Arsène Wenger and the agony of faith
In November, things were going badly at Arsenal FC: They’d conceded three times in the last 30 minutes to draw at home against Champions League minnows Anderlecht, lost away to Swansea after leading, and lost at home to a Manchester United that took exactly two shots on target to Arsenal’s nine. It wasn’t at all exceptional, and to some Arsenal supporters that was precisely the problem: For the past decade Arsène Wenger’s side has been among Europe’s best footballers and among its worst winners.
Also infuriating to Arsène’s detractors was his postmatch refusal to offer the improvised hysterics that usually follow one bad result, let alone three. Most big managers are sociopaths, and fans and media have learned to treat Mourinho-ish despair or Fergusonian recrimination as a necessary shamanism: the tantrum that presages imminent improvement.
But in interviews, Arsène only ever acts like Arsène. He listens faithfully, head canted forward like an Alsatian schoolboy nodding for communion. Before answering, he glances upward quickly, looks beyond the camera, and answers in thick hammocks of French English. Between thoughts his head ticks like a Jesuit second hand. He smiles when he talks about his players, sneers a little when he’s lost, and smirks when he’s signed Mesut Özil.
Most of all, Arsène stays calm. In 17 years as Arsenal manager he’s arrived at a Vatican caginess: “There was a lot of quality in our game … we could have won easily … we [have] to keep faith and our belief,” he said after the United match. It was iconically Wengerish, both in its sensibility (they’d led two of three and nearly played United off the park before conceding an own goal and a breakaway) and its emphasis on maintaining “faith” within the squad over offering catharsis to supporters—but it galls a fan when the constant prescription is to say a few Hail Marys, buy more replica kits, and show up again next weekend.
For better or worse, this is Wenger: Pope Arsène, recently the Martyr of Islington, the Premier League’s last magical perfectionist, last crusading aesthete, last Catholic. It’s not just his age, 65, nor the opulent fiefdom or the whispered politics, nor the dogmatic reluctance to purchase a defender, nor that Arsenal fans in equal parts consider him infallibly anointed or inoperably deluded. It’s his faith—his belief that there’s a code of rightness other than success; his Catholic claim that virtue, magic, and beauty might be more important than the trophy case.
It didn’t always look like it had to be a choice. In the 1998 run-in of his first Premier League title, or when his 2003–4 “Invincibles” won another undefeated, Arsène’s sides were both beautiful and dominant. He was a messiah from the future and Arsenal was the club of osteopathy, abstention, and sophistication, where banning Mars Bars from the team bus and passing quickly led directly to competitive success. Arsenal did well by living right.
Arsène’s planned next virtue was kitchen-table sustainability: Arsenal would develop cheap young prodigies instead of overpaying for veterans and use the savings to replace tiny Highbury with an enormous new stadium whose gate receipts would bootstrap the club into football’s financial elite. But in 2003, just as Arsène made his first mortgage payments on the Emirates, Roman Abramovich brought modern hyperspending to Chelsea, and Arsenal landed in the vanishing middle class of football’s late-capitalist inequality moment. For most of the past decade, as footballing success has increasingly resembled a Marxist drama of investment, Arsenal’s looked instead like a club from Dickens, a maudlin attacking-midfield orphanage that develops young players and cries them out the door the minute they get good.
Still, the stadium-building period was, in Arsène’s words, “the most sensitive and important of my career.” The Europa League is littered with clubs that were like Arsenal on the day Arsène arrived in 1996—gallant old contenders owned by well-respected baronets, playing on cramped but hallowed grounds, splashing out a timid million here or there on an exciting Dutchman, and happy to contend for cups once or twice a decade, keep a tight back four, and polish the old trophies.
Arsène averted this toffee-colored future, built a financially revolutionary stadium, and managed, incredibly, to keep the club in the Champions League throughout. But a decade of austerity remade the club—or unmade it, considering how many great careers were sold to pay for it, how many Invincibles retired at the clubs that bought them. Other clubs have Giggses, Gerrards, Terrys; Arsenal have only Arsène—the living codex, the insect in amber, the last aging link to the Arsenals of Graham and Chapman.
