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The temptation is to attribute Wenger's apparent unassailability to the quality of football that his leadership inspires: the team has for several seasons been many football followers' 'second favourite team' for the simple reason that the game it plays is beautiful to watch. Why else is there still a waiting list for season tickets for the Emirates? But, against this, George Graham's reign was equally secure until his personal integrity was called into question, and Graham's Gunners played a version of the game that was as functional and aesthetically unattractive as the current regime's is fluid and beautiful.
It is not as though Wenger's methods and preferences have left supporters and neutrals blinded by beauty. Everybody knows why the trophy cupboard has been bare for half a decade: the obstinate refusal to sign either a dogged holding central mildfielder (think what a difference Mascherano might have made) or a top-flight specialist striker (Drogba, Torres, Eto'o, take your pick) has been to blame. Sometimes the refusal to face reality has been unusually stark: signing an Arshavin when you need a Pavlyuchenko seems unforgiveable after you've seen how a Reyes doesn't solve your goalscoring problem.
No, if you want to understand why Wenger enjoys such impregnability in the face of failure, you have to look a lot deeper. In fact, you have to understand the culture of the club, and, more importantly, how deeply in tune with that culture Wenger really is.
It is well-documented that Arsenal have won nothing since their FA Cup victory over Manchester United in 2005. This has coincided almost exactly with their move to a new stadium, generally considered to be the most disruptive event in a club's history short of going into administration. With crowd capacity doubled and a new generation of corporate entertainment facilities in place, Arsenal's revenue for home games is now higher than that of any other club in the world. While the club has been playing a financial long game, investing in a platform for future success, Wenger has studiously avoided issuing the standard set of managerial excuses about lack of transfer funds - indeed, he has appeared to take a perverse delight in being under-resourced, using the situation instead to justify the necessity of deploying the bargain talent he has so assiduously nurtured.
Since his arrival at the club in the mid-1990s, Arsene Wenger has managed the financial aspects of his job like an expert banker, making a multi-million pound profit on the purchase and sale of all but one or two players. This is in sharp contrast to the management style of Arsenal's peer group, the clubs who would consider themselves the natural incumbents when a European super-league finally emerges. And it is here that we see the cultural uniqueness that sets Arsenal apart: where 'success at all costs' has become the norm, 'stability at all costs' is the club's unwritten rule.
What is the basis for this approach? It isn't simply parsimony - no club too mean to run with the pack would have embarked on the Emirates project. It runs much deeper than mere accountancy. It stems from a profound conviction, inculcated since the days of Herbert Chapman, that the club naturally, as a matter of right, belongs at the top table. The key to survival for any management regime, from the boardroom down to coaching the Ladies XI, is the preservation of that grand delusion, and to do so without spending too much.
The conviction itself is not particularly unique, but its source certainly is. Manchester United share the conviction, but in their case it stems from a quasi-religious faith occasioned by the miracle of the post-Munich resurrection. Arsenal don't have their martyrs (Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor) or latter day saints (Best, Law, Charlton, Cantona et al), the men on the pitch are instead factors of production, foot-soldiers and NCOs in a long drawn out historical process of exploitation and dominance. The most that any Arsenal player can hope to achieve by way of status is that of legend, and in hindsight, no more.
The point is amply illustrated by the story of Charlie George. Born and bred an Arsenal man, this local hero scored the goal that won the double and was the most naturally gifted player the club had ever produced. But he was a North London yob at heart, cut from exactly the same cloth as the undesirable elements who packed the terraces in the 1970s. The boy was dangerous, a tribune of the plebs whose heroic status might have proved destabilising in an era of flux. He had to go, and go he did. At almost any other club the departure of such a figure would have been unthinkable, but at Arsenal it caused little more than a ripple of discontent. It was as though the supporters unconsciously acknowledged an underlying principle of the culture of stability: no player can ever, even for a season or just one match, be allowed to become bigger than the club.
And this is why Wenger fits the bill so perfectly, and why his tenure is not, for the time being at least, in question. He doesn't rock the financial boat, indeed, he helps to keep it afloat, deferring at all times to the priorities and machinations of his boardroom betters; he provides compensatory diversion in the form of stadium-filling beautiful football; his facial expressions are a public demonstration of contrition whenever the team loses - never a mention of the opponents' ability to wield greater financial muscle in the transfer market; and he keeps the club at the top table through consistent, almost mechanical, Champions League qualification. In short, he is exactly congruent with the Arsenal culture, delivering status and stability with aristocratic ease.
