Wenger – A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Wrapped in an Oversized Coat

Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, Football, Premier League, Transfer Window

Here it is then; the football season has begun. Yes, I know it began weeks ago, but it never feels real until the transfer window closes. Teams are still to be decided, big name signings and sales can still destroy the equilibrium. We battle through the opening rounds, hoping for damage limitation from our side before the real big guns are settled. I am sure that is what Arsenal fans were thinking. Benzema, Cavani, Reus, Draxler, Verratti, Rabiot, Ibrahimovic – the names went on. All of the potential incomings swirling around North London, the heady, intoxicating list of superstars. This was it; after the promise created by Ozil and Sanchez, this was the summer that Arsenal went for it. A few signings away from a title winning team; this was where they would fill in the missing pieces and join the elite once more.

You often get the feeling that Arsene Wenger is wilfully becoming a parody of himself, and he pulled his ace card by being the only manager in Europe’s top 5 leagues not to sign a single outfield player. Arsenal desperately need a defensive midfielder and a striker; an injury to Coquelin or Giroud and their whole season will capitulate, yet Wenger continues to be Wenger. He is a fascinating man, an enigma that I admire hugely, and simultaneously want to slap. He seems such a noble, principled figure, a lone ranger sticking to his beliefs in the ugly face of modern football. Other clubs throw obscene money around, the social media age means more than ever clubs and fans are desperate for a quick fix, for instant results. Managers, players and clubs can go from hero to zero, or vice versa, in the space of a few minutes, let alone a few weeks. Yet there he stands, putting in bids £1 above buy out clauses, sticking to his guns about value, refusing to use the money available at one of the world’s richest clubs. He is determined that his beliefs will prevail, that even in the largely reprehensible modern game he can nurture and develop players, and build a winning team without compromising his values.

However, it is equally frustrating, because it seems clear to everyone that his principles will not win him titles any more. The transfer market has evolved, and to get the best you have to pay obscene money. It is sad, but it is true. Certainly, you can develop world class players, and it would be deeply upsetting if Arsenal stopped doing that, but there are clear deficiencies at Arsenal that have been obvious for years, and no one in their ranks can solve them. He is now not even buying young talents, he just isn’t buying.

Gary Neville was right, it is either arrogance or naivety, and I think it is probably the latter. I am continually astonished that, for such a successful, experienced manager, Wenger seems to lack nous in situations. I understand that he doesn’t want to compromise, but he seems to have such little tactical awareness. Last season against Monaco was the prime example, and while he corrected it in the victory against Manchester City, it is still evident. We have seen it already against West Ham this season, when it was so clear that Arsenal needed some width. Wenger’s obstinacy continued, determined to pick holes through the middle of a compact defence. Yet you have to love him for it, his steadfast commitment to aesthetics and enjoyment, knowing that once in a while it will culminate in a glorious, dare I say perfect, moment like this:

He has huge flaws, and even as a non-Arsenal fan he leaves me tearing my hair out, but I know that I will miss him when he’s gone. I hope I am wrong, but he seems like the last bastion of what made football beautiful. There he is, swimming against the tide, trying not to drown in the morass of amorality and greed that permeates the game that he loves. He is an easy figure to ridicule, indeed he often warrants criticism, but try to imagine English football without him. It is not a happy thought. Whether openly or not, I believe we collectively dream of one final hurrah for Wenger, just one signing or moment that will give them the required extra spark. All football fans must hope for a 2003-04 type Wenger side, there has been nothing more joyful in the Premier League era.

Plus, Wenger royally pisses off Piers Morgan, and that can only be a bonus.

