In the weeks leading up to the current Premier League season, Arsene Wenger's name was often mentioned as an afterthought. In a league full of managerial riches, Wenger was seen as a part of the group which included Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp et al but in a perfunctory way.
The presence of more successful managers had showed the Arsenal manager in poor light in the recent past. He still deserved a mention for his long tenure and success in getting the Gunners to the Champions League every season. But he was like that old friend who you invite to your birthday party because it would seem disrespectful if you did not. Wenger had grown distanced from the in-group and was unlikely to find his way back.
But then arrived a moment of decisiveness one did not expect from the French manager. Wenger went ahead and plugged the gaps that lay within his team. No longer could one complain that Arsenal was a player short going into the league campaign. Thirty-five million pounds for Shkodran Mustafi? No problem.
Not very long ago, Wenger had offered a critique of elite football in, well, current times. Not modern, I would argue. For who can say when modern football began? And if it was in existence, had it not moved on to another stage? Anyway, I digress. Wenger's words were: "We live in a society where everything is now quantified. It is the job of the model manager to select the most important things, and filter out the noise. It is not only about winning, but a deeper purpose, elevating the game above your own ego."
Elevating the game above one's own ego. Wenger did exactly that. The rigidity that one had come to associate with his managerial style was surprisingly ditched. Of course, his critics would point out that they had demanded exactly the same for years. But the hallmark of any successful manager over a long period of time is his ability to refresh his approach. Wenger did not do that for years and suffered. But he may have finally come around to changing his philosophy, albeit not in a transformative way.
And how well has it served him! Arsenal looks a rejuvenated side. Going into the weekend, the Gunners were level with Manchester City at the top of the table - goal difference being the slight advantage held by Guardiola's side. If Arsenal wins the north London derby on Sunday, they will go to the top of the table.
It is a scenario most did not predict. Wenger has not only held his own against some of the best managers in the game but also seems to have their measure. That seems to be a strange thing to say about a manager whose credentials are redoubtable, but it feels like Wenger has made a point.
After besting Antonio Conte's Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal now meets Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur. Pochettino has rightly earned the plaudits for infusing a winning mentality at White Hart Lane while inculcating an attractive brand of football. However, he will bring his team to the Emirates Stadium in a difficult moment for the club. The Spurs have not won any of their last six matches in all competitions.
Although Arsenal is only three points ahead of Tottenham, the Gunners have caught eyes with their flamboyant, attacking football in recent weeks. Wenger's decision to play Alexis Sanchez as a striker has proved to be a masterstroke as the Chilean's movement has confounded opposition defences. Sanchez's ability to drag defenders in uncomfortable positions has opened up space for his teammates; particularly Theo Walcott, who has managed to garner a rich haul of goals. It is indeed ironic that Walcott had announced his intention to return to the wing at the start of the season after a failed dalliance as a striker.
Furthermore, the acquisition of defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka has freed up the rest of the attack-minded players to contribute more in the final third. As a result, Arsenal has been able to cut through opposition defences.
But of course, as is the case with Wenger's Arsenal, this should be a cautionary tale. The goalless draw with Middlesborough a fortnight ago reminded us of familiar failings. Over the past decade, Arsenal has let the momentum slip on far too many occasions by its inability to best sides which are decidedly inferior on paper. But with a deep squad, Wenger will believe the mental frailties can be overcome.
Even if old fears resurface, Arsenal has much to be pleased about in the short-term. There are signs that Wenger is finally making progress with a playing style which is true to his core philosophy.
The Frenchman's dominant Arsenal sides in the late 1990s and early noughties relied heavily on their counterattacking ability. Such was the effect of Thierry Henry's pace that the Gunners could land blows on the opposition in three or four passes. The days of George Graham's boring Arsenal were wiped out by Wenger's blend of elegance and swiftness.
However, as Ruud Gullit notes in How to Watch Football, the Frenchman seemed to be consumed by a desire to play the Barcelona way following the defeat to the Catalans in the 2005-'06 Champions League final. Although Wenger once dismissed Barcelona's possession-driven approach as "sterile domination", he built his side around many small, technically astute players in the following years. But the physicality of the Premier League overwhelmed the Gunners, as Wenger could never find a Sergio Busquets or even a Yaya Toure-like figure.
The Arsenal manager had caught English football by surprise with his emphasis on players' nutrition when he first arrived in north London. But soon, other sides caught up. The financial argument also weighed heavily against him in the years after Arsenal's move to the Emirates.
But Wenger has surprised everyone again by putting the money where his mouth is. For years, the 67-year-old manager had insisted that he will not spend over the odds for a player. But the outlay on Xhaka and Mustafi suggests a change in approach. A modification that has allowed Arsenal to compete in an increasingly competitive league. It does merit saying that money is better spent on players who strengthen the squad rather than keeping it lying around in the bank. Why would football clubs amass massive cash reserves?
Of course, the summer expenditure does not guarantee success. Wenger would be the first to tell you that. But he has not shied away from flashing wads of cash. Fortune, the moody mistress, may finally view Wenger with more affection. The beginning has been promising. Three more points on Sunday will strengthen the belief that Arsene does knows best.
First Published On : Nov 6, 2016 13:07 IST