You’re familiar with The Gaze, yes?
It’s late in the match. Arsenal is trailing 2-1 to a beatable opponent. The Gunners are passing with urgency, doing everything but scoring, when suddenly some jumped-up Championship striker — let’s call him, I don’t know, Lee Stanhope, or maybe Robbie Davies — nabs the ball on the counter and goes barreling off toward Szczesny. He gets past Koscielny — it’s not hard — and finds an opening before Sagna can track back. Quick chip shot and … yes! It’s 3-1, just in time for the fourth official to hoist his little light board. The air sucks out of the Emirates. Game over.
And then: bam. The camera cuts to Arsene Wenger and, as if to put the final point on the disaster, we see The Gaze in its agonized glory. Wenger’s eyes are clenched. His jaw is furrowed. He’s looking at the spot where Walcott lost the ball, staring at it with the horrified dignity of a man who is simultaneously experiencing great pain and unable to believe that the event that brought on the pain has really happened. A man who, not for the first time, has seen his truest ideals betrayed by an indifferent world. A man who, furthermore, has recently eaten a pickle. Like all outward manifestations of complete psychic implosion, The Gaze has many depths.
If Arsene Wenger’s late-game anguish-face has become a universal signpost among soccer fans, it’s because Arsenal has become so familiar with late-game anguish. And early-game anguish. And halftime anguish. If there is such a thing as bus-ride-on-the-way-over-to-prematch-warm-ups anguish, I feel confident that Arsenal has experienced it repeatedly since 2005 (Wenger staring out the rain-streaked window of the motor coach, all the leaves of autumn falling behind his eyes).
Most recently, anguish arrived in the form of Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Swansea, a team that used to be thought of as a kind of sidewalk-table Arsenal knockoff and can now simply be thought of as three places ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League table. The defeat left the Gunners in 10th — they’ve also dropped games to Norwich, Manchester United, and Chelsea — four points out of a Champions League spot and 15 points out of first place. They’ve won five games in 15 league matches since letting Robin van Persie escape to Manchester United in August. More seriously, they haven’t won a trophy of any description in seven years, six months, and 13 days.1 Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was 11 then. Peter O’Toole once quipped that The Ruling Class, his film about a paranoid schizophrenic who inherits an English peerage, was “a comedy with tragic relief.” Arsenal increasingly looks like a tragedy with tragic relief. Only funny.
How do you characterize the pressure that’s built up on Arsene Wenger during those seven years, six months, etc.? For much of that time, during what we might call the Tatooine period of Arsenal decline, the narrative the club sold to Gunners fans was one of young talent and hope: Things might look dark now, but wait till the youthful core of Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri and Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner matures, and you’ll see a force that could dominate English football for 10 years. The moment when that blossoming was destined to take place always seemed to be “next season,” but it was something to live on, at least. The only problem was that most of the child stars got tired of waiting for themselves to mature and jumped ship for clubs where they could win trophies immediately:2 Fabregas to Barcelona, Nasri to Manchester City, van Persie to Manchester United, Adebayor to various clubs, and Bendtner to Bendtner Comes Alive! FC, a club of 11 Bendtners that plays its league games inside Bendtner’s imagination.3
Having been criticized by fans for relying too heavily on youth players and not being aggressive in the transfer market, Wenger reacted to the slow bleed of his roster talent from 2009 to 2012 by … promoting a couple of good youth players (Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere) and not being aggressive in the transfer market (Prince is updating “When Doves Cry” to reflect what it feels like to watch Gervinho play for Arsenal). The really scary thing for the club is that it’s not even all that startling to see them in their current position. They just don’t have enough good players. Wenger keeps pointing out that the first team is tired, but the first team is tired mostly because Marouane “Hair Infection” Chamakh would have to enter the game if any of them ever left a match.4 Voltaire wrote in his notebook that God is on the side of the best shots, not the biggest armies. But Wenger doesn’t have those, either.
And so to the question that’s been asked in louder and louder whispers around the Premier League for at least the last two seasons: Should Arsenal part ways with Wenger? I mean, it’s an impossible idea; he’s not only the most successful manager in the history of the club, a coach who’s already been given the bronze-bust treatment, he was also the architect of the era of success that makes the current era of un-success look so miserable. He’s the winningest coach in Arsenal history. He presided over the only undefeated team in the English top flight since 1889.5 He once built a defense on £6 million that went 10 games without conceding in the Champions League. His Arsenal squads, during their peak Henry/Bergkamp years, played the game with more style than just about any other team in English history. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he changed the way English football clubs think.
