When a man renowned for his studious approach to football and his measured response to media interviews loses his cool in public the big question is: has he just demonstrated his passion to ride out the storm — or is he melting under the pressure?
As so often in recent times Arsene Wenger is dividing opinion because his astonishing outburst during a pre-match interview for tonight’s crucial Champions League tie against Bayern Munich has rather knocked Arsenal reporters for six.
When you consider Wenger has been at the club for 16 years and journalists have interviewed him up to four times a week for most of that period — one before each game and once after — then to hear correspondents talk about this latest interview as the most animated and explosive they have ever seen from the Frenchman is truly significant.
It came on the back on a hugely disappointing FA Cup exit at home to Championship side Blackburn Rovers on Saturday and mid-way through a season that has also seen Arsenal knocked out of the League Cup by League Two side Bradford City and eliminated from the title race long before Christmas.
But the story that instigated Wenger’s furious response was a seemingly positive article in The Sun that suggested Arsenal were about to offer him a new two-year contract despite the current difficulties.
Wenger, in fact, was so upset at the timing of the story that he interrupted a broadcast conference to angrily address the journalist he thought had written it — and then continued his argument long into a private briefing with written journalists that always follows the televised section.
“I have been here for 16 years, I deserve at least that you check information with me before you write it,” he said. “Why does it just come out when we lose a big game? In your opinion. You think I am so naive that I don’t see what is behind that? You think I am a complete idiot?
“I’m angry because when you give wrong information. See what I mean? The lie is targeted to hurt. That’s what I mean.”
The background to Wenger’s rant is important; because it is not only journalists who have suggested it may be time for him to consider his future at the Emirates as his team close in on eight years without a trophy.
Arsenal fans are painfully divided on the subject — there have even been scuffles on the terraces in recent matches between those who remain loyal to the Frenchman and those who want him gone. Now Arsenal fanzine The Gooner has added to the pressure by publishing an online editorial calling for Wenger to quit and suggesting fans should start a ‘Wenger out’ chant after eight minutes of every match to vent their fury at going so long without a trophy.
The article, by Kevin Whitcher, suggests a majority of fans have now joined the anti-Wenger camp and that ‘Wenger out’ was trending on Twitter following Saturday’s result, which certainly adds huge pressure to a season-defining tie tonight against a Bayern side who have conceded only one goal away from home all season and who are regarded as one of the favourites to replace Chelsea as European champions.
“It is massive for us,” admitted Wenger, who knows there is now a serious chance of him ending his time at Arsenal without ever winning the trophy he wants the most.
“Of course the Champions League is unfinished business as long as you don’t win it. If I say to you we will win it this season you will laugh at me because we just lost against Blackburn. But it can happen.
“Do you think really that Bayern can never lose to a smaller club in Germany? Football is not as mathematical as that. What I find is absolutely unbelievable is that when it happens to me it is a complete storm. You know why? Because in 16 years it never happened before. In Europe, we have beaten everybody, which is what people forget. And we are the only team that has gone into a final without conceding a goal, despite the fact that we have never a good defensive record.”
Wenger was certainly in defiant mood. He talked about Arsenal’s achievements of the past, about the year they won the Premier League without losing a single game; and then he concluded by defending his passionate reaction to yesterday’s story.
“I reacted this way to the lie,” he explained. “It’s the intention behind the lie. I don’t accept lies that are not true when the target behind it is to manipulate people.
“Look, I am not a conspiracy theorist. I am 30 years in this job and if I was paranoid you would know it already. I just think that when I worked for 16 years in the country I expect a certain respect. You can criticise me and say I am doing a bad job, but manipulative things, when they are wrong, I don’t accept.”
What Wenger didn’t answer, of course, is whether he is staying at Arsenal for the long term once his contract ends in 2014; but somebody did eventually have the courage to ask the question. “I am not sure you are interested,” he replied.
Arsenal fans, though, certainly are worried; and they are also divided.
It’s fair to say it would take at least a trophy at the very least to unite them.
But the real fear for Wenger is that one bad display against Bayern could go a long way to achieving the same aim.
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