If 2004–14 is the decade that’s made him papally essential, though, it also must have agonized him. On NBC or Sky he’s calmly satisfied with current Arsenal, but can Arsène—enough competitor to win the league undefeated, enough perfectionist to call for league-wide grass-height regulation—really have been happy with a decade of desultory fourths, watching Mourinho and Mancini lift the cups instead? More than anything, Wenger seems to take joy in the development of players; worst must have been losing Cesc and Robin and Samir, all figurative sons, just as they were grasping their potential.
The proof of his faith is that, through all that, he’s stayed at Arsenal. Manchester City would have taken him sometime in those years they took the rest of Arsenal. Or Madrid, Bayern, PSG—at any he’d have had $150 million every summer and a better chance to win the Champions League. He could have watched the world’s best arriving every year instead of leaving. Why stay? Willingness to suffer is a sign of faith. Nothing in Mourinho’s functionalist cosmology could justify captaining an austerity project—nor would most clubs have kept Diaby, a player of enormous quality and character who’s played 22 games in the past four years, for anywhere near as long as Arsenal. Whether this reads as laudable loyalty or competitive irresponsibility is an open question, but Arsène’s decided: He’s stayed at Arsenal, persisted with Diaby, borne all the pain, because he believes in something. Arsenal is “the club of my life,” he says, the club that gave him a chance, the club he’s invested in rebuilding. The club that, at least for now, shares in his beliefs.
What Arsène Wenger believes in on the pitch is beauty. “I’ve been inspired,” he says, “by people … who just did not want to win for themselves but wanted to win with a certain style. [If a fan] wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘Oh! Today Arsenal plays, I have a chance to have a great experience today,’ I’ve done my job. If we win the game—I’ve done a very good job. But at least I have to try to give people that level—that emotionally they will experience something beautiful.”
Listen carefully: Beauty is the job, victory the pleasant possibility. This is the most common and incisive of the anti-Wengerisms, that in tactics, transfers, and selections Arsenal too constantly pursues perfection and neglects the insulating virtues of their rivals. Each season’s collapses look the same—a small and wounded team pours forward elegantly, barely fails to score, and concedes ugly, deflating goals on the counterattack. Arsène should coach a different way is the suggestion. The pursuit of beauty ought to follow after the pursuit of victory.
The argument has power, partly because on the few recent occasions that Arsenal have played more pragmatically than usual, they’ve often looked quite good. In January, Arsenal won 2-0 at Manchester City—possibly their best league result in five years despite a Stokish 35% possession. And since 2003 they have taken a ridiculous 22 of 24 points away from home when they’ve had 43% or less of the ball—when they’ve played like the away team. But even against City, Wenger admitted it was the players who’d demanded pragmatism: “The team sometimes needs to be reassured … your tactics have to be aligned with the feeling of the team.” Still, in most matches, Wenger’s Arsenal revert to a faith in possession, passing, and beauty.
It’s a faith that can be especially puzzling because football is an awkward place for the pursuit of beauty. The hands are the consensus sites of human beauty and intention—the primate-distinguishers, the opposable gripper-maker-doers. But in football, hands are legal for just a single player, in the most desperate moment of the game. Everything else is done with the feet—lumpy obliged balancers, appendages of comic accident and limit, required elsewhere regularly for standing-up purposes.
Foot-scarcity is football’s original sin—the awkward sentence no side can escape. A match is 90 minutes, and because attackers have to play the ball and defenders can just run, 88 of them are plotless jostling. But in those last minutes, when intention does emerge, the sport opens into impossible, epiphanic beauty. A triangle appears from unconnected points, a yard of space opens unexpectedly, an intended leg whips forth. It’s in these moments that football can be mistaken—however briefly—for a sport about perfection.
