Jonathan Blaustein’s Column: Arsene Wenger’s Last Hand

Age is just a number, and there are exceptions to every rule.

I get it.

Some artists/leaders/managers/talent are able to continue to grow and evolve, when they hit the latter stages of life.

But most don’t.

Since we live in a world of “Whataboutism,” (God help us,) I’ll start with Willie Nelson. Spotify notified me that he had a new album out, “Last Man Standing,” (Again, God help us,) and my wife and I listened to it on Saturday.

He sounds good as ever, vocally, and the writing touched directly on his late-in-life experience. In particular, watching his friends die around him.

Even through his perpetual-pot-haze, (join the club,) Willie Nelson has managed to keep his edge, which allows him to continue to grow.

Or evolve, at least, so his late-stage music doesn’t suck.

Every album may not be “The Red Headed Stranger,” but given the parable of “The Rolling Stones,” which I mentioned in a recent column, I’d say Willie gets an A+.

Better yet, I was on the soccer field the other day, talking to my son’s U12 coach. He sidled up and said he heard through the grapevine that I blogged about Arsenal. (He’s a Chelsea fan, and I assured him I’d root against Mourinho in the FA Cup 100 times out of 100.)

We got to talking about Arsene, and how his skills had eroded. I asked him if he could think of another highly successful coach, still working, who was also 69. (Arsene turns 69 later this year.)

He was stumped, so I gave him the answer.

Gregg Popovich.

The man generally regarded as the best in the business, and whom I recently read described as the best basketball coach of the century, is the same age as Arsene.

Pop is also known for being erudite, but has obviously managed to adapt his style as times have changed. Up until the Kawhi Leonard debacle this season, the man seemed to have the magic touch in every situation, winning 5 NBA titles, including their epic last one over the Peak-Amazing-Heatles in 2014.

It’s sad to see Pop grieving, (RIP Erin Popovich,) Sir Alec in intensive care, and Arsene with a broken heart all at the same time. It’s life reminding us of our own fallibility, and that the end is rarely graceful.

For anyone.

Dying younger involves the hand of fate. But at some point, if you keep on living, your impending end becomes the natural course of things.

In other words, it’s the perfect time for a post-mortem of the Late-Wenger-Era.

Luckily, we can glean all we need to know from the three games. The two ties vs Atletico, plus the Burnley match explain everything about what Arsene Wenger is about, and why his refusal to grow, as a person, doomed him to an end he clearly wanted no part of.

Having been trained in a great art school, I know that ossification comes when people are not willing to try new things, embrace new ideas, and move towards the things they fear.

From Arsene never changing assistant coaches, or footballing philosophies, or his fashion, (RIP Puffy Coat,) or his grip on power, he made it clear that he thought his way worked, and that was that.

Sure, he switched to a back 3 last season, but it was clearly because survival-mode-gambler-Arsene was willing to try anything, even that, though he never believed it would, or should, work. (As evidenced by our return to the 4-2-3-1.)

Gregg Popovich mentored and hired the first female assistant coach in the NBA, for heaven’s sake, and Arsene kept trotting out Vic Akers in his silly shorts until the end. (They should really keep a suicide watch on Vic. He might get drunk and try to go down with the ship, literally, by jumping into the Thames after 10 pints.)

Here is what doomed Late-Stage-Wenger teams, most of which we saw against Simeone’s side:

The lack of defensive organization. The super-high-line leaving too much space on the counter. Brittle players. Weak performances under pressure.
Lack of clinical finishing in critical moments. Injuries at the wrong times. Hot streaks only once the pressure was off. The glorious-but-futile comebacks in two-legged ties, once it was too late.

Against Atletico, we saw the worst of all of it. Some of Oblak’s saves in the first game were amazing, true, but still, Arsenal spurned chances, and didn’t step up to score more goals, which was what victory required.

They could have, but they didn’t.

And then, the choke/mistake by Koscielny, (poor guy,) which came when the team was parked in Atletico’s half, despite needing to protect against the dreaded away goal at all costs.

I won’t bother with the second leg, and the awful feeling when Costa inevitably scored, or watching Ozil not have the guts to shoot. (Sorry, that’s how I feel about it.)

What impressed me most was the way that the Madrid defenders were like a genetically-modified-octopus inside the 6 yard box.

The few times a half-chance opened up, they moved like Neo in
“The Matrix,” bending space-time to kill off all hope.

Fucking amazing.

