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.

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