Arsene Wenger: the French revolutionary now accused of treason
He is now being told he is a man out of time, but Arsene Wenger could yet add another chapter and continue his historic reign at Arsenal, writes Richard Jolly.
Arsene Wenger is football’s most famous French economist. A supporter of Emmanuel Macron’s successful bid for the presidency has an interest in his home country’s politics; given the themes of his management, it is unsurprising that a youthful pro-European secured his vote. And yet, at a time when increasing numbers want him consigned to the past, Wenger evokes figures from French history.
He has been them all, Louis XIV, Louis XVI, Danton and Napoleon Bonaparte; just not in chronological order. The fact he can be each and every one highlights the complexity of his contribution over two decades at Arsenal. It shows the way outsiders can become the ultimate insiders.
Wenger, once the face of a different world, is now the establishment, not just the longest-serving manager in the country but one appointed almost a decade before his nearest rival, Exeter’s Paul Tisdale.
He began as Danton, the French revolutionary, the man who swept away much of the old order and created a new one, based on the principles of enlightenment. He brought ideas and idealism. He was the antidote and antithesis to George Graham, the predecessor (but one) who felt still more of a throwback to bygone days once Wenger became such a transformative force.
He was the exception in 1990s England just as France was in 1790s Europe, defiantly different, representing a threat to everyone else and generating hostile reactions as a result. Danton called for “audacity, still more audacity, always audacity.” Wenger brought it and with audacity came adventure, hope and faith.
Arsenal's Thierry Henry (L) and Dennis Bergkamp (R) celebrateReuters
Then he became Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’. They built grand palaces, one at Versailles and the other at the Emirates Stadium. Even if one was designed for the purposes of self-glorification and the other to generate commercial revenue, both were signs of dynastic ambitions of men who fostered belief in the divine right of kings. They reigned for so long that they outlived possible successors; literally in Louis XIV’s case and while Wenger’s possible replacements are still with us, either their stars have faded or they have gone elsewhere to the extent that the succession has represented a major issues for both regimes.
They were absolutist monarchs, controlling their respective domains completely, cementing both a personal pre-eminence and the prestige of their private empire. They were cultural figures who generated admiration: Wenger’s Arsenal became as fashionable as Louis’ France.
He was also Napoleon, the emperor who was invincible at home, first securing domestic dominance and then setting his sights on conquering Europe only to suffer defeat with victory in sight. Perhaps Wenger’s 2006 win over Real Madrid in the Bernabeu was his Austerlitz. His long march towards that year’s Champions League final was his version of Bonaparte’s Russian campaign, an extraordinary triumph of planning and willpower.
Arsenal's Thierry Henry of France (L) and manager Arsene Wenger, also of France, stand on the pitch after losing the Champions League finalReuters
Napoleon’s military went 1500 miles without losing. Wenger’s side, often with makeshift defences, went for 995 minutes without conceding. But they fell in the final, just as the last frontier, the Russian winter, proved the French army’s undoing. An aura of invincibility was dented, the sense of perpetual progress destroyed. Napoleon was not the same force again; nor was Wenger who, one further semi-final excepted, settled into a pattern of last-16 exits. The manner of the 10-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich suggested it was his Waterloo.
And now Wenger feels like Louis XVI, a man out of time, one who represents the ancient regime at a time when ever greater numbers are calling for change. Wenger is accused of being as out of touch as the unfortunate monarch. His attempts to placate the baying crowds with hints of reform have persuaded few. Too many want to take him to the metaphorical guillotine.
He is even accused of treason, of betraying a club he has served so well. The language is inflammatory, but passions run high. For the storming of the Bastille, read planes flown over virtually every game and banners in most crowds.
The popular choice would seem to be for Wenger to be swept aside by another Danton or, indeed, a version of the younger Wenger, an invigorating, innovative leader who is prepared to abandon the conventions of old and embrace a new era. The likelier scenario is that Wenger emulates recent French presidents such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, hanging on when their approval ratings are getting ever lower. Unless, of course, Wenger can beat Everton, see Liverpool stumble against Middlesbrough, qualify for the Champions League again, win the FA Cup and perform an act of escapology Napoleon threatened when he returned from exile in Elba, but with a different, happier, more lasting ending.
History may offer little solace to Wenger unless, somehow, he can repeat his own and conjure another top-four finish.