And also, literally impossible to imagine in an Arsene Wenger coached team.

The attention to detail, the unity, the quick-twitch-defenders. All of it. Unimaginable in late-Wenger football.

It could never happen.

We all knew Arsenal wouldn’t defeat Madrid over two ties, and it was not to be. They were too good, and to prove it, they sported us a man advantage over 80 minutes.

It was like saying, “We’ll tie one hand behind our backs, and still beat you senseless, you weak-willed wankers.”

The Europa League Semi-Final proved Arsenal can peak at very good, but are no longer great. We all knew this. But in fairness, the Late-Wenger-Era also included 3 terrific FA Cup victories, and 3 Charity Shields. (Including the delicious win over Mourinho.)

Which brings us to the bright side of the last ten days: Sunday morning.

The Universe was looking out for Ol’ Arsene, as it all came out perfectly in the end.

Five goals!

I replayed the first one so many times. I was going to list the names for you, but that’s so cliché.

Basically, the young defenders confidently moved the ball to one side, switched play to the other side, switched back, and then the ball pin-balled up the right hand side until Aubameyang slotted it home.

16 passes. I counted.

And no Burnley defender got anywhere near any Arsenal player. Not even once.

It was a training ground goal, and I dispute that Lacazette was shooting. For me, that was a pass all day long. (BTW, Americans were treated to Tony Gale on CNBC. Does anyone have a better English accent than that guy? Reminds me of the roadie in “Wayne’s World 2.”)

The football was perfect on Sunday. So beautiful.

Honestly, it was the best of Wengerball. Quick, slick and devastating.

And look who was on the field?

In goal, another declining warrior, who at least got Wenger one extra trophy before he gave out.

In defense, two promising youngsters, and a right back who was imperious on the day, and is under long-term contract.

Midfield: a regista who may or may not ever “get it,” but played very well, and the local lad who’s been at the club since he was 9. Did we not all see Jack burst forward, on that amazing run where he set up Kolasinac for the goal?

Didn’t we all think: that’s the first time he’s had the burst! (I know I did, but then I reminded myself that the Burnley defenders are slow, so the jury’s still out.)

Alex Iwobi, another academy kid, looked amazing, and scored a wicked goal. You know, the guy we all rag on for his terrible shooting.

Mkhi, Lacazette and PEA all were terrific, exciting, tantalizing. Pick your word. They were that.

The bones and shards of the best of Wengerball were there for all to see. Along with the green shoots of the next incarnation of Arsenal Football Club. Now, someone else gets to come in, have a look around the place, and decide how to re-decorate.

Arsene Wenger, like all of us, is mortal. And like almost everyone else, he was pushed before he jumped. He had a chance to leave on top last year, and passed.

He gambled on one last hand, the only way he knew how.


  1. Nice post and and an interesting read. The name of a coach older than Wenger, still working in the most competitive league in Europe, seventy year old Roy Hodgson.

  2. you start with Willie Nelson, and end on a Kenny Rogers hint? Nice. Except Arsene didn’t “know when to walk away”…

  3. Wenger offered himself that contract last year then? Wenger signed a 2 year contract without knowing that it was a possibility he would leave after 1 season when he’d said he would talk to the board at the end of the season, and that the team had suffered last season with his contract situation?

    Wenger stayed because he loves Arsenal, and he has put the club first before thoughts of his ‘legacy’. The club wanted/needed him to stay till they got ‘The Team’ in.

    Good comparison with Coach Pop. It’s ironic that they are called Spurs because everything about them is very Arsenal. If Arsenal played in a world with salary caps that is.

    I think there’s a lot of good players to work with for the next guy. The defense needs a revamp. But there seems to be good young players coming through again. A fresh approach might just be the spark for some players to improve. I think we can look to the future with hope.

  4. Cazorla spotted in training! He won’t play, but it looks like he’s definitively okay now.

  5. Great read, thanks.
    When the new manager takes stock I hope it will be more to do more than just to redecorate the place (yes, I know that wasn’t meant literally).

    The House That Wenger Built needs the kind of renovation that will argued about and intensely discussed by anyone who cares about the club.

    Take down to the studs and rebuild from the ground up? Or just a nip and tuck with drywall and fresh paint?

  6. For about 4 years, while arguing with a few of the regular commenters here about Arsene, I held 2 views of Wenger….

    One, that his management of the club had become seriously dysfunctional, and one of the areas in which it was most glaring was transfers.

