Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool legend now making a reputation as a common-sense pundit, said recently that there should be a bit of the Arsenal fan in all of us.
To be more precise, he said true soccer-lovers ought to will success on Arsene Wenger this season as the Arsenal coach strives to get the best out his latest team, whose Premier League season began with a 3-1 home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa but has since been elevated by the signing of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid.
Carragher’s argument was that Wenger had been such a positive influence on the League, such a purveyor of quality, since his arrival in 1996 that the English game’s interests would be best served by his remaining in London on a renewed contract rather than leaving — perhaps for his native France, as had been speculated in the most recent of his barren years at the Emirates.
Even a Tottenham fan might privately have agreed with that sentiment. Wenger is a popular and respected coach and you could sense that among the professional neutrals of the press as we waited for him to conduct his customary Friday briefing ahead of the game at West Bromwich. The questions he then faced were markedly less aggressive than, say, Jose Mourinho has been obliged to field of late.
There was even one asking whether Wenger agreed, in the light of Manchester United’s apparent decline since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, that the case for "experienced management" had been made and whether he would take that point into his contract negotiations (to be conducted later in the season). Wenger smiled. "I’d like to take you in as my agent," he replied.
It’s a happy ship he sails in at the moment. The team has been buoyant since recovering from the Villa reverse and Wenger pointed out that the improvement seemed to date from the latter part of last season, in particular the away performance against BayernMunich at the Allianz Arena, where Arsenal were knocked out of the UEFA Champions League only on away goals by the side who went on to win the competition at Wembley.
"Everyone thought we’d get trounced by six or seven there," he recalled. "Then we put together a run in the League and the players realized they must have some quality. This new attitude is now reflected in the consistency of our results. But let’s not forget we have won nothing. We have to develop a hunger to improve from game to game."
That the Ozil effect is already working in that direction was obvious on Tuesday night, when the elegant German scored one and made for Olivier Giroud the other of the goals that overcame Napoli in London. It was a sumptuous team performance — the Italians might have lost more heavily — and Wenger’s wisdom in adding to his apparently overloaded roster of playmakers is hardly contested.
As he explained: "We are in a competitive world and, when expectation levels are high, you can never turn down the opportunity to sign a world-class player. I agree that we had no special emptiness there [in the No. 10 position behind main striker Giroud.] But the quality of the player was so big."
Ozil cost $65 million to import from Spain and Wenger ruefully admitted that he had bought himself a bit of trouble. Asked if he would be able to keep his array of attacking midfielders — Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and not least Jack Wilshere — happy when all were fit, he responded: "No. Honestly, I won’t. But it’s part of our job to make unpopular decisions.
"No matter what happens, only the 11 who start will be happy. But it’s part of the modern game to have a strong bench. Look at Bayern [when they took the field at Manchester City.] They had Mario Gotze on the bench. They had Javi Martinez on the bench. It’s part of being a big club today to have big players on the bench."
And Wenger has never stopped seeing Arsenal as a big club, even though they have not lifted a trophy since the FA Cup was rather luckily won on penalties against Manchester United in 2005. Indeed he seemed not to be particularly interested in the notion of breaking the sequence with either of England’s domestic cups. The targets, Wenger asserted, were the Premier League and Champions League. "We will not neglect the rest, but these are our priorities," he added.
The absence of Wilshere from the starting lineup against Napoli has caused concern that the exceptionally gifted young Englishman might not have an automatic place in the campaign. No one did, stressed Wenger — but it is clear that Wilshere has a role in his strongest side, for he declared that the midfielder’s ideal position for the moment would be "deep-lying," in other words as one of the "2" in the team’s customary 4-2-3-1 formation. This would mean he’s competing with Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini rather than the likes of Ozil and Cazorla, though he could also play wide, as the supercharged Aaron Ramsey had done to splendid effect against Napoli. And Wenger agrees.
"But I think Jack likes to face the game rather than play higher up the field," noted Wenger. "Why? Because he can burst forward with the ball at his feet."
It was a cigarette in his mouth that got Wilshere into trouble towards the end of the week. Wenger, upon hearing that the player had been photographed in such a pose during a night off, promised to have a word in his ear about the necessity to set a good example. But nothing spoiled the coach’s good humor as he looked ahead to the game against the team who beat Manchester United last time out. West Bromwich would be an "interesting test," said Wenger, with a glint in his eye that said the League leadership was something his developing side would very much like to keep.