Arsenal and the Wenger Wonderland


Arsenal and the Wenger Wonderland

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

Thirty minutes into Yorgos Lanthimos’s dystopian, surrealist film, The Lobster, I sat back, awestruck at the all-iness of the central premise. Colin Farrell and Colin Farrell’s moustache want companionship, so they enter a hotel where he has 45 days to fall in love. If he fails do to do, he will be turned into an animal. Farrell is ALL IN, and so is Arsene Wenger.

You either die a hopeless romantic and be turned into a lobster or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. The maddening thing about Wenger is that he has now become part incurable romantic, part corporate villain.

Brian Phillips once called Wenger, “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.

However, despite Wenger’s strange yet utterly captivating two decade reign at Arsenal, what is undeniable is that he transformed English football forever, mainly by shepherding a kind of hypnotic, almost addictive delicacy of play.

Wengerball, they call it.

It is more ideal, less strategy, and like Kanye West’s absurdly ambitious record, Life of Pablo, is constantly reorienting itself to the whims of its master, trying to reach the space which accurately projects Wenger’s single-minded interpretation of how football should be played.

Every Arsenal game, for me, then became a test of its players’ imagination and ability to mesmerise, where Wenger was the tutor and Wenger the examiner.

“I’m a facilitator of what is beautiful in man,” Wenger had once said. “There is a kind of magic when men united their energies to express a common idea. That is when sports becomes beautiful.”

His team is one malleable unit of ball control and spacial awareness, making love to the football, caressing it with short, primarily horizontal passes, facilitated by the positionlessness of the front four and the extreme technical proficiency of everyone else. The aim is to assemble kinetic energy, “energy which a body possesses by virtue of being in motion,” until an opening is presented in the defence.

The interesting thing is, for most of his 22 years at Arsenal, Wenger has arguably played the most attractive football in England and as the title seemed under threat with the entry of Pep Guardiola, Arsenal has stepped it up a notch.

Both play attractive, possession-based football. The two systems are very space-oriented, but with very different objectives with and without the ball. Guardiola seems fascinating to me, as he bends conventional football wisdom to his will and makes it work 99 per cent of the time. Wenger is more staunch toward one idea of play, spending transfer window after transfer window to fill the pieces in his puzzle. Mesut Ozil becomes Dennis Bergkamp, Alexis Sanchez becomes Thierry Henry, Hector Bellerin becomes Ashley Cole, Xhaka becomes, well, Xhaka and so on.

Which probably explains why I gravitated toward Wenger in my impressionable years. Wengerball was a manifestation of what I perceived were the key ingredients of greatness – intimacy, delectable yet infallible with a dash of cleverness and honesty, topped with the courage to zig when everyone else zags.

For a lost kid finishing first year of college in New Delhi, surrounded by ruthless pragmatists, Wenger seemed ethereal, childlike even in his naïveté to choose process over results. As I smoked one cigarette after another to get a kick, Wenger seemed to be the kind of bloke who would blow rings and admire its forms and patterns. In a world of financial doping, hot-take media, and Jose Mourinho, this Arsene Wenger person, who was the same age as my grandmother, was trying to produce football not to simply score and win, but to entertain and enthrall and induce gasps and then win, in that specific order.

Every Arsenal game, for me, then became a test of its players’ imagination and ability to mesmerise, where Wenger was the tutor and Wenger the examiner.

Einstein famously defined insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” and Wenger defies it by refusing to adapt to the changing landscape fast and sticking with doing same things over and over again.

This then, is Wenger’s most frustratingly beautiful quality. If he wasn’t this stubborn and inflexible in his thought process, then he wouldn’t be what he is today. The world expects a 68-year-old man, who’s had incredible professional success, to change his ways because the millennial generation of footballers isn’t patient enough? Try getting your son or daughter or brother or sister to choose vanilla ice cream, if they wanted chocolate. We are a stubborn people and choice is a living tangible entity every human deserves.

It’s been more than twenty years since the good-looking, lanky Frenchman graced England. Now that we know this is to be his last year, we should appreciate that every weekend, and some weekdays, for over two decades, we got to see an artful master at work. In a world devoid of Tesla, Van Gogh, and Kafka, Wenger is all we have left.

This is an updated version of a previously published story.