FEATURE: Bullish Wenger always the paradox after refusal to be cowed by Spurs revival
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London Colney is paradox. Too distant to be a North London suburb. Its location – a short traffic jam from the thundering M25 – makes it too busy to be genuinely quiet. Yet it is situated in the heart of the placid Hertfordshire countryside.
No-one would have heard of it were it not for Arsenal having their training centre there.
Every Arsenal fan on the planet knows this is the nerve-centre, the heartbeat of the club.
The manicured pitches are where greatness has been carved into memories through unseen hard work. A place where legends sweated blood and gave their all – and in the case of one much-loved, long-serving hero, the late, great Geordie Armstrong, sadly died serving The Arsenal.
It is a place where manager Arsene Wenger, long-serving, under-fire Arsene Wenger, previously honed some of the greatest players, and teams, in its history.
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It is also a place where he holds court.
Where, if you are lucky, he expounds with grace, with knowledge, with eloquence, wit and magnanimity that puts certain international managers to utter shame with his willingness to engage in intelligent, interesting conversation – on a whole host of topics.
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But it is also where you can listen to his utter stubborness and his refusal to take anyone else’s views on board – even in the face of persistent criticism of his failure to take the club to the ‘next level’.
A place where he can expound blinkered views on his team, with disingenuousness, and a haughty air, that the failures of recent years have sadly turned to hubris – and if the wishes of many come true soon – nemesis too.
What was once taken for impish confidence and a solid belief in himself, his methods and tellingly, his men, is now, sadly reduced to a series of increasingly derided statements that are savaged through the prism of social media by opponents – and it has to be said, those who campaign for him to stay – on Twitter, the 21st century version of the stocks.
Colney’s calm insulates from sporting earthquakes beyond the gates, a good thing when solitude is required away from the maelstrom, but a bad thing when an injection of new information away from the bubble is needed to make sense of seismic events.
Outside views were hardened during a miserable spell, prompted by an unwelcome and unexpected home defeat by Watford at the Emirates in late January which led to being outclassed by Chelsea, a brace of 5-1 humiliations against the dangerous if not invincible Bayern Munich, and four defeats on the road which hadn’t happened since the 1920s.
The desperate run reached its nadir in South London, at Selhurst Park on April 10, where the team subsided to a 3-0 defeat – in particular the manner of the spineless loss that had the majority of impeccably loyal fans crammed in the away end that night calling for him to leave.
Yet fast-forward three short weeks.
His team has three wins in three, including a backs-to-the-wall Wembley triumph last weekend against Manchester City that saw Arsenal reach the FA Cup Final – his seventh. He also instigated a dramatic change in formation from 4-2-3-1 to three at the back in a 3-4-2-1 shape that brought the best out of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal, who have been revelations as wing backs,
The glint is back in his eye, even if the majority of fans don’t believe in him anymore. Only hours after he speaks supporters who wish him to leave their club project ‘Wenger Out’ signs over iconic London buildings including Highbury and Marble Arch.
But none of this matters at the Arsenal Training Centre – for if the Emirates is his Camelot, Colney is the real capital of Wenger’s realm.
He walks into his press conference with intent.
He may have a craggy face, and grey hair but his tall, thin frame belies his 67 years.
He wears a tracksuit and is ready to take training. He is king of all he surveys in this part of Hertfordshire that borders on North London – at least once he has got through another press conference.
The tone in his voice is credible and measured, even if many experienced observers are cynical about his bullishness.
He is in serious mood. For the main topic of conversation is this afternoon’s North London Derby.
The last at White Hart Lane as we know it. Before the Lillywhites embark on a Wembley odyssey before returning to their rebuilt – and unfamiliar – home.
Wenger holds court. He is in his element.
Despite the fact, should Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur beat Arsenal this afternoon they will, finally, end a season above their rivals in the Premier League since 1995.
But for Wenger the inconvenient truth of being 14 points behind will not represent a shift in power between these two North London neighbours.