But if beauty in football is the obverse of rarity, every Arsenal fan knows that the price of rarity is accident. For every ’70 Brazil there’s a ’74 Oranje. For every Wilshere-against-Norwich there’s two years of ankle injuries, Diaby shattered by Dan Smith, Eduardo by Taylor, Szczęsny and Koscielny slicing the league cup to Birmingham. Teams—Barcelona, recently—win by playing prettily, but it’s treacherous. You can’t have all the ball, not against Chelsea or Inter, and the more you commit to having it, the more vulnerable you become without it. There’s a Grand Moff Tarkin arrogance in beautiful football, a doomed attempt to control a sport that’s fundamentally about how much you can do while standing on one foot at a time. The answer is—not everything. Football may require faith, but it’s a hard place to be faithful: Here the ravings aren’t a prophecy, the bread does not become messiah’s flesh, the foot is never quite a pair of hands.
Poignant and infuriating, then, to watch Arsène’s decade-long attempt to teach his players’ feet to paint. Especially poignant, especially infuriating, to watch this in a world where cynicism about unmarketable virtue has become the safest, canniest stock response of all. Success is value, virtue is worth; beauty’s great if you can find investors. Otherwise it’s hubris, a vestige, a precious doomed indulgence you should flip for some defenders.
That’s one answer to football’s elemental tragedy: sell Mata, Matić-up your midfield, drop Oscar for the big games, and bar the door. Admit the sport and world are fallen and win whatever following contingencies. But Arsène seems to have another answer—beauty as a valuable goal even in an accidental world. Last year Geoff Shreeves asked him about the 6-0 loss to Chelsea. Wenger reminded him that the same team drew away against Bayern and beat Spurs, “and of course everybody after says, ‘You were too open’—all right, but before the game it was very difficult to guess, because we had as well to win this game … when you win a big game everybody forgets about it, when you lose a big game everybody says you should have played differently.” But the results, Arsène knows, are capricious—champions lose or draw about a third of their games against worse teams.
So what’s a manager to do? If the difference between first and third and fifth comes down, as it sometimes must, to who benefits from more own goals by Anton Ferdinand? Every manager wants to win, but every manager has something else in mind as well, a plausible precursor to victory that can be relied on week to week. Some cross, others hoist, some make chances, some want not to give them up. Arsène wants to play beautifully. Is that really so detestable? As a compromise, a consolation? Arsenal can’t always win, but they can always try to play well. Can always entertain. At least the losses were for something. If you’re going to lose, Arsène might say, why not lose while playing well? Why not lose expressing yourself rather than panting back and forth across your own 18 for 90 minutes hoping nothing beautiful will happen?
Arsène Wenger is maybe the last manager who’ll stay with one club long enough to be confusable therewith. Mourinho, Ancelotti, Pellegrini, even the monastic Guardiola all flit from club to club as frequently as players. Mourinho in his career has won the Champions League twice and left behind him a spiteful, pining Chelsea, an unfulfilled Madrid, and the trophied ruins of an Inter. In this model the victories belong to the manager, but the future health of the club belongs to someone else, owners or arriving billionaires or “directors of football.”
That isn’t Wenger—for an idealist, he’s paradoxically realistic. In the Emirates’ racing chairs on weekend afternoons Wenger seems a species of crusader, an aesthete hoping that eventually his Large Inside-Forward Collider will produce an all-whirring, all-passing singularity of simultaneous artistic and competitive excellence. But when he manages the club, Wenger is a similarly rare pragmatist, shrewd and self-sacrificing even beyond Daniel Levy: the man who sold Henry, Nasri, Vieira, Fàbregas, and van Persie for a stadium project intended to ensure that future managers could compete with the leviathans. And over the past decade, the pragmatic virtues of the stadium project have taken precedence over the aesthetic virtues of the sporting side.
Compare: Mourinho is Wenger’s actual opposite on each of these counts—an appalling match-day pragmatist who’s never managed any club other than the richest in his league. Pulis, Allardyce, Hughes are twice pragmatic, looking for a simple win on Saturday and always conscious of their budgets. Late Ferguson was one of these as well, figuring just how little he could win with and just how ugly he could let the wins become. And Pep? Pep, who’s defined the last two World Cups and done what Wenger couldn’t in the Champions League? A double romantic, an aesthetic radical with unlimited transfer budgets at any club he chooses. Wenger’s the only Wenger left, the only romantic who does his own accounting, which maybe is why you’ll find an Arsenal kit in every bar in Brooklyn on a Saturday at 10 a.m. Arsène is an artist with a day job.
