x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's obstinacy rewarded

Stubbornness and going against the grain is the hallmark of a great manager, traits the Gunners coach possesses in abundance, writes Richard Jolly.

Arsene Wenger, second from right, has been in the Arsenal manager’s job for 16 years.
Arsene Wenger, second from right, has been in the Arsenal manager’s job for 16 years.

Along with the skill to identify talent, coach players and motivate men, stubbornness may be an essential part of a great manager's make-up. The capacity to disregard everyone else's opinion and pursue an unpopular course is either brave or unwise, and sometimes both.

At times, Arsene Wenger appears to straddle the great divide between the two. On others, if the majority are to be believed, he is firmly on the foolhardy side. Yet football matches are not won by democracy, as Arsenal's stunning 5-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday showed.

Had it been put to a vote at the Emirates Stadium, it is almost certain Arsenal would not have started with Yossi Benayoun, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott and still less likely that Walcott would have re-emerged after the interval. If some had their way, Wenger's reign would be nearing its end.

Instead a beleaguered manager received an overdue reward for his loyalty. Some of his most-maligned players rallied to his cause.

Bacary Sagna, outpaced with embarrassing ease by Zlatan Ibrahimovic during Arsenal's 4-0 Champions League demolition by AC Milan, began the revival with a thumping header.

Rosicky, a midfielder who has rarely imposed himself upon games and appeared to have abandoned all interest in goal scoring, capped a dominant display with a perfectly-timed run to the near post to put Arsenal ahead.

Walcott, who seems to have replaced Andrey Arshavin as the Arsenal crowd's bete noire, scored the fourth and fifth goals with clinical assurance. In preferring the often frustrating Walcott to the precocious Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wenger went against the grain. He often does, to the extent that it can appear a deliberate policy: the more others urge him to do something - spend, generally - the more pronounced his bloody-minded streak becomes. It can render him exasperating, but those painting a pattern of irreversible decline ought to acknowledge his successes.

For long, Wenger was urged to buy a goalkeeper; uncharacteristically, he even offered £20 million (Dh116,503m) for Pepe Reina. Yet Wojciech Szczesny's development this season has shown that the answer lay within all along.

Others would have discarded Laurent Koscielny after an error-strewn first season in England. While the Frenchman's second year has been notable for some lamentable defending elsewhere in the back four, he has shown a marked improvement. Meanwhile, the departed, disappointing Arshavin is proof that signing experienced players for sizeable fees is not always an instant remedy.

Wenger's problem is that he is no longer given the benefit of the doubt. There are many among his old admirers whose new motto appears to be "in Arsene we distrust".

Decisions are scrutinised for mistakes, not masterstrokes: those that backfire, like the replacement of Oxlade-Chamberlain with Arshavin against Manchester United, are highlighted. Accentuating the negative was understandable when Arsenal effectively exited two cup competitions in four, terrible days, losing 4-0 to Milan and 2-0 to Sunderland in the FA Cup.

Yet the other side of the equation is that they have won their last three league games, scoring 14 goals in the process. A side who are often deemed lacking in fighting qualities are scrapping for fourth place, albeit stylishly. One who supposedly lack leaders have displayed spirit in abundance by coming from behind to win their last two league games against in-form sides.

In a season that has included some extreme, embarrassing lows, the high points can be overlooked. But Sunday showed that radically different conclusions can be drawn by the game. It is not as simple as saying Arsenal are a fading force, that Wenger's philosophy has failed and his powers are on the wane. Talk of crisis only tells one side of the story.

It is why the Frenchman should be forgiven when he indulged in a little gentle gloating by saying: "Arsenal is alive more than anyone thought before this game."

And, after 16 years in London and reinventing a club, Arsenal can mean Wenger. With him, it is personal: this is not merely a team but, in its style of play and ethos, an extension of his personality.

There has always been a fragility to Arsenal's position, but Walcott's second goal meant they leapfrogged Chelsea to return to the final Champions League position. Remain there and it would be a huge achievement.

Yet brilliantly as Arsenal demolished Tottenham, it is possible that only the magnificent Robin van Persie of Wenger's charges would be guaranteed a place in a combined north London XI.

If that emphasises the need for high-calibre recruits in the summer, when Wenger will have both the time and the budget to buy and few reasons not to, it is a sign that Chelsea, not the Gunners, are the capital's real underachievers.

Arsenal, victorious and glorious, have now scored five goals against both of their major London rivals this season.

Their obdurate manager can still infuriate whenever he persists with underachievers, selects a back four who fail to observe the basics of defending or repeat familiar failings, but sometimes the solitary path Wenger plots is the right one.

And when it is, his idiosyncrasies should be celebrated.



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