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Arsène Wenger’s Gift Arrives Wrapped in a Majestic Arsenal First Half | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Arsène Wenger – Reuters

Close your eyes, Arsène. Now … Open them. Happy 20th anniversary! Yes, that’s right. It’s exactly what you’ve always wanted. For one perfect half at the Emirates Arsenal produced something sublime, 45 minutes that contained pretty much the full set of Wenger-isms entwined in a relentless performance of sinuous passing football.

This was Wengerball in excelsis on a muggy, grey north London late afternoon, the footballing equivalent of one of those Evening-With-Ronnie-Corbett-style affairs, where some garlanded old ham gets to stand centre-stage and beam munificently while his favourite anecdotes, his most wonderful personal qualities are paraded beneath the studio lights.

The Premier League doesn’t do anniversary gifts. But if it did, if everyone concerned could have got together and designed a perfect commemoration …

Well, this would have probably been it. There was a supremely assertive performance from Wenger’s own record signing Mesut Özil. A goal from Theo, the dear but slightly wayward nephew. Not to mention a performance of real craft and confidence from the academy kid Alex Iwobi, a Wenger youth since the age of eight. All this, just to be clear, against Chelsea, opponents who in Wenger’s previous big day, his 1,000th game as a manager, had pulverised his best XI at Stamford Bridge.

Everywhere you looked Wenger’s small, prudently selected glass of red wine ranneth over. Diego Costa was shut down and dead-ended by the summer singing Shkodran Mustafi. Alexis Sánchez justified the shuffle to centre-forward. At half-time the crowd, tetchy at times, rose as one beneath the white lights of this Wenger-built steel and glass spaceship. Fittingly, victory even left Arsenal in third place. Really, really, really you shouldn’t have.

The third goal in particular was an absolute sensation, the Full Wenger, a move that brought the manager up on to his feet with huge, sheepish, guilty smile on his face. As the crowd leapt and hugged you half-expected Wenger to start tapping the rim of his champagne flute and making a fond, grateful, dad-ish speech. This was supposed to be another taut London derby, a shaking of the lapels at the hands of Antonio Conte’s high-tempo hustlers. With 40 minutes gone it had turned into a procession.

A quick word here on Chelsea. Ugh. A last word on Chelsea. Meh. Conte will work on his defence. They will be better than this. Otherwise this was simply a Wenger day right from the start. Diego Costa has been at his most incorrigible in games between these two, a jousting, hustling, kidney-jabbing force of destruction. Mustafi handled him well here. He is an aggressive, forceful defender who likes to attack and intercept, intruding into space in front of Costa as he looked to take the ball with his back to goal.

Arsenal’s first goal came from a wretched Gary Cahill back pass, leaving Sánchez to streak away and produce a sublime dinked finish. The second was a peach, a moment of pure, fast-twitch Arsenalism. Özil and Iwobi switched passes with a zippy swagger in front of the Chelsea defence. Iwobi fed the ball out to Héctor Bellerín – another Wenger page boy – who crossed into the space teased out of a ball-watching defence. Theo Walcott prodded it home.

That crowning third was a Mesut Özil Joint from the start. With five minutes until half-time the world’s most ethereal high-spec playmaker outmuscled N’Golo Kanté (yes, really) in his own half, scooted away at real pace, exchanged passes with Sánchez and then bounced a slightly scuffed volley down into the ground and over Thibaut Courtois. It was a brilliant Özil moment, and a pointed one too as he did what some have been demanding, driving right through the heart of an opponent in the most cinematic style and then finishing his own move.

It was Iwobi who stood out as Arsenal began to pass and move Chelsea out of this game. Upright and sure in possession with a lovely weight of pass, he grows in confidence as his best qualities seem more pronounced. Clearly Iwobi adores Özil, with whom, like an eager, hulking kid brother, he always looks to switch passes, staying close to him whenever Arsenal break. There are worse places for an apprentice 20-year-old attacking midfielder to be.

As the second half unspooled there were further anniversary gifts. Cesc Fàbregas, who many insisted Wenger should have brought back, left the field to jeering applause. Arsenal made some celebratory efforts to quite literally pass the ball into the net. “We’ve got to not make too much of it,” Wenger said at the end, still grinning, a little puppyish, japing with the dictaphones. The season rumbles on from here, although Arsenal do have eight winnable games before the north London derby in November. The real world will surely intrude along the way. For now this was a simply a wonderful homage.

The Guardian