The Tuesday Portrait: Arsène Wenger
by Brian Phillips · April 15, 2008
There’s a certain quality that comes into the facial expressions of men who, somewhat battered and chastened by life, somewhat rumpled by it, somewhat the worse for wear, nevertheless retain an unusually clear sense of the virtue that guides their actions. Disillusioned more by the world’s failure to endorse their illusions than by any realization of the inadequacy of the illusions themselves, they look out on life with a wary, worried, strong, exhausted resolve. They have long since learned to pretend to disregard the world’s indifference to their ideal—they affect a levelheaded coolness—but it eats at them in secret; the hint of some faint disgust passes constantly over their faces, as if they had swallowed a moral that disagreed with them, as if they suffered from the permanent heartburn of the good.
Edward R. Murrow, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Bruce Willis, Charles Baudelaire, Tommy Lee Jones, and Humphrey Bogart all have this quality, some of them only in the movies; as does Arsène Wenger, in something not unlike real life. Incapable either of reconciling themselves to the badness of the world or of finally defeating it, they live with the anxious confidence of men who greatly trust their own abilities but also perceive the vastness of the powers arrayed against them, an outlook which must have been shared by the soldiers who were sent by Xerxes, when his plans were wrecked by a storm, with instructions to whip the sea.
The lines that burn on Arsène Wenger’s face burn, of course, for the ideal of beautiful football, for the flowing, attacking game of short passes and skillful ball control to which he has devoted, often with spectacular success, his entire tenure at Arsenal. The almost universal desire of fans to see this sort of football, combined with its perceived rareness relative to the safe, pragmatic, stifling long-ball game, has given Wenger (whose style has, after all, demonstrably won championships) the strange air of a tragic hero who in some performances has managed to survive and triumph at the end of the play.
Furrowed and watchful, distrustful, eagle-eyed, he seems to gaze into unspeakable consequences that he can prevent only by refusing to look away. Having lost his innocence in the fight, which he won, to keep his innocence, he now preserves the purity of the beauty he contemplates by balancing it with the grimness of the vision he fears. To be uncompromising is the paramount rule in moments of failure, just as to be relentless is the paramount rule in moments of success.
As ever when Arsenal lose, he is surrounded by whispers that attractive football is incapable of winning in the modern game. As ever at such moments, he either does not know or cannot bring himself to say that Arsenal have not been playing especially attractive football, that the real question—since actually attractive football would have likely brought better results—is whether a beautiful style is still attainable in the conditions of the English game. Instead he defends his club by treating “Arsenal” and “attractive football” as synonymous, looks bleakly into the future, and promises success. He promises not to touch the millions of pounds that have been made available to help him strengthen his thin young squad. If Arsenal and beauty are the same word, then why should they ever need strengthening? How can you tell, if the photograph is beautiful, whether it’s meant to depict a sunrise or a sunset?
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