premier league

Wenger's project is the real deal

September 11, 2009
By Nick Bidwell
(Archive)

There was a moment back in May when Arsene Wenger considered selling his soul to the devil. Not for the first time, and possibly not the last, Real Madrid had come calling for Wenger's services and the Arsenal manager was faced with a dilemma that he readily admits plucked at his heartstrings and tempted him in equal measure.

Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo
GettyImagesKaka and Cristiano Ronaldo head up Real's new look side.

With the Spanish club making their intentions clear ahead of a summer when they reseeded the European football landscape by splashing £215m to snare the world's greatest talent, Wenger appreciated the enormity of the goldmine he was being offered.

The fact that the opportunity came at a moment when his vulnerability was at it's height meant Wenger could have been forgiven for daring to ponder life without his beloved Arsenal. After a season when a handful of supporters had turned against the club's greatest ever manager, walking away would have been less traumatic and yet this man of impeccable moral beliefs refused to buckle.

A month into the new Premier League campaign and Wenger has reasons to believe he made a wise choice by rejecting Real Madrid, choosing to finish his job at Arsenal instead. A fine start to the season was marred by an unfortunate defeat against Manchester United in their last Premier League game, yet the Gunners head into a compelling showdown with top four wannabes Manchester City this Saturday in good heart.

"I have never left a club with a contract running and this will not change," begins Wenger, reflecting on his Real Madrid offer last summer. "I started to build this team and leaving them before the end of the journey would not have been right.

"The great thing for me is I have a great freedom to do my work at Arsenal and that would not be the case everywhere else. As long as I am in control of the situation and being allowed to push the club higher and higher, I will be motivated to stay.

"It has taken a lot of hard work to get what I have at Arsenal. I was under big pressure when I started this job as I needed to prove myself. It's different if you are a big name because you can pick the club you want to manage, but when you are Arsene Wenger, a modest footballer, you have to start in a youth academy. This is why I'm still so interested in all aspects of a football club, from top to bottom.

"I have turned down some excellent jobs to stay at Arsenal because this club provides me with all the challenge I need in my life right now, but you never know what might happen in the future. Football management is all about knowing when to arrive and timing the right moment to leave. I believe I came to Arsenal at the perfect time, but the trouble is I will not know when to go.

"It's very hard for me to imagine being anywhere other than Arsenal. I love this club and that will never change, but I honestly don't know how much longer I will go on in management. I once said a manager had a shelf life of 20 years and now I have been in the job for longer now, so maybe I'm past it already."

Make no mistake, this is the manager who has changed the face of English football since his arrival in 1996, making the foreign manager a trendy accessory all Premier League chairman felt the need to acquire.

And if you ever wondered why the media tend to give him something of a soft ride, then his charming Friday press briefings at Arsenal's London Colney training complex may explain why many of us have been reluctant to plunge the knife into his side's faltering efforts of late.

The occasionally angry and bitter Wenger who is on display after defeats on a Saturday is a very different character to the placid and elegant gentleman we are swooned with each week as he goes out of his way to ensure the press get their story, using us for his own benefit at times as well.

Wenger's failure to land a trophy over the last four years has been glossed over by large chunks of the media who still view him as something of an untouchable messiah, yet that may be partly down to the fact that he puts such a brilliantly poetic spin on his near misses.

"People keep reminding me that we have not won a trophy in four years, but we have not had a disastrous season as yet," he argues. "When you are out of the title race, not in the Champions League knockout stages and nowhere in the cups or the Premier League, that is a disastrous season. This has never been the story for us as our consistency is among the very best in Europe in the last decade.

"We have done it while deciding to focus on the youth programme as it allows me to influence the players from a very early age and understand the culture of a club. I am convinced this team will start winning soon."

Arsene Wenger puts his young players through their paces
GettyImagesArsene Wenger puts his young Arsenal players through their paces

Many of his admirers in the media pack feared our Friday lunchtime "love-ins" with Wenger may be coming to an end as he lost yet another two star men in the summer and, seemingly, failed to replace them. Yet he has plenty of reasons for optimism as he prepares for a reunion with Kolo Toure and striker Emmanuel Adebayor at Manchester City this weekend.

In many ways, Toure and Adebayor opted to take path Wenger rejected this summer as they following the money laden road to Manchester, leaving behind the manager who spurned such an offering himself.

"We believe the offers for the two players was good for us and that is why they are wearing Manchester City shirts," is Wenger's view of the double sale that reaped a total of £41m for Arsenal. "It doesn't mean they will enjoy more success than us from now on just because they are at a club with bigger finance.

"We have decided to try and achieve success using the natural resources of our club. By that I mean television revenue, ticket sales and merchandise. Manchester City and Real Madrid have gone a different route this summer, but it does not always guarantee instant success.

"From my experience, clubs who try to create success by signing five or six expensive players and trying to mould a team in a few weeks are not always successful. Maybe City can be different, but no one knows how quickly it will click for them. City have not been in the top four before, so it will be tough to get in there now, but I welcome the challenge they present this season.

"My only concern about Manchester City is they have inflated the market in terms of wage demands for players. People know what is on offer at City and see this as normal. It's difficult for the rest of us to compete with their philosophy."

Arsenal's clash with City is as much a collision of morals as it is of styles as the side determined to succeed using traditional income flow attempts to quell the fire being stoked by City's Arab billions.

As has been the case for the bulk of the Premier League's 16-year history, Arsene Wenger is at the heart of yet another fascinating story.