kenny hodgart

In praise of Arsene Wenger

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This column last week praised Arsene Wenger for the dignity of his climbdown after proposing the metaphorical rendition of Birmingham’s Matthew Taylor to nearby Coventry following the latter’s horrifying tackle on Eduardo. On Tuesday the Arsenal manager was in rapture as his young side put European champions AC Milan to the sword at the San Siro.

The 2-0 result may only have secured a quarter-final place in the Champions League, but it was arguably one of Wenger’s finest moments and the surest sign yet that the team he has been rebuilding over the last couple of years is ready to upset the established order in European football. Too young, too fancy by half, the naysayers have chided, but this win will have lit quixotic touch-papers. Wenger’s five-man midfield swamped Milan, with Mathieu Flamini and Cesc Fabregas getting forward whenever possible in support of the lone striker Emanuel Adebayor, and it all proved too much for a defence averaging 33 years of age. Even the sole Englishman, substitute Theo Walcott, could not be contained.

Received wisdom has it that Wenger is an arrogant and temperamental individual, to cavil about which is a bit like disparaging British women for dressing unsuitably for the weather. He is, after all, French, which may or may not explain why English football has found him so difficult to take to its heart. That and the fact he has a master’s degree in Economics.

There is something irresistibly marvellous about Wenger’s story: how he left the family auto-parts business to pursue a coaching career; how he rose from being an amateur footballer to win the French title as manager of Monaco, parking his knackered Renault alongside the Porsches and Benzes at training; how he ended up at Arsenal in 1996 after having impressed the club’s chairman David Dein when they first met at a game at Highbury almost a decade before.

Wenger is the kind of guy writers love to write about – lucky the authorised biographer who is afforded not only a fuller appreciation of tarte tatin and how to deal with tawdry men like Jose Mourinho, but a glimpse into the mind that has been able to spot genius in young, relative unknowns such as George Weah, Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry, in many cases turn them into different players around whom he is able to build a winning side, then sell them on to other clubs where they’re never quite as good as they were at Arsenal.

They may yet win nothing this season, but for the age of Wenger’s side and his comparatively tight budget, Arsenal are punching well above their weight. That record might tend to justify a certain arrogance.

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

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