What unites Arsène the aesthete and Arsène the mortgage payer is their shared indifference to winning. Not that winning’s unimportant, but he’s chosen consistently—whether by building a stadium or by not signing an experienced defender so that Calum Chambers could have games—to develop players or the club’s future instead of winning points in the present season.
Arsène knows that any good saint is remembered for the miracles rather than the daily sacraments. And the greatest moments in his career are emphatically not moments about victory. Victory is a brief thing, a trophy brandished from a bus and left to gather dust. But no other club in Europe has managed a self-improvement like the Emirates, a trophy that seats 60,000. And his most notable on-field achievement, the 49-game Invincible run, is less about the league title than the brief triumph over the surly incident by which teams lose. A religious experience, an ecstasy. A year-long suspension of the awkward rules of football, when Arsenal were blessed, when an assassin like Van Nistelrooy would sky a penalty just because they’d risen up above the sport itself. “The games the champions lose” are the death’s head in any sport, the grim reminder that no matter how much humans may become, we’ll always be subjects to some kind of chance—subjects of loss, and distance, and difficulty. Those are the rules, of life as well as football, and once, Arsène and his team managed to break them. Isn’t that suspension, that perfection, so much better than mere Mourinho-ish winning?
In the end, maybe football is a little thing. A shoving of men, ending two hours after it begins. A reason to drink beer in the afternoon and yell at the television. A distraction from life’s other work, which at least ends a little less immediately. But if people care so much, then somehow it must extend. Something in football must walk out past the doors of pubs and stadiums, out into London and New York, and give us something that matters in our lives.
If Arsène extends, it’s because of the Catholicism—the argument on virtue as opposed to winning. Because what’s been happening lately has had a lot to do with virtue and with winning. Probably 2003 was the high point, winning-wise: Arsenal began their undefeated season, Roman came to Chelsea, the Premier League watching world got together and invaded a small country. Winning was ascendant; missions were accomplished; being first or wealthiest indicated a singularity of human excellence.
By the middle of the decade that victory in Iraq felt as transient as any Wembley afternoon for Pompey or Birmingham or Wigan—a nice day before the world went to hell. And by the end, economic winning seemed doubtable as well: The game was rigged, or winners were jerks, or they’d been cheating all along at everyone’s expense. Maybe there was such a thing as too much winning, too much emphasis on trophies and bonuses and competition.
Virtue hasn’t been looking like a very good alternative. There used to be—when Arsène started managing, in an older and less precarious economy—a tidy little path for Westerners from birth to death. One attended university, took a job, acquired mortgage, spouse, and offspring, mowed the lawn and punched the clock—all in exchange for a little safety, an adequacy of casseroles, weekends, barbecues, and then a pension. In that life, virtue mattered; it converted daily decency into a guarantee of something. But between 2004 and 2014—for Occupiers, for millennials, for Arsenal—the guarantee doesn’t seem to have held. Football, like life, has often looked like a drama of virtue’s obsolescence. In this world winning seems important, even if it’s awful—four teams, the 1%, make the Champions League and the other 99% is in the relegation fight.
By now Arsène’s built his stadium and mostly paid the mortgage, and the wounds of all those filial departures are close to healed. In the past two seasons Arsenal have spent £132 million, which is to say that for the first time in his career Arsène looks like he’s playing in the same league as everyone else, with neither the enormous rational advantages of his arrival nor the crippling financial constraints of the past decade. He’s just going to be a manager.
Except—he’ll never be just a manager. He’ll always be a Catholic, always insist on valuing something other than results. And so he’ll remain stubborn, remain only modestly interested in his defense, but also remain as fascinating and divisive as the church itself—to the wishers for virtue less a coach than a crusading saint, and to the desperate to win a despicable relic. Either way, judgments on Arsène say far more about the judges than they do about him—about our comfort with the idea that sport, or football, or life itself, can be worth our while even if it doesn’t end in victory. That to be beautiful, or to be decent, to improve ourselves or leave something for the future, might be as or more important than the trophy case.
A feature article from issue 05. Subscriptions to Eight by Eight are available in our Shop.
Corley Miller is a fiction and nonfiction writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter an @amcorley.