    Two, I adore the old so and so, and will bawl like a baby when he has to say goodbye.

    I don’t see those two things as being in conflict with the other, any more than seeing an old uncle I’m fond of lose it over time.

    We should give Arsene the sendoff he deserves as arguably (arguably!) the most consequential figure in the club’s history, player or manger. But we shouldn’t shy away from mentioning the failures, his ossification, that led to him being shown the door by the board of Arsenal Football Club. For that is what happened here.

    As one of his admirers argued on the last post, yes, he elevated the club. But he also took it to a few previously unplumbed depths on the field, most notably against Bayern and and in THAT game against Manchester United.

    The thing in evaluating Arsene is that you have to balance seemingly competing perspectives. Triumph and disheartening failure. First half of his reign, and second half. The players badly wanted to win Europa for him… it showed. But even they couldn’t help revering to metaphor — overplaying and faffing around the opposition box, on the most vexing of tactical Wengerism of his latter years, in contrast to the thrilling directness of Freddie, Bobby et al.

    There’s one achievement that is a stunning one that barely gets a mention. Those 3 FA Cups in 4 years is a much, much bigger deal than we acknowledge. We beat teams that’ll finish above us in the league this year. They shut down an annoying narrative (no silverware in ____ years). And they occurred during some of his most challenging seasons. Respect.

    The gooner nation is in mourning. He is one of a kind, warts and all, and we will miss him.

    1. Yeah those fa cups are well worth mentioning.

      If the next manager wins 3 trophies in the next five years ill be delighted.

      But honestly,
      ill be surprised if Arsenal do better than 3 Fa Cups in the next 10 years…

      (That might be an interesting conversation to have actually. How many trophies do people see Arsenal winning in the next 10 years? What would people deem a successful next 10 years?)

  7. Lovely piece, JB.

    This >> “What impressed me most was the way that the Madrid defenders were like a genetically-modified-octopus inside the 6 yard box. The few times a half-chance opened up, they moved like Neo in “The Matrix,” bending space-time to kill off all hope.”

    (I left out the following sentence, because I don’t have your sin bin privileges 🙂 )

    and this worth quoting at length >> “The bones and shards of the best of Wengerball were there for all to see. Along with the green shoots of the next incarnation of Arsenal Football Club. Now, someone else gets to come in, have a look around the place, and decide how to re-decorate. Arsene Wenger, like all of us, is mortal. And like almost everyone else, he was pushed before he jumped. He had a chance to leave on top last year, and passed.”

    1. Thanks much. It’s a pleasure to write for such an informed and interesting community.

  8. This from Allegri today:

    “…the club worked so well to bring in players of quality alongside those who had not just technique, but great human values. At the end of the day, in football you need more than technique to win. You need other values that can push you on during difficult times.”

    He said values. Twice. Gazidis’ knees just got weak.

    I go two ways on this every day. One day I want a surprise, perhaps someone young and even a bit inexperienced but exciting nonetheless. Another day I want someone with a strong track record, like Allegri.

    Oh, and superb post, Jonathan. Most enjoyable.

    1. It feels like Allegri makes sense if they want to compete right away. And are willing to spend
      what is necessary. (Which I doubt. Don’t forget, they have to pay Wenger next year’s salary.) I suspect IRS figures
      it will take a couple of years rebuilding to properly compete for the title, and will go for a coach who will develop
      along with the players, ideally peaking after Guardiola and Klopp have moved on.

      1. Wenger’s next year’s salary is what, 11m or something? That can’t affect transfers all that significantly.

    2. Allegri says a lot of things that are similar to Wenger. He’s said he loves training players and thinks of himself as a youth coach. He talks about values. Reportedly, he doesn’t like to rely too much on analysis and rather goes by his own instinct. Seems quite Wengeresque.

      Where he differs and why I’m not sure he’ll be a great fit is that he’s used to having the league’s best talent, and that won’t happen with Arsenal. Also, Juve are not the most exciting to watch despite that talent advantage in Serie A. And while they are better than Arsenal at defensive transitions (stating the obvious), I don’t think they are as defensively solid as we imagine.

      I’ve seen a good few matches of theirs in Serie A, and even when they dominate, I get the feeling that they can always concede. Maybe we can see their shots allowed in prime and goals conceded vs expected or something, and the stats will prove me wrong. But just by watching, they seem to get away with mistakes a lot of times without being punished, unlike Arsenal who get punished basically every time. And that could just be a function of playing in England rather than Italy.

