Who is the best actor of all time? Is it Denzel Washington and his unfailing charisma and ability to swap from heart-warmingly charming to shit-the-bed terrifying? Perhaps it is Daniel Day-Lewis and his uncanny knack to blend into diverse roles the way N’Golo Kante could blend into any Premier League midfield. Or, of course, it could be Donald Trump’s latest enemy Meryl Streep who holds the record for the most Academy nominations.
For me, that distinction falls to the legendary Robert De Niro. Martin Scorsese’s muse, has lit up the silver screen for well over four decades, garnering a glowing reputation in classics such as Raging Bull, Godfather Part II, Goodfellas and Heat. Sadly, for the once great De Niro, his choices in the last decade are in danger of tarnishing a legacy that should be bulletproof. His decision to shy away from demanding roles, and opt for well-paying nonsense has meant that to a new generation of film-goers he does not represent Jake La Motta, Vito Corleone or Travis Bickle, instead his image will conjure the characters from such guff as Little Fockers, The Family or the insufferable Last Vegas.
It is a truly sad conclusion for a true titan of Hollywood.
The only other person, I can think of, that has had a similar downturn in fortunes is the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. It is important to state from the off the admiration I hold for the bespectacled manager. He is a true innovator, a legend of the game, a man who has immeasurably improved the sport and the enjoyment we all draw from it. From aesthetically pleasing football, a complete overhaul in terms of how players view professionalism, the hiring of rich playing characters, to his own numerous feuds and spats in various technical areas, each and every person, who loves football dearly, should be thankful for Wenger’s imprint.
Building a statue at the Emirates is not a big enough statement of thanks, (especially if the bust is designed and built by the chap who made Cristiano Ronaldo’s) the stadium itself should be renamed in his honour, aping Real Madrid’s admiration of Santiago Bernabeu.
Unfortunately, Wenger himself is standing in the way of creating a golden legacy. Standards have been allowed to drop dramatically in the latter half of Wenger’s tenure. Gone are the days when Arsenal were as relentless as Robert De Niro’s, Max Cady in Primal Fear, in their search for silverware. We all know the story of the ‘Invincibles’ and their crusade towards an entire campaign undefeated, the first side to do so in the English top flight since Preston North End in 1888. To put this into context 1888 was the year in which ‘Jack the Ripper’ committed his first grizzly murder.
The thought of Arsene Wenger of today imbibing his squad with such moral fortitude is laughable. Arsenal, in the last decade, have been synonymous with a few character traits; beautifully orchestrated football, a commitment to possession and, more worryingly, the tendency to throw away games when even the slightest bit of pressure is applied. The obvious caveat is the construction of the Emirates Stadium and the relative poverty that Wenger saw fit to inflict upon himself. But as we enter the age of mind-boggling television money, the kind of sums that forces even the most devout worshippers of the sport to consider their allegiance to what, ostensibly remains ‘the people’s game’, is an argument that holds less credence. Wenger himself has become the only barrier to success.
It is arguable that Wenger has not led a true challenge for the title since 2008. After selling club icon Thierry Henry, few gave the Gunners even the slightest whiff of hope, yet the youthful side flourished for the first half of the season. With a solid enough defensive unit, Fabregas peerless in a creative role, ably assisted by Hleb and Rosicky and a forward triumvirate of Adebayor, van Persie and Eduardo, Arsenal were a side to be feared. Indeed, Pele claimed the Gunners to be “the best performing team in the Premier League”.
The moment of capitulation is well documented. In a game against Birmingham, Martin Taylor administered a hefty challenge on Eduardo, resulting in a badly fractured leg. Arsenal went on to draw the game 2-2, with the iconic image of defensive stalwart William Gallas, close to tears, rampaging around the park in a petulant rampage. Gallas became the physical embodiment for how brittle Arsene Wenger’s squad had become. The intelligent, fluid, interchangeable stars lacked the fortitude needed to triumph over adversity. Without the robust presence of men like Vieira, Henry, Petit, Adams and Bergkamp, Arsenal were a side that were all too easily rolled over.
Another attributing factor, into Arsenal’s continued degradation, is Arsene’s misguided loyalty to players that are obviously substandard. Arsenal fans are routinely mocked and made the butt of jokes but their ire is understandable when you consider how long they were forced to endure the bumbling displays of players like Senderos, Bendtner, Pascal Cygan and Gervinho. Paying some of the highest prices in world football to endure such interminable dross is bound to stoke the flames of anger.