Does this mean he is untouchable? Of course not. If the day comes that Michel Platini devises a formula for the composition of the new European Super League that excludes a trophy-less Arsenal, then Wenger and his delightful passing game will be shown the exit with immediate effect. His replacement will be a 'proven winner', a man who delivers silverware by hook or by crook.
Comment on The Arsenal Culture
This time around there was a salutary health warning as two past winners, France and Argentina, only managed to qualify by the skin of their teeth. The prospect of the finals not being graced by world football's current pin-up, Lionel Messi, under the erratic and controversial management of a former occupier of that awkward precipice, will not have been a comfortable one for either FIFA executives or their TV counterparts worldwide. At the same time, there are fans everywhere who remain convinced that French qualification was owed more to the officials' awareness of who should win rather than any normal interpretation of the rules of the game.
To make matters worse, now that they have to fight their way through the qualifying rounds, we face the possibility of reaching the finals of the competition with the holders conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps FIFA's reasoning is that in the globalised world of TV and Internet football audiences, this would not be too damaging. The fact remains, however, that this thesis is untested. In the eyes of many fans the holders have a right to be there to defend their title as world champions, and any competition that excludes them from the finals would be discredited. Imagine, if you will, the finals being held with the holders, Brazil, France and Argentina, four past winners, all absent. Yet this is the kind of risk that FIFA now run. So far so good - the risk hasn't materialised, but anybody who regularly plays the odds will tell you that any winning streak is likely to be followed by a losing one. The real nightmare scenario is that a sequence of two or three severely depleted finals could occur, with a concomitant impact on football as a spectacle and on FIFA revenues.
The way out of this problem is fairly obvious: automatic qualification for all past winners (Uruguay, Italy, Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina and France) and the host nation. The objections are equally obvious: depletion of revenues from the participation of these key players in the qualifying stages, together with a weakening of their teams through a lack of competitive play.
A single key innovation would, however, meet these objections and do so in a way that would work very much to FIFA's long-term financial advantage. All past winners and the host nation should participate in a new FIFA Masters competition, held in the host nation one year prior to the World Cup finals. Careful design of the competition would guarantee all participants a fair degree of competitive experience, and the resultant TV product could approach the value of the finals themselves. Taking into consideration the playing experience from regional competitions that all FIFA members engage in during the three years prior to the proposed Master tournament, the objections dissolve.
If the modern game really is driven by financial considerations, then FIFA should implement this idea without delay on the straightforward grounds of risk aversion. The fact that it would guarantee the involvement of the Masters participants in the World Cup finals can only further enhance the TV value of FIFA's main revenue earner, while fans worldwide would be able to enjoy the mouth-watering spectacle of a new, high-end international tournament. The promise of participation, in perpetuity, in the new tournament would add an enormous incentive to winning the World Cup for those 'emergent' football nations who seem to inch a little closer to the big prize every four years.
It's time for the footballing superpowers to get together on this one and, by forcing FIFA's hand, spare themselves forever the agonies of World Cup qualification.
Comment on FIFA's Big Gamble
Now take a look at this extract from the laws of the game:
An indirect free kick is also awarded to the opposing team if, in the opinion of the referee, a player:
- plays in a dangerous manner
- impedes the progress of an opponent
- prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from his hands
- commits any other offence, not previously mentioned in Law 12, for which play is stopped to caution or send off a player
Clear enough isn't it? "impedes the progress of an opponent". What else is a player doing if he blocks the path to the ball without attempting to play it? FIFA may have instructed referees that, providing the player in possession has control of the ball and it is within playing distance, he is not guilty of obstruction and is therefore not in breach of the laws of the game, but this argument falls apart on closer inspection. Think about it. 'Control of the ball' - can a player be said to have control of the ball if he has not touched it, and if he has to impede the progress of an opponent in order to achieve his desired outcome?
The current interpretation of the rule is all the more peculiar when considered in the context of FIFA's track record in protecting the game's integrity as a spectacle. Changes in the laws on offside, passes back to the goalkeeper and the tackle from behind have all worked to eradicate areas of negativity and improve the flow of play. The 'professional foul' and shirt-pulling have also come under the microscope, with steps taken to remove them. In fact, there has been a gradual and successful thirty-year campaign to prevent the game descending into violence and cynicism. All along the way the tendency has been to improve the flow of play, cut out time-wasting, and protect teams and players working to achieve positive, attacking outcomes.
Against this background, failure to uphold the law on obstruction has started to look like a glaring anomaly.
Comment on Obstruction of Justice
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