Wenger needs his Arsenal team to evoke Spirit of 89 to beat Spurs in North London derby
PUBLISHED: 09:59 17 November 2017 | UPDATED: 10:23 17 November 2017
I drove east around the M25 to Enfield after Arsene Wenger’s press conference at London Colney on Thursday to make the short trip to Hotspur Way to hear Mauricio Pochettino talk about the North London derby.
It was hugely instructive.
My rule of thumb when trying to decode what lies behind ‘managerspeak’ is to decipher who is bullish and who downplays their team.
For invariably the boss that talks up their team is the one under pressure.
It was no surprise then to earlier hear Wenger deny his team were underdogs. To insist a North London derby isn’t about being strong it’s about being efficient. To refer to the past when speaking of the present.
When a journalist mentioned his teams had qualified for the Champions League for a long time the Frenchman interjected spikily and unnecessarily pointing out it was ‘20 years’ – like an old heavyweight boxer telling people exactly how many belts he won at his prime when everyone knew how good he was back then without the aid of statistics.
It’s one thing to refuse to admit your bitter rivals have a better team - why on earth would anyone do that - but quite it’s another to hand out advice on how to win silverware, even if the club has picked up three FA Cups in four years, two of which have been while ‘Poch’ has been in charge.
Not least because the promise fans were sold upon leaving beloved Highbury - namely striving to compete with top clubs domestically and in Europe simply hasn’t happened.
At the Spurs training ground – bright, spacious, immaculately groomed and open plan in a way the perfectly adequate Colney shouts 1999 – the former Argentine was full of praise for Arsenal’s 68-year-old boss.
If he wasn’t hailing his longevity he was full of admiration for Wenger’s ‘innovation’. Or he was calling for respect for the Frenchman.
In short he was speaking up his rival. And you only do that when you are supremely confident of your team’s abilities.
It’s a rule of thumb that also works well in Europe.
Before the sorry Gunners lost 5-1 to Munich, after the first 5-1 in Bavaria, or the second 5-1 depending on if you count the 5-1 in 2015 (if you get what I’m trying to say about repeatedly losing 5-1 to a club we were supposed to be on level terms with if you believe some people at Arsenal) – Wenger talked up his side’s chances. In the second leg last March he was still doing it. And afterwards too.
A friend remarked to me it feels every time you talk about Wenger you have to preface your remarks with, ‘yes, he was amazing between 1996 and 2006, and yes the personal abuse is not only wrong but disgusting’ and says far more about the inarticulate inadequacies of the abuser than the victim but, criticising Wenger for the stubbornness of his football decisions since 06-07 that has taken the club to this point is utterly justified.
His myopia is legendary. How Arsenal fans used to laugh when he’d insist he hadn’t seen a controversial incident - now he won’t even admit he’s got a bandage on his arm.
As was the case at Colney on Thursday when a journalist asked him why he had a bandage on his elbow, Wenger became at first defensive, before his furtive attempts to change the subject bordered on the preposterous.
It was symptomatic of his leadership of the club at this moment in time. A refusal to admit something is wrong even if is staring you in the face.
And when he started talking about it being better to be efficient than tough in a bitterly fought derby you felt sad.
Not least for the interview Lee Dixon gave in the stunning 89 The Film where he recalls in delicious detail being pinned up again the wall while his peers told him what it meant to play for – and win against – when they played Spurs.
I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the premier at the Art Deco Holloway Odeon, a long goal kick from the Emirates and interviewed a whole host of names from that glorious era. What hit me was the pride they had playing for The Arsenal. As if they had struck lucky turning out for such a great club.
There was also a real feeling of togetherness, a band of brothers against the world.
As they mucked around, joking with each other it made me smile warmly at sight a beautiful sight.
I missed four games home and away – including that fantastic 3-2 victory at White Hart Lane in 88-89 Dixon talked about with awe – and to see those heroes in such fine form three decades on has been far and away the highlight of the season for me.
You wonder if the 2047 reunion of this year’s FA Cup winners will be quite so joyous.
Perhaps Wenger needs to invoke the spirit of 89 rather than decry legends for giving their honest opinions on Wenger’s team - legends who were winning trophies for Arsenal FC long before he’d arrived.
As Lee Dixon told me last week it feels like Arsenal have lost their way under Wenger. My visit to the Spurs training ground to listen to Pochettino hasn’t changed my impression that Spurs are a club on the rise.
Let’s get this straight – for those of us who have had to endure the ‘delights’ of coming out of the away end at the old Lane – to face cowardly aggression through coins and fists and spittle – targeted at men, women and children at times – for anyone who calls themselves a Gooner to hope for a loss against Spurs in order to accelerate the departure of Wenger is nothing more than a traitor.
Quite simply if you get to the point of being so embittered you want your team to lose in a North London derby – on social media or in real life, well you’re not welcome in N5, ever.
But perhaps the most telling comment Dixon made to me was when he said with no pleasure, and a little incredulity, given how far the Lillywhires were behind Arsenal in his day, that Spurs are becoming what Arsenal used to be: A good side with young hungry players under an inspiring and world class boss with a state of the art training centre and a world class stadium.
Let’s hope Arsenal triumph on the pitch on Saturday – for if they don’t we may well be hearing a lot more of Wenger talking up his past achievements and Poch being respectful about Wenger and Arsenal to the point of absurdity.
For wasn’t it Bruce Springsteen who once sang: ‘You glorify the past when the future dries up’?’