But still. The game doesn’t lie. He’s been on the wrong side of just about everything for several years now,6 and his early innovations at the club (a global scouting network, a modern understanding of fitness and nutrition, etc.) have long since been assimilated by his rivals. If Majority Arsenal Shareholder And American Billionaire Stan Kroenke called you up and asked for some advice, what would you tell him to do?
Easily the strangest thing about Wenger as a public figure is the way he appears as, simultaneously, a doomed visionary and a guy standing outside a lecture hall at Davos. He frequently talks about his commitment to entertaining fans and creating beautiful soccer.7 He is determined to do things his way, and if that means losing, he will stare into the blue ether with 10 kinds of mournfulness and lose. At the same time, his postmatch comments after a loss are often weirdly econometric, focused on stadium infrastructure and financial stability, and sometimes bewilderingly detached from the immediacy of winning and losing.8
Here he is, for instance, after losing against Swansea this past weekend: “This club is in fantastic shape. We have a good team, we have a strong structure that we have built over the years; we are in a strong financial situation and we are mentally strong.” And he’s right! Arsenal is very well run as a company, if you care about teams as companies. The seven-year title drought coincided with, and was possibly even created by, a series of enormously complex structural changes at the club — the move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, the redevelopment of the old ground as a luxury apartment complex, the consolidation of power from a group of feuding shareholders into Kroenke’s majority ownership — that have put it on a firmer operational foundation. Still, though … winning and losing counts for something, right? Isn’t it a little bizarre to focus on long-term operational improvements when you’re staring at your worst-ever start to a Premier League season? If it weren’t for The Gaze, you could get the impression that Wenger has refined the idea of soccer to the point that it no longer involves actually playing the game.
Which points toward something interesting: Isn’t it striking how corporate Wenger’s lifelong romantic engagement with beautiful football has been? He built — this is the romantic part — a team that could play the style of football he saw in his dreams. But he did it by exploiting market inefficiencies (signing players other Premier League clubs weren’t scouting), embracing globalization (stocking Arsenal with foreign players at a time when the league was still mostly English), pursuing commercial partnerships (the deal with Emirates Airlines helped defray the cost of the stadium), and obsessing over easily controlled and replicable details like dietary balance. He didn’t read his players “O Captain! My Captain!”; he got them personal trainers while tinkering with the shareholders’ financial report.
Well, that’s how you win beautifully in modern soccer. But it suggests that Wenger is intelligent enough and flexible enough to think like an executive as well as like a visionary coach — that for him, the two roles may even be synonymous. And that, ultimately, is why it’s impossible to say whether Arsenal should fire him or not. Because we, as outside observers, however knowledgeable (and fun, and good-looking) we are, have no idea what the Arsenal board has demanded of Wenger. If they’ve made vast sums available for his transfer spending and pleaded with him to build the strongest team in England, then yes, his determination to buy bargain players and stick to his own vision has hurt the club. But what if they’ve ordered him to keep costs down, control wages, and just do the best he can while they get the club’s long-term revenue and ownership structures worked out? Obviously, some managers would fail swiftly and hilariously in that scenario (I’m not convinced that Harry Redknapp knows how to subtract). But Wenger? He could just about keep it together under those circumstances, right? And wouldn’t his corporate-administrative, “this club is in fantastic shape” side even approve of the project?
The only criterion by which we can judge a coach is what he accomplishes with the resources he has. And with Wenger, the background is so complicated that we simply don’t know exactly what he’s had. He’s soccer’s quantum uncertainty. He’s a terrible coach whose decisions have ruined Arsenal, and he’s a brilliant coach whose balancing act has saved Arsenal’s future. We have no way of measuring which of those things he really is, so to us, he’s both at the same time.
The slogan Arsenal fans have always used to express their faith in Wenger is “Arsene Knows.” Maybe Arsene does know, and that’s why he’s gazing into space with that black-hole stare every weekend. For the fans’ sake, I hope someone knows something — and at the moment that’s all I know about Arsenal.