Arsène Wenger squeezes sadly into last season’s tactical skinny jeans
Among the many oddities of Arsène Wenger’s long goodbye at Arsenal – the anger, the corporate vacuum, the sense of some dying sun-king exploring the outer edges of his own vanity – one of the more interesting details is the weird, gimmicky switch to a back three in the past few matches.
It is an unsettling move at this stage, a kind of ageing-swinger version of tactical innovation. At one point in his classic Rabbit novels, John Updike sends his paunchy, middle-aged anti-hero Harry Angstrom off on a slightly sad wife-swapping escapade during a golfing holiday in the Caribbean. Alone in the bamboo chalet, Harry and nice prim Thelma fumble through their belated moment of 1960s swing with an awkward married tenderness. Eventually, a little desperate, in search of something special and exciting to do, they end up urinating on each other in the bath.
This is pretty much what Arsenal’s back three seem like: confused, fumbling, spreading across the chest like a hot, sweet flush of ammoniac regret. Wenger kept the back three in place against Tottenham last Sunday. Faced with an entire team grooved and drilled to play this way, it was exposed as what it is, a suit of borrowed clothes, the act of a man looking, slightly desperately, for something to do.
This is a surprising turn in the Wenger endgame. Personally, I’d been expecting him to become more, not less Arsène-like with time, more obsessed with that old vision of fluent, soft-shoed Wenger-ball. Instead we have this: odd positional shifts, a lumpen midfield and perhaps the least Wenger-like team in two decades.
Of course, by any reasonable standards Wenger should have already gone, or at least be on the verge of announcing his departure. This is not a punitive judgment. Wenger doesn’t deserve to be jeered off or have his outstanding record belittled. But all things have an end date, even good ones.
Instead the signs are that he will stay on. And so we have the current dog days, and a manager who seems a little less recognisable with every passing week. Perhaps this is where some of the genuine disdain, the gleeful piling in of the past few days comes from. Even Wenger told Norwegian TV this week that he “hates himself” when Arsenal lose. And watching him writhe on the touchline at White Hart Lane, cold and terribly thin, out there in his skinny legged trousers, icicles dripping from his nose, there was above all an air of sadness.
Often the most gripping thing about watching managers fail is the way certain traits are pulled out and exaggerated to defining effect. When Pep Guardiola hits a sticky patch he seems to become an ever-more extreme Guardiola, a great whirring brain producing teams so fluent and frictionless they barely seem to touch the turf. José Mourinho fails by going Mourinho-supernova, drowning in his own bile, a cartoon of José-ness but still undeniably himself.
By contrast one thing this current, prosaic Arsenal team lack is a bit of basic Wenger-ness. Until quite recently most people seemed to agree the great flaw in Arsenal’s system was that they had too much craft in midfield, an excess of slick passing and flashy movement. Buy a tough, strong central player, they said. Change your formation, they said. So he did, but like a man out of his comfort zone, lost in this new world, shuffling anxiously across the avocado bathroom suite, quilted gown trailing on the tiles.
At the end of which this latest Wenger team has a midfield that seems bereft of craft and life. Granit Xhaka, Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey have one league goal between them in a combined 84 appearances. Arsenal are routinely out-passed and out-moved in their traditional area of strength. Wenger, who was once deemed the most maddening man in football for his refusal to compromise his principles, appears to be making it up on the hoof.
Even the switch to a hot new 4-2‑3-1 a while back always felt a little too late, last season’s tactical skinny jeans. In retrospect it already looks like part of the good old days, the age of the lightweight, Velcro-touch skill-goblins, with something thin and extreme and one-note but still a coherent style to follow the powerful, technical team of the early years.
Something seems to have been lost around about the time the man who introduced internationalism decided the right thing was to have a “British spine”. Exit the creaky, flighty, high class midweek Carling Cup types – the Carlos Vela Supremacy – who for all their frustrations always seemed to have a brilliant midweek hat-trick against Reading in their locker. Enter a creeping, well-behaved mediocrity.
In fairness to Wenger he has been massing Santi Cazorla, Arsenal’s best player and a gorgeously poised central conductor who made this whole team look so much more fluent and capable. But the lack of a replacement tells its own story. The classically Wenger-ish players sign for Manchester City these days. Old, puritanical Arsène would have bought Ilkay Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus, Nolito and Leroy Sané – and what a brilliant attack and midfield they would have made before moving on elsewhere for a large profit.What to do from here? The idea this team might have a final farewell title in them was still being floated as recently as the start of this season. The obvious decay in the squad, the loss of edge, of extreme qualities, makes this look horribly far-fetched. But there is still time for a last gearing up.
If Wenger really does insist on taking his final turn, he must surely do so as himself, with a group of players and a plan that at least looks and plays like a Wenger team.
Stay strong, Arsène. Draw yourself up to your full height. Field only the tiniest, most skilful woodland elves. Stand bolted to the touchline, grey quilted coat quietly mouldering away, the thin white duke pared back defiantly to his basic parts. Give us all a final whiff of Wengerball. And don’t, whatever you do, get in the bath with Thelma. Not now, not after all this time.