More questions than answers as Wenger takes trip down memory lane ahead of Arsenal’s Manchester City FA Cup semi final
PUBLISHED: 14:52 22 April 2017
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His furrowed brow lifts slightly and the merest hint of a smile widens his mouth. He is not reacting to a joke but a happy memory.
Lots of happy memories. FA Cup memories.
With Arsenal struggling for form in the maelstrom of the Premier League after the shocking brace of Teutonic Champions Leagues humiliations another cup brings a chance of redemption of sorts for Arsene Wenger.
For the 67-year-old speaking at London Colney earlier this week - at the nerve centre of his kingdom he has reshaped since walking in as a complete unknown well before Tony Blair was elected as PM – has been in a reflective mood.
The fiercely competitive Wenger – who the majority of fans now feel has lost his magic and his mojo – is not one for looking back.
But for Wenger the endgame is surely approaching – and the realisation somewhere deep in his psyche – brought forth a rush of memories.
He said: “I have always thought the FA Cup special.
“The fact that you have a trophy at the end of the game that makes the FA Cup special.
“The Championship is more of a marathon - but the FA Cup is a result of one game.
“It’s a case of: ‘Let’s go for it and see who is the best today’.
“I’m very proud of [my FA Cup record] because you have many strong managers in England for many periods.
“The guy who won it six times was not today, it was early century. It’s not easy.”
To many the cup also offers the chance of a fond farewell for Wenger at Wembley next month by lifting the world’s oldest knockout trophy for a record seventh time.
Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City provides the Frenchman a final chance of silverware for his side this season.
Perhaps it will be his final shot at glory at the club he has shaped during his tenure.
But by continually refusing to confirm his future plans, turning an unfolding football problem into a farce, he has only encouraged speculation.
The fact his team have showed form unrecognizable to Arsenal fans who recall his mighty first decade has only fed discontent. It is a discontent which has reached such fever pitch only his removal would sate.
Many compare his current predicament to the spring of 2014, when a defeat against valiant Hull City at Wembley could well have seen him walk away.
He recalled of that time: “It was a special pressure. It was difficult for us. 2014 was special pressure, this time, was special opportunity for us.”
Why special pressure?
“As we had not won a trophy for a long time. And that people wanted to us to win a trophy or questioned us about winning a trophy. As well as we had the opportunity in the semi final to go to the final and win the cup. Overall yes the pressure was big.”
A smattering of those from provisional wing of Arsenal fans unbelievably see that comeback and 3-2 win in extra time against the Tigers as a missed opportunity for the club to be rid of Wenger.
Such absurdity is not welcomed by the majority but it is indicative of the feelings the latter years of his reign have brought. And there are some on social media spouting the same nonsense this weekend.
They are not representative.
Because Arsenal – the club and its true fans – have always loved the FA Cup.
And there is a real and present danger of an uneasy truce breaking out for 24 hours at least while the majority of fans unite behind their bid to lift this famous old trophy for a record 13th time.
The ideal scenario proposed by many would be Wenger to defeat City tomorrow, and win the final before he walks off into the sunset – and the bitterness engendered as much by his stubbornness as by poor results will disappear.
It sounds simple when you say it quickly enough.
But that requires a lot of work first. And a public announcement by Wenger about his future. Until that comes disharmony will reign.
In the words of Bruce Springsteen you glorify the past when the future dries up.
Which partly explains Wenger looking back with as much as nostalgia as this proud man allowed himself – in the absence of a discussion about his forthcoming plans.
He said: “I want to win the FA Cup.
“I used over the years always the League Cup – as we played in the Champions League -–to develop the younger players.
“The FA Cup is one of the major trophies and that is why I have prepared properly for it every time.
“It is always a tricky period as when you play over Christmas you play a lot and after at the beginning of January you have the third round.
“That is the round when you have to turn up and I always say to the players we have prepared well always beginning of January not to go out.”
With victories on the road against at Preston’s evocative if transformed Deepdale, a convincing win on the south coast against Southampton’s promising but raw youngsters and a brace of wins against non-league opposition in Sutton and Lincoln, Arsenal are two games away from lifting the pot again.
Yet Wenger is as downbeat as he has ever been at this stage of the season.
He said: “We have to win the game and see for the rest of the season.
“We still have to not give up to be in the top four and have to give absolutely everything on Sunday.
“At the end of the season we will judge everything.”
There have been far too many false dawns by his teams over the last decade to even talk about turning points, but his victory at Middlesbrough on Monday evening showed, at the very least that they have far more heart than they showed during their pathetic capitulation at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace the previous Monday.
He adds: “When you have negative results like we had it can divide or unite.
“At some stage you have to show you can fight together. Even if people will say it’s normal you win at Middlesbrough, when you go through a bad period it’s difficult in your head to win everywhere.
“The best way to win is first to show that you can fight again. People questioned our fighting spirit, rightly so, when you came out of the Palace game.
“We had to show again that we can fight together.
“You know as well when the team fights and doesn’t do it creates even more uncertainty.
“The fact they did fight and did win had a positive impact.”
A positive spirit is needed on Sunday if dreams of silverware are to be realised.
But whether his team shows enough collective fight and spirit to allow their gilded talents to emerge in the wide open spaces of the Wembley turf on Sunday is just another still-unanswered question among the litany of others Wenger and his underachieving team have prompted this season.