  9. Also, West Brom officially relegated today, and there is only one certain outcome: We’ll be linked with Jonny Evans all summer long!

    1. I think if it was up to Wenger we would probably go for Evans, thankfully he will have no say in the matter.

      Given our defensive problems, signing a central defender from a newly relegated club, doesn’t make much sense.

    2. Actually I wouldn’t mind getting Evans + Top CB and selling Mustafi.

      And if we’re looking for a backup striker, how about a bid for Rondon? He seems a decent goal threat whenever I’ve seen him play. Obviously not an area of need, but if we’ll be playing with 2 strikers up front, maybe.

      1. I dunno about defenders from relegated teams. Weren’t they part of the problem? I know that that’s a bit broad, but personally, I’d pass for that reason.

        1. Only title winning defenders need apply 🙂

          I don’t know. I think you can have good players in poor sides, you can have poor players in good sides. And of course sometimes players thrive (or fail) in different environments. Calum Chambers had a lot of growth while playing for the relegated Boro side.

          Evans was a rumour that first broke 2 years ago and I thought it wasn’t the worst idea, though many here disagreed. I confess not having watched much of him since, but he seems to have calm and composure, and positions himself well. With 3 young CBs at the club, replacing Mustafi with Evans seems like a good squad move to me. I wouldn’t lose sleep over it either way though.

          1. Yeah, I’m with Shard. Evans is obviously not the greatest option in the world, but he’s not the worst either, especially on a free. I’d take him in my team ahead of Mustafi, at least in this stage of Mustafi’s career. Evans has composure that Mustafi doesn’t, and maybe never will, have. He’s a bit of a Per: not as tall (also not as slow), but strong in the air, reads the game well, surprisingly adroit in the tackle, and a good passer out of the back.

            I think people mostly don’t want him because he’s (a) an ex-Man United player, and (b) he plays for an unglamorous relegation side.

      2. If we get aTop CB, why would we want Evans? If it’s to replace Mustafi we would be no better off.

        As things stand I’d rather see Chambers and Mavropanos given a chance to shine. Particularly if we get a manager/coach who understands the value of actually coaching defenders and knows how to do it.

        1. Well for one, we’d be about 10-15million pounds better off. But more importantly, experience. Holding did so well next to Per. I think having two experienced CBs would help rather than hinder the growth of Mavropanos, Holding and Chambers.

          Also, because I see Evans and Chambers as the Per type of CB, while Holding, Mavropanos, and hopefully the new CB are the Kos type. But sure, if we get a Per replacement top CB (not Sokratis then) then Mustafi is fine I guess.

          1. As we are losing Merts, to retirement, and Koscielny won’t even start training until December, we can’t afford to dump Mustafi in favour of a less than stellar replacement.

            From what I’ve seen of Mavropanos, he could quickly develop into a fine centre back in a three with Chambers and Mustafi on either side of him.

            He could be equally as good alongside either Chambers or Mustafi in a back four with Kolasinac and Bellerin. Providing Bellerin gets instructions to concentrate on defence.

          2. Why can’t we can afford to dump Mustafi in favor of Evans+top quality player coming in?

            Per – gone
            Kos – all but gone
            Chambo/Holding/Mavro – green (plus, I have my doubts as to Holding’s quality in the long run, and Chambers will always be extremely slow)

            We could use two coming in, especially if we sell the (deeply mediocre) Mustafi. In that case, Evans makes a lot of sense.

        2. I think Evans would be an upgrade over Mustafi. If we get a top CB (not holding my breath), even better. 2 years of constant brain farts at the center of our defense is enough for me.

  10. I don’t think we are going to get a manager, in the mould of Wenger. There would have been no point in employing the Three Wise Men if that was to be the case.

    More likely we will get a head coach who is given the squad and told to make it work as a team.

    For that reason I believe we can forget about the big names being tossed around the tabloids and expect to see a left field appointment. Perhaps Arteta? Although Man City would be very reluctant to let him leave and the same applies to Patrick Vieira.

    I guess that what I am saying is that I haven’t the faintest idea who we are going to get, but isn’t fun to speculate?

    1. And they want Wilshere, too. Are they trying to do that thing City did years ago when they got all that money and immediately Arsenalized their team?

