Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Wenger calm amongst barrage of criticism
In the week when Arsene Wenger's 16-year honeymoon period as Arsenal manager came to an end, he has responded to the criticism flowing his way in a typically philosophical manner.
As supporters chanted 'you don't know what you're doing' in Wenger's direction during the 0-0 draw against Aston Villa on Saturday, this most cherished of sporting leaders was left in little doubt that some of his former disciples are no longer signing from his hymn sheet. A small rebellion it may have been, but the danger is it is a movement that could gather momentum.
However, the supporters who accused this manager and this club of lacking clarity in the direction they are heading were surely more misguided than the targets of their angst. After all, Wenger and Arsenal could not be more clear about their aims and ambitions, with their motives more vivid than any club in the Premier League.
Many years ago, Arsenal and Wenger opted to prioritise the development of their Emirates Stadium home ahead of a fruitless battle to take on the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City in the race for the game's biggest stars. It was a decision they simply could not reverse.
Love or hate this ethos, Wenger and his board are following different rules to the major trophy winners of recent years and, in their eyes, the huge new £150m sponsorship deal signed with Emirates Airlines last week was evidence that they are ticking the right boxes as they try to move their business forward.
It would have been easy for Wenger to strike out at those who questioned his judgement, but that just isn't his style. So the manager, who has taken Arsenal into the knock-out phase of the Champions League for a 13th successive season, took a step back from the hullabaloo surrounding his unpleasantly miserable night at Villa Park as he opted to assume the moral high ground he tends to stand upon.
Putting the 'mini revolt' down to a minority whose bark is more potent than their bite, he looked uncomfortable discussing the event as he met the media at Arsenal's London Colney training base for his latest press briefing ahead of Wednesday night's game against Everton.
"I am not worried about me, I am worried about the club and the team," began Wenger, his tone more pointed and muted than is his norm. "I think I have always shown my 100 per-cent commitment and loyalty to this club. I can only give my best and let people judge. My job is to get the best out of my team with the potential we have and this is what we try to do every day. It does not hurt at all if some criticise.
"At the end of last season we finished third. Honestly, I don't think there was much more in the team than finishing third. My pride came from maximising potential. This is also my target. Like when we won the Premier League with zero defeats, which never anybody else has done, you can think there is not much room to do much better.
"The players are like me. They give their best to play well. We don't give too much importance to those fans' reaction. Our job is somewhere else, on the football pitch, to give our best on the pitch. If you have any emotional reaction, you have nothing to do in our job."
Wenger's response to the criticism coming his way was typically calm and calculated, with his reluctance to goad his detractors an attempt to dampen down the flames of their frustration at their source and, in truth, Arsenal supporters can hardly claim to be surprised by the chain of events that is befalling their team this season.
They won't win the Premier League next May, which is hardly a surprise. They may not even win a trophy for an eighth year. What's new? In Wenger and Arsenal's mind, they are following a plan based around their hope that UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules will give them a chance to compete for major honours once again.
The trouble is, patience is not a word Wenger's former loyal devotees are too keen on any more. Excuses are wearing thin and it's hardly surprising because football fans find it hard to celebrate buoyant balance sheets as a compensation for trophies.
Then there is the thorny issue of player sales, which is again linked to the club's financial structure. Wenger insisted Robin van Persie would sign a new contract when most suspected he would leave and in the end, the majority were proved correct. The same story was true with Cesc Fabregas, with Samir Nasri, with Alex Song.
Theo Walcott is following a similar script as his contract wrangle edges towards his inevitable departure and now there is talk of contract talks being muted for returning hero Jack Wilshere. An Arsenal boy through and through, all concerned can hope his tale has a different conclusion.
If Arsenal fans do not like the fact that they support a club trying to work with a morally sound conscience amid a Premier League dominated by teams who spend money with garish abandon, they really need to consider moving their loyalty elsewhere as Wenger and his board will not change direction for any disgruntled fan.
"People forget we built a new stadium, we had to go through limited resources and maintained the club at the top and that we didn't have the money available," Wenger added.
"I accepted to stay and to do that and overall I believe we maintained the club at the top and we are now going towards a period where we will be able to compete again financially with other clubs. We knew that would happen, so let's hope we can show that in the future.
"This has not been a painful period for Arsenal. It was an exciting period as well because at the end of the day we just qualified for 13 consecutive years in the last 16 of the Champions League and even with all the financial resources we have now it is not sure we will achieve that in the next 13 years.
"I can only give my best. My desire is to make my fans happy and to share the football I love with them, but if it doesn't happen I am not happy."
Wenger has long been confused and irritated by the adulation lavished on clubs achieving success thanks primarily to vast investors who have changed the rules of the game in the last decade, yet the new generation are here to stay and Arsenal need to find a way of combatting them.
As their most celebrated manager of all-time is finding out, no one is free from criticism at a time when Arsenal's future on the field seems less certain than their financial stability off it.