MIGHT Clarence Seedorf have played a peripheral role at either end of Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal?
When Bruce Rioch hummed and hawed about signing the Dutchman in 1996, having been presented with the opportunity by David Dein, the Arsenal board decided the manager didn’t share their vision for the club.
Seedorf went to Real Madrid. Arsenal sent for Wenger.
Last Wednesday night at the San Siro, Seedorf hobbled away after 12 minutes. But by the time his side was finished with Arsenal, it was almost impossible to make out whatever vision Wenger has left for his club.
The end has never appeared closer for a reign of two halves – the first filled with pots, the latter panned.
So what happened along the way? Was Arsene just an early adopter reeled in on the curve? The Wenger age of enlightenment fed on grilled broccoli and gobbled mystery pills. It took hot baths and massages. An osteopath gave it a full service and realignment every month. It didn’t drink water from the fridge.
The England players were warned not to leak secrets. But the advantages couldn’t last. By halftime in Arsene’s era, Sam Allardyce had a cast of thousands looking after Bolton’s physiology.England had opened its eyes and stretched its legs.
Is it simply cash? The arrival of the moneybags let the air out of moneyball. Contacts, scouts and a superior knowledge of the French market during his homeland’s golden age had given Arsene a fighting chance of countering Manchester United’s wealth. But the new rich have pockets deep enough to drown imagination.
A club dislocated? Nothing has been won since the Emirates move. “The heart wants to stay at Highbury, but the brain wants to go somewhere else,” said Wenger once. The heart and soul have been buried under flats along with a century of history, but the brain transplant must have been rejected, so skittishly have Arsenal defended at their new plastic new home.
And if heads were empty, so too were pockets.
The poster boy for Arsene’s first Arsenal was in Limerick last week, promoting Manchester City. How that happened must be a parable the devil tells plenty when he’s on a recruitment drive. Of course Arsene Wenger has won nothing at Arsenal without the man he sent on ahead to get his work started while he tidied up loose ends in Japan.
Nobody represented Wenger’s successful teams better than Patrick Vieira. Giant frame, iron lungs, velvet touch. But at the height of his success, Wenger admitted he couldn’t imagine finishing his life without winning the European Cup. Did the rot start there? Is that why recent Arsenal teams are unrecognisable from the power-based counter-attackers that drove him to early glory?
In The Professor, Myles Palmer recalls an Arsenal training drill in 2001 that had Matthew Upson at centre forward to test the back four under a series of high balls delivered by coach Boro Primorac. Coping wasn’t enough. Defenders had to react to each dropping ball quickly and arrow a pass wide to Henry or Pires who, in turn, had a second’s grace to find Kanu or Ljungberg running on goal. A shot was required within five seconds of turnover.
That kind of Arsenal was beaten 3-1 by Bayern Munich seven years ago in a Champions League first leg – perhaps the last time they played as poorly in Europe as they did on Wednesday. A late miss from Torsten Frings and a last-minute scramble from Kolo Toure prevented an identical scoreline to the one in Milan.
The bathwater went out, the babies came in. The new, youthful Arsenal would try to conquer Europeby controlling games rather than bursting them open. Possession not power was the watchword. Fabregas replaced Vieira.
Now Ramsey can’t do either job.
“All a bit predictable,” concluded his old master Dennis Bergkamp this week, even before the misery in Milan.
Giles Grimandi once mentioned how Wenger had mastered Zen. “Japan taught him to stand back from events and avoid stress. His formula, which he tells me all the time, is you need to go back to basics.”
But it must be almost impossible for him to do that now.
The perfect storm of conditions that made his early success possible has long dissipated. His team’s play has become notoriously complicated. He is at once coach and accountant and brand manager, trying to convince an increasingly sceptical public that there’s still a grand plan.
Most feel the plan was torn up when Yossi Benayoun arrived. Mikel Arteta too perhaps. Panic selections from the middle drawer.
In added time now, especially after losing on Saturday night, Wenger still deserves the opportunity to throw a fortune at his problems this summer.
But is there money there to do that? And, as Seedorf glides serenely towards the end of his stellar career, does Wenger have one more vision left in him?
First published in the Irish Examiner