        1. Yes. And then, years later, win the league! This was City’s sinister early plan, after all: generate excitement about a team just finding their bearings in the rarified air of the top half of the table by filling the squad with players who have Arsenal on their resume; and then, using this shine to increase expectations (and actual league positions) to Arsenal’s level, establish a sense that everything is on the up and up, only needing the injection of further top talent to make that next step (i.e., Arsenal), which they can ACTUALLY DO! because they have money, and then, voila! They win the league as they shed the Arsenal skin, so that they are Arsenal, and they are not Arsenal at the same time. Like a snake skin! Or like a snake that sheds its skin! I don’ know!

          City are snakes.


  11. Moving on to the game this evening, pictures (on of players training prior to the match show Wilshere wearing strapping on his left knee. That may be precautionary but indicates that he has some problem there. How fit can he be and is it wise to risk him in such a meaningless game.

    Ozil has not been training due to a lingering back injury, so is very unlikely to play either tonight or in the final game on Sunday. Neither will Cazorla who has attended a couple of training sessions in the past week.

  12. Aside from lacking that central midfielder who can run games from the base of midfield (as Santi did and Busquets does for Barca), the ingredients are mostly there for Luis Enrique’s preferred style of play at Barca.
    Which is not that different from the style of the Invincibles if you think about (deep structured defence allied to a lethal forward line of elite finishers.)

  13. I love this article. It is balanced, and it states some facts as they are. I love Arsenal and not really Arsene the manager, but for the love of football, consistency wins trophies and the 3 FA cups in 4 years is admirable, not to mention, it shut the critics up too. 14 years without a league trophy shows the consistency required to win evaporated.

    What I found particularly distasteful was, supporters from other clubs, advising we keep Arsene so they could continue to have their way, because they could see the flaws highlighted in this article.

  14. Well that was just grand! One nil down after only ten minutes and ten men after fourteen, final score 3 – 1. We still haven’t one single point in 2018!

    What’s the betting we don’t break the duck on Sunday?

    1. We started brightly, but it’s like these players don’t respect the opposition enough away from home to realize that at PL level, things can go badly wrong at any moment. Even before the sending off (which sucked, but can happen, especially with such a young player), our defending leading up to the first goal was an embarrassment. Just a repeated inability to clear our lines. Schoolboy stuff. And before the corner leading to that goal, Welbeck gave the ball away in midfield ridiculously cheaply, allowing Leicester to release Vardy.

      A great reminder, if anyone needed it, why Arsene’s Arsenal are simply not organized and disciplined and mature enough on a football pitch to be successful in 2018 and for him to keep his job. I’m one of Arsene’s biggest fans, and I’m such a football romantic that deep down I can’t fully get excited about anyone taking over for Wenger who’s not also a romantic, attack-minded coach (which rules out quite a lot of candidates, including Allegri). But I swear, watching stupid mistake after stupid mistake in the team away from home this year (not to mention years of similar crap) has severely tested that outlook. I’d give almost anything (no Mourinho) just to watch a team that doesn’t repeatedly shoot itself in the foot.

      1. Dumping on Wenger’s Arsenal defending these days is like calling out a mentally challenged kid for a double dribble.
        You just got to let it slide and appreciate the fact he’s not shooting into his own hoop.

        Wenger said he hadn’t missed a practice session in some 22 years.
        Do you think at any time during those 22 years he started practice by saying : “today we’re going to concentrate on defending “, and upon seeing the surprised look on players’ faces , he laughed out loud and said: “ just kidding boys, let’s work on our passing again. Defending is for the birds. We’ve got Arsenal values to uphold “

    2. Agreed, but it was to be expected, I mean come on, what team playing at home can’t overcome an away team down to 10 men for 75 minutes!

    1. Analysts analyse. It’s their job. Keown was doing what he is paid to do, and in the view of this ex-journo, doing in in pleasingly trenchant fashion. I dont have to agree with him to believe that.

      I don’t blame Ozil’s rep. The criticism clearly stung. But it’s a bit immature to impute motives like jealousy.

      Keown will always be a legend for his monstering of Ruud Van Nistelrooy after the penalty miss. Oh for the days when Gunners had fight in them, and were afraid of no one.

  15. A bit tough to get a red card for what was not a clear cut goal scoring opportunity. The lad was too casual and was caught in possession by the Leicester player (who was up for it after just scoring) and TBH had no other choice than to bring him down.
    He’ll learn and be a better defender for it.
    I’m sure VAR would have overruled the referees decision and possibly the penalty also.

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