"It’s ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous." When Arsene Wenger was sent off at Old Trafford in the last few minutes of Arsenal’s 1-2 loss against Manchester United on May 29, 2009, ludicrous was the only descriptor that the Match of the Day pundits could come up with. The scene was perplexing when it happened, and even more ridiculous in retrospect.
Wenger was sent off for kicking a water bottle. His own water bottle.
Robin van Persie had seemingly tied the game with less than 30 seconds left in the 90, and Wenger celebrated by double-fist pumping towards the bench -- his back turned to the field. He was fired up, and so were the Arsenal fans in attendance. They rose in cheers but then almost immediately sat back down in disappointment. Wenger turned around to the field to investigate the reason for the change in emotion: the goal had been flagged offside. A correct but very unwelcome decision.
Wenger dismissed it with a wave of his left hand, walked back to his technical area and booted the water bottle down the pitch.
Lee Probert, the fourth official, came from behind reprimanding the manager and pointing off into the far-off distance, to the long-gone water bottle. He was angry. Wenger looked at him and then turned back towards the pitch without acknowledging his complaints. Then Probert called over Mike Dean, the match referee. Wenger then began an a heated exchange with Probert, amazed that his kicking of a water bottle had become an event. It was after all, his own water bottle.
Dean arrived, and he and Probert talked for a short time, with Wenger standing a few feet away. After the conversation, Dean sent Wenger off to the stands. The manager couldn’t believe it.
The humor intensified when all three of them couldn’t decide where exactly Wenger should go. He wasn’t being sent to the locker room and he couldn’t stay in the technical area or by the bench. After several instances of him going further and further away from the match, turning around and asking the referee if he was pleased with the distance, he settled behind Arsenal’s dugout. Right in front of the United fans. The mob jeered and clapped sarcastically at him as he made his walk of shame towards them.
Wenger then spread his arms out to ask if the referee was satisfied. Then he folded them. Behind him was a braying crowd of rival supporters, who came together to first watch what was a great match, and now to mock him. The noise was deafening but Wenger looked straight ahead, never once turning to face them.
And when when Wenger spread his arms out again, Gordon Strachan called the image of him standing before the raucous crowd that taunted him, "almost biblical." The match ended right after and Wenger walked down with a sly smile on his face.
The biblical nature of the image is in his dignity. It’s in his defiance to not let the throng or the referee’s actions reduce him. It’s an unshakable composure and grace that casts a very shameful light on those who torture him. The same that’s shown when Jose Mourinho calls him a voyeur, a specialist in failure and consistently tries to goad him to no avail. A similar dignity to that of Jesus offering to pray and asking for forgiveness of the people who mocked and taunted him during his crucifixion.
As Ernest Hemingway put it: "The first and final thing you have to do in this world is to last it and not be smashed by it."
Wenger being sent off for kicking his own water bottle was a joke. It was at its best, a hilarious sequence, nowhere close to the saving of humanity’s collective soul. But the poise of the two men during times when no one would admonish them for reacting negatively, to be as the ones who mock them, shows just how much bigger they are than the rest of us. It’s an almost inhuman elegance that casts a stark light on the animalistic nature of the mob. They provoke shame through defiance.
The FA would force Probert to apologize to the Frenchman soon after, and the episode passed.
But it was in that moment that Wenger’s magnitude was most apparent to me. The moment where I felt the most reverence for him, and when it became clear why the arguments on his legacy, on whether it’s time for him to leave is so divisive and irrelevant.
Every team takes the image of the manager. Their weaknesses and strengths are his and they succeed or fail depending on how well the man emphasizes those strengths and hides the weaknesses.
Arsenal are fatally idealistic. They’ve always been, and this attitude created and enforced the stereotype that they are "boys against men" when playing big teams. The team often chooses style over substance or discipline, even when it means playing into their opponent’s trap, and it’s no surprise that Wenger says in interviews that playing well, creating art, is sometimes more important than trophies. He speaks how Arsenal plays, graciously and wonderfully, but to the realist and pragmatist, it comes off as naivety.
The man is inseparable from the club, in the same way that Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal was with him. For many young Arsenal fans, Wenger is all that they have ever known. He is ingrained in the club in such a fashion that few other managers are: he helped shape its financial future, he helped to make Arsenal a global powerhouse even when his resources were scarce, he was at the helm of all of their best successes. He led The Invincibles, trained and managed Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira. He is responsible for the aura that surrounds the club now. The modern Arsenal is Wenger’s life’s work.
That is not to say that he knows best, he’s made a lot of mistakes in his 20 years. To err is human after all and two decades is a long time. He’s stubborn to a fault and occasionally makes mind-numbing decisions: For example, playing a Mathieu Flamini-Mikel Arteta midfield is an unforgivable sin that’s almost as bad as spending actual money on Andre Santos.
But that’s beyond the issue. The separation of the man from the club is inevitable but it is not easy. The love of the two for many fans is the same. Wenger is such a towering figure, above the arguments of tactics, transfers and yearly results, that the prospect of him leaving the club is to ask people to reshape their reality for the last 20 years. To divorce the club, which they have infused with all the emotions that they feel for Wenger, from the man. It’s to shake up their worldview.
And as the situation with Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United has shown, the search for a new identity after such a split can be a long and arduous one.
It’s almost a disservice now to even talk about him with the same language used for other managers. It’s like being part of the mob beneath him that day in 2009. He’s still a man, with all of virtues and vices, but in his 20 years at Arsenal, he’s become something much more. He’s become the ideal of the club itself. He is Arsenal as we know it.