Wenger’s one-time fatherly handling of the players provided his squad with the perfect blend of carrot and stick. The correct dosage of hand-upon-the-shoulder and kick-up-the-backside proved integral to his success. Nowadays, the stern, paternal bond has given way, in Wenger’s dotage, to a more relaxed, grandfatherly trust. Player’s misgivings, foibles and misdemeanours are not dealt with severely enough.
The most obvious example is the recent handling of Alexis Sanchez against Liverpool. Accused of being a detrimental figure on the training ground, Sanchez was left on the bench for the crucial away trip to Anfield. After a tepid first-half display, Wenger, casting aside all of his prior convictions, threw the Chilean magician into the fray in a desperate bid to draw a semblance of success. His unwillingness to stick to his guns, illustrates exactly why he is no longer suited to top level management. Many in the tabloid press have made Sanchez out to be some vainglorious, ego maniac. This, though, is a harsh portrait of one of the finest players in the world. To me he looks more like Roy Keane during his infamous blowout in Saipan prior to the 2002 World Cup. Like the Irishman, Sanchez’ regrettable incident was almost certainly sparked by the feeling that more could be done to meet his sky-high demands.
The term ‘winner’ gets bandied about far too often, yet it certainly applies to Sanchez. Every time he takes to the field this is obvious. The way he careens around the park jostling his far bigger adversaries, his immediate dismay with any teammate that allows standards to be dropped, his willingness to step up and have his influence felt when all those around him are looking for an avenue to the showers is admirable. The kind of displays that should have a light shone upon them, rather than cast aside in an effort to maintain a substandard harmony. Instead of proclaiming Sanchez’ actions as something to be rooted out of the club, they should be placed on a pedestal, an identifiable goal for every player to aspire to. The fact there is even a debate into Sanchez’ prolonged presence illustrates perfectly how far Arsenal have fallen.
Wenger’s more committed followers will point to their back-to-back FA Cup triumphs and contest that the Frenchman still has what it takes to lead a modern-day giant. This, like De Niro’s Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, is merely an acknowledgement that there remains some vestigial talent dwelling within these ageing icons. Talent enough to inspire moments of brilliance but not the amount required to catapult them back to their respective heydays.
Scenes now are turning to a poisonous degree for Arsene Wenger. The 10-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich has refuelled his detractors and allowed a fresh tidal wave of bile to spill across the Emirates, seeming to seep into the turf. Arsenal Fan TV has been the most vocal platform for this. It is important to remember that these guys are fans in the loosest possible definition, they are caricatures, comedic personalities, rent-a-quotes, men who have allowed their tenuous link to fame to blur their true opinions. Sadly, they do seem to have an impact in shaping the opinions of a number of Arsenal fans. If Arsenal’s poor run of form continues, the number of folk baying for Wenger’s head will only increase.
There is a Noel Gallagher lyric, from the song While the Song Remains the Same, that sums up the bizarre atmosphere around the club; “We let love got lost in anger, chasing yesterday.”
The Arsenal fans who, almost admirable in their loyalty, refuse to turn their back on Wenger believing that he has it in his make-up to turn back the clock and enjoy another season in the sun, one reminiscent of his late ’90s peak. For everyone else this is folly, a childish dream, and long ago anger well and truly replaced the love they once held for the club’s greatest ever manager.
Wenger has the capacity to change the feeling in his support. Were he to announce a summer abdication the entire fanbase would be behind him. Instead of trudging towards the season’s finale, Arsene and his players would be swept-up and carried on a wave of well-wishing fans. A place in the top four and another FA Cup could be achieved, allowing Wenger to leave on a relative high and, more importantly, with his dignity intact. Failure to do so would be what Chris Sutton recently described as “selfish”.
Wenger has the opportunity to walk into the sunset with his head held high, his accomplishments laid out for all to see and his legacy close to unimpeachable. Failure to do so would see him once again ape Robert De Niro whose career plumbed new depths last year with the film Bad Grandpa. A flick so bad De Niro actually dons a fake, detailed rubber knob, waving it in the face of his co-star in a desperate plea to get the audience to laugh.
De Niro has tarnished his legacy, Wenger can avoid this fate.