He says: “You cannot say the weight of one year has the weight of 20.
“Let’s be honest, I answer the question of a shift for 18 consecutive years. Nothing changes in that – and you cannot say the weight of one year has the weight of 20.
“When we finish 20 years above them, it’s not important and now suddenly it becomes important.
“Yes, it matters – we want to be stronger than Spurs but we want to be stronger than everybody. The priority for us is to finish in the top four.”
Is that disingenuousness or positivity? As ever with Wenger the truth lies in between these days.
Wenger will be taking charge of his 50th derby in this often compelling, often fractious fixture.
Tottenham last ended a season in a higher position than Arsenal 22 years ago – the year before Wenger was installed as Highbury overlord.
But this year it seems certain this impressive, young, hungry team led by talisman Harry Kane – who was pictured in an Arsenal shirt outside Highbury the day Wenger’s men won the league at the Lane this month 13 years ago – will be confirmed as having a higher placing should they win later today.
Defeat for Arsenal would leave them 17 points behind Spurs with a maximum of 15 to collect.
Again that Wenger defiance: “We play for our future and to continue our run. We know what is needed, on that front it is quite simple. We will not sit back, we try to go forward and win the game. We’re ready for the fight.
“You focus on what you think is right and let everyone talk, that’s what I do.”
Even if he accepted the home side are favourites going into the match – on the back of 15 consecutive wins in all competitions at the soon-to-be-demolished White Hart Lane he refuses to accept a Spurs victory would underline a long-term significance, symbolic or otherwise.
If Chelsea lose at Everton this afternoon and Tottenham win the derby then Pochettino’s side will be just a point behind the leaders – but Wenger was forecasting a difficult couple of years ahead regardless, once they leave their current home, first to play at Wembley for a season, then a new dawn on their £750 million new stadium.
“It will be very difficult, much more than you can imagine. First of all, you face financial restrictions, which we did. Overall, it might be less in future because you have more income.
“Secondly because you don’t feel at home like you were before. And you need to recreate a kind of history to feel comfortable and to feel like you play at home. How long does it take? I would say two years.”
He also found time to talk about Spurs star Dele Alli, saying he had him scouted ‘many, many times’ – even though Spurs won the coveted former MK Dons starlet’s signature in 2015, with and 21-year-old showing true quality since.
“We looked at him. He’s done very well, he’s a complete player, he’s dangerous and it’s marvellous at his age.”
Arsenal are in sixth, four points behind Manchester United in fifth and five points behind Manchester City in fourth with a game in hand on both sides.
Wenger says central defender Laurent Koscielny, so pivotal in his back three formation, has a ‘60/40 chance’ of facing Spurs, having picked up a knee injury in Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Leicester City.
Yet even if the defender is ruled out Wenger insists he could still play three at the back. With Shkodran Mustafi out with a thigh strain, the impressive Rob Holding could come into Arsenal’s backline.
The Frenchman was full of praise for the former Bolton player after the 21-year-old impressed greatly in his previous two performances – against Middlesbrough and then Manchester City in last weekend’s Wembley win.
Wenger explained: “He has a great future because he is very intelligent and has objective analysis of own performance.
“He’s very bright about what’s happening, he analyses well and understands. He reads the game well.”
Returning to his glories briefly Wenger admitted his favourite victory was when his soon-to-be Invincibles turned into immortals on that never-to-be-forgotten sunny April afternoon in 2004. But he also cautioned now is not the time for nostalgia.
There is business to be taken care of first, even if he did raise a laugh by saying to all assembled he could write a ‘whole book’ about managing Arsenal in the white-hot heat of White Hart Lane in the North London derby.
It will be the end of an era at Spurs soon as they move out of their beloved – and often intimidating – home.
Whether the next few weeks will see the end of the Wenger era is another matter entirely.
But one thing is for certain.
Just like today’s eagerly awaited game, the whole world will be watching – as it’s not just unprepossessing London Colney that is a paradox.
Arsene Wenger is too.