Arsene Wenger’s tormenters are circling for the kill now. There is a Shakespearean vibe around North London. A great man is on the verge of being driven demented by betrayal and changed circumstances.
It could only ever have ended this way. They wrote him up as a learned professor knowing well that, one day, they would send him packing, in the final act, as a fool.
‘Wenger is in meltdown,’ the excited clamour goes. And since the Bard’s stuff doesn’t sell as well any more, they have begun to liken him to Basil Fawlty again, their greatest clown.
Now they have quotes to run alongside the touchline theatrics, verbal absurdities to match the water bottle abuse and the agitated zipping of a hideous coat.
“We are champions of England in the second half.” “Why are you looking at me?” Arsene has started worse weeks with better sound bites.
In celebration of his downfall, Huffington Post UK this week ran a quiz with a selection of not-so-bon-mots. Who said this, Wenger or Fawlty? There were a few you mightn’t have got.
Certainly, there have been shades of the highly-strung hotelier in the dealings that have brought Arsene to this point. Two lofty men with loftier aspirations, who prize big picture thinking above the nitty gritty of salad ingredients or the threat of Van Buyten at corners.
There has always been a sense that Arsene’s teams would have achieved that little bit more if it wasn’t for the imposition of opponents and their unchivalrous insistence on making use of tactics.
“You ponce in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot, while I’m trying to run a hotel.”
Two men with tight fists and a shared nose for cheapish, unreliable labour. Who would you rather build your wall; O’Reilly or Big Per?
But as Arsene’s woes deepened this week, perhaps we’d be better served considering a man who has knocked about better kitchens than Basil. A compatriot of Wenger’s, of similar vintage and comparable vision, even if he is a United man since Big Ron took a shine to his tucker; restaurateur Patrick Gilbaud talked, on Newstalk, about the drive that brought him two Michelin stars and the endurance to keep them.
“Are you still a chef or are you a patron now?” wondered George Hook. Once a chef, always a chef, insisted Gilbaud. “But could I do the service again in the kitchen? I don’t think so. I’m 60 years old and I pass my sell-by date.”
Arsene also reached for the stars. He revolutionised a sport, forged an identity, created a brand, in the modern parlance of the shyster. He balanced books from a position where ordinary men would need snookers.
But he is still doing all the cooking.
His confections have mostly been light. “We merely ask the players to play the way in which they feel most comfortable.” he once said, in better times. “Collective improvisation,” Fabregas called it. “We achieved this, but it is always dangerous because you never know too much in advance,” Wenger reflected of his jazz recipe.
Lesser men, who aim for the ceiling rather than the stars, know everything in advance. Maybe Wenger knows a little more too, since August 2011, when a lot changed.
As Gilbaud admitted this week, whatever the recipe, it is all about the ingredients. Panicked by the betrayal of his fleeing protégés, Arsene’s supermarket sweep at the beginning of last season no longer targeted players who might blossom into what he wanted. Instead he settled for men who were already ripe, but never would.
It was fitting that Mikel Arteta sat beside Arsene at the Champions League press conference that made headlines, glancing nervously at his boss as he briefly lost control. It was a face we would see Mikel make many times the following night as Bayern poured through his patch.
Arteta is a symbol of the new Arsenal. Competent, diligent, nearly up to it. A symbol of scaled back expectation. A team with a ceiling.
To make anything of these men, the great patron might need a new recipe or a little help in the kitchen. Otherwise, you fear Arsene will soon have cause to utter Basil’s immortal line: “A satisfied customer! We should have him stuffed.”