide.
This has always been known. Down the ages.
Winning – it’s a pressure alright
The consuming desire to win and the uncontrolled pressure that accompanies it is the very thing that guarantees failure. For Arsenal, the regular abandonment of winning positions, the fiasco of the late goal in the League Cup final against the noses, are merely expressions of Wenger’s inability to handle the pressure.
For Arsenal, their woes stem from the manager, just as it did when Benitez was in charge at Liverpool. These truths are eternal. I love this game.