Hi I’m John, and I’m an addict

Addiction, Arsenal, Football, Football Manager, London, Yaya Sanogo

Where can one turn with an addiction? Hallucinations form, images appear where there is nothing, thoughts drift rapidly, inexorably, back to the same place. One’s mind cannot focus on anything, anything other than where the next fix is coming from. I have suffered. I have suffered greatly. Not heroin, not cocaine, not Toblerone. My hands shake as I unwrap the packaging, press the button on the side of the laptop and try to insert the disc. The disc, that thin sliver of joy and despair, slips. I gasp, but eventually it’s in. Load. Load, God damn you, load. I am, of course, talking about Football Manager addiction, and as a new version is imminent, it is a problem more prominent than ever.

Those who have not tried it will never understand. “It’s just a game, it’s stupid, you don’t even do anything, you just click buttons, the computer does most of it”. How I laugh. They have not felt its grasp; the cold, clammy hand that greets your every move. You kick the addiction for a few months, then names come flooding back. Cherno Samba, Tonton Zolo Moukoko, To Madeira, Yaya Sanogo, Khouma Babacar. Legends to a man. Oh the halcyon days. You wonder where they are now. Plumbing the depths of the lower leagues, retired, working in Lidl, fictional, sitting on the Arsenal bench? It does not matter. They are immortal.

Just one quick game. Half an hour, maybe an hour, before bed. You get through the opening transfer window. What’s the time; 10/10:30pm? It is 4am. No point stopping now, just plough through until tomorrow. No sleep? It doesn’t matter, you have signed Bojan. That’s what counts.

There are others out there. You may not see them; they are shamed into retreating under bridges, in alleyways, away from the glare of the real world. They are not helped, they are scorned. I have sought help, but members of Narcotics Anonymous do not take kindly to one’s presence. I tried to explain to them how my addiction was just as damaging as theirs, but if anything that just made the situation worse. They did not listen. I will not hide any more.

There are others who have it worse. There are stories of players dressing in suits for matches, playing the Champions League theme before those big European nights, shaking hands with the opposing manager – the doorknob. Football Manager has been cited in more than 35 divorce cases. My proudest moment was not my graduation; it was an incident a few weeks prior, when Everton renamed Goodison Park ‘The O’Connor Stadium’, having seen their team win 3 consecutive Champions League titles.

I have grown since my younger days. That’s what I tell myself. At 23, my Football Manager time is restricted to playing the Kindle version while travelling. I am currently in my 5th season and on the verge of the title with Leicester City, having brought them up from the Championship. The board have been patient and they are reaping the rewards. They are in the Quarter Final of the Champions League, and have a manager with a proven track record. The Leicester City faithful have never seen 5 in midfield, 2 deep lying midfielders dictating play, a fluid front line, out and out wingers one game, inside forwards the next, one ball playing centre back, wing backs bursting down the flanks, a deep lying forward bringing others into play, crisp, short tiki-taka passing. This isn’t your average side – we are building something special here.

Since I have moved to London and, most importantly, been living with my girlfriend (I have learned something from those divorce cases, and she has been a rock through my battle with addiction), Football Manager has taken something of a back seat. It is secondary now, but nothing can take away those memories. That 2011 Everton first team rolls off the tongue of every football fan on the planet: Areola (not only was he the best keeper in the world, but his name allowed for lots of comedy “Areola makes a tit of himself/boobs it up” remarks on the very few occasions that he made an error), Azpilicueta, Chiellini, Otamendi, Criscito, Hamsik, Sanchez, Pastore, Ozil, Babacar, Sanogo. The heroes.

Yes, my life has progressed, as have theirs. We have gone our separate ways. I have faced my addiction, and Football Manager no longer controls my mind as it once did. Now I can go for hours, even days, without needing my next fix.

As I walk down the streets of London with my girlfriend, hand in hand, in love, the sun shining, I think of all of the beauty that the real world has to offer. We may nip into a pub for quick refreshment on our jaunt around the city. There is football on the screen. Arsenal are playing. I hear the team sheet, and my heart flutters. Yaya Sanogo. I bow my head and a smile creeps across my face. 52 goals in a season. I can feel the glint in my eye, tears welling, my bottom lip trembling. Yaya Sanogo. An idol.