Professor under scrutiny

DEFIANT: The exits of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have left Arsenal manager   Arsene Wenger facing one of the biggest crises of his 15-year reign. AP

“We live in a society where everyone has an opinion on everything,” he said. “I’m like someone who flies a plane for 30 years and I have to accept someone can come into the cockpit and fly it better than I do.

“But that’s our job, and we have to accept it. Sometimes you have to take a distance from the catastrophes people have predicted.”

His tone was measured, his eyes defiant. He was speaking in Udine, where Arsenal had come from behind on Wednesday night to beat Udinese for the second time in a week.

The evening was hot, Wenger’s white shirt clung to his lean frame, but his relief at steering the plane was palpable.

The narrow victory, 2-1 in the second leg, hung on a fantastic penalty save by Arsenal’s young goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, from Udinese’s veteran striker, Antonio Di Natale. But that leap, that moment of guesswork and agility to reach and deflect the shot, helped put Arsenal into the Champions League.

It might momentarily quieten those who loudly speculate that Wenger should relinquish the controls and let somebody else fly his plane.

Those critics appear to include Tony Adams, Arsenal’s former captain, who is trying to forge a coaching career in Azerbaijan. The cover story of the in-flight magazine on the plane carrying Arsenal to northern Italy this week quoted Adams as saying “coaching isn’t Wenger’s strong point.”

And, to boot, Adams reportedly said that Wenger “is not a great motivator either.”
Maybe Adams’s words were taken out of context. Or maybe he forgets that he won his last three major honors under Wenger’s management – and that the year after Adams retired from playing, the team went through an entire Premier League season without once losing a match.

“Wenger’s Invincibles” of that year had two natural leaders, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva, at the heart of its midfield.

Those types of players, World Cup winners with France and Brazil, are irreplaceable. Arsenal let them go because of age, and because Wenger’s project included helping the club move house.

The transfer from the evocative, outmoded Highbury to a new stadium twice the size cost Arsenal so much that its trophies dried up while the club and its manager balanced the books.

Yet Wenger refused, and refuses, to play it another way. His great contribution, apparently without real coaching or motivational qualities, has been to persevere with a style based on rhythm and movement and passing skills – and to resist the irrational spending of rival clubs that pay fees and salaries beyond their income.

The Russian purchase of Chelsea, the Abu Dhabi purchase of Manchester City, and this year even an oligarch’s paying above the odds at the Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala, mean that Arsenal cannot compete dollar for dollar with those teams.  While Arsenal was toiling in Udine, Manchester City was tying up the contract for Samir Nasri, the second coveted Arsenal player to leave in a fortnight. Wenger has lost Cesc Fabregas, his pivotal playmaker, because the Spaniard has gone home to his first club, Barcelona.

He has lost Nasri for money. He was in the last year of his contract and was offered double his wages by City. He is the fourth former Arsenal player to join the Abu Dhabi revolution there.

Arsenal does not suffer this financial lure alone. Inter Milan, the European champion in 2010, has just sold its goal-scorer, Samuel Eto’o, to Anzhi Makhachlaka. 

The Dagestan team, which for safety trains closer to Moscow than to the troubled region in the Caucasus, bid 25 million euros, or about $36 million, for the 30-year-old Eto’o. His salary will be almost $30 million a year for three years, making him the highest-paid soccer player in the world. Wenger now has money at his disposal – $100 million from the sales of Fabregas and Nasri and an estimated $40 million extra income from having reached the group stage of the Champions League. His time to spend it is running out. The transfer window in Europe closes Wednesday.

Arsenal is scouring the market for a decent center back, a forceful midfielder and maybe another striker. Its recruitment is hindered by the stubborn Wenger, who has the final word and will not compromise on value for money.

He craves what the Arsenal fans want: a return to his first seven full seasons in charge, which reaped seven trophies. The following six seasons brought a new stadium, but nothing to the trophy cabinet.

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