There was a moment, early in what possibly ranks as the spikiest press conference of Arsène Wenger's 16 years at Arsenal, when he turned his head sharp-left, fixed his eyes on an unwitting member of his audience and it started to become apparent this was not going to be any ordinary event. He was almost grey with anger. "Why do you look at me?" he wanted to know.
That was in the broadcast section but it was when the television cameras moved away that he properly let out all that pent-up frustration and we saw Wenger in a way that nobody in that room had witnessed before. It was a mix of anger, defiance and confrontation and it is just a shame, perhaps, that not all of his players can show the same passion. If he could bottle it and pass it to his team before their game against Bayern Munich, then maybe it will not be the ordeal that so many anticipate.
Equally, had anyone from Munich been in that room to see, close-up, Wenger on the edge of full-on rage they would have been perfectly entitled to conclude that Arsenal might actually be in a worse place than they had been led to believe. Bayern, in stark contrast, arrive in London with a 15-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga, easing to their 23rd championship. In their 22 games they have conceded only seven goals, and none since 14 December. Away from the Allianz Arena, they have accumulated 10 wins and one draw from their 11 games, with 27 goals scored and one against. For Arsenal to reach the quarter-finals, it is going to require two monumental performances and few can see that kind of ability and resilience, either tactically or mentally, in this current team.
Wenger was doubtless trying, through a show of strength, to demonstrate that Arsenal are not finished yet and that anyone who writes them off does so at their own peril. At times, he was deeply impressive, arguing his case coherently, pointing out that we "live in a democracy of experts and opinion" and that, put bluntly, he is sick of misinformed opinion and lack of expertise.
Unfortunately for him, there were also moments when he floundered badly and resorted to the default setting of going back through history to make his point. In doing so he ignored the fact this is the problem for his club's supporters: everything is in the past tense. Wenger pointed out that Arsenal were still the only team to qualify for the Champions League final without having conceded a goal and, voice thick with sarcasm, that they had done it "despite the fact that we have never a good defensive record". That is not a great consolation, however, when the team have just lost to Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, been eliminated from the Capital One Cup by Bradford City and are 21 points off the top of the Premier League, facing the possibility of an eighth year without a trophy. Wenger actually offered an apology for Arsenal's league form – "I can only say I'm sorry" – but what he did not give was a proper explanation or an assurance it will get better.
What can be said with certainty is that Wenger can hold a room when he gets going. It is just a pity that he did not make his point more lucidly. It did not help for starters that the journalist he picked on at the start was a case of mistaken identity. Wenger shot down one reporter from Al Jazeera – ironically, the television channel that pays him so richly – for asking about the Blackburn defeat, sternly pointing out it was a press conference for the Champions League. "Can we get some questions about tomorrow's game? That would be very nice." A German reporter politely asked what he thought of Bayern. "I don't talk about Bayern Munich today," Wenger replied.
It then transpired Wenger was willing to discuss the Blackburn game. He said the Championship side had mustered one attempt at goal – it was actually seven – and defended his right to rest key players. "I've been accused of not taking the FA Cup seriously. I've won the FA Cup four times. Who has won it more? Give me one name." Everyone knew what he was getting at. Nobody had the heart to point out that Sir Alex Ferguson has five. Or Ashley Cole seven. Or that the 25 players who have left Arsenal since the club last won a trophy, in 2005, have amassed 75 medals between them.
Even the example Wenger seized upon to illustrate his belief that the media was deliberately setting out to destabilise him – "hunted" was the word he used – seemed an unusual choice. The story that had got under his skin so much, from The Sun, had stated that Arsenal still backed him and wanted to give him a contract extension. It was, in other words, a positive slant from a wretched weekend. Wenger's reaction was more in keeping with someone who had read that he was on the brink of being escorted off the premises, with his belongings to follow in a crate. It was, he said, a "lie targeted to hurt".
The truth might be that any hurt he feels right now stems more from the fact that he cares so deeply about Arsenal and takes it personally, as every once-successful manager does, when the old magic no longer seems to be there. His team need to do what Chelsea did last year and find something in adversity but the question is whether they have the same mental fortitude. "I don't know," was Wenger's first reaction to that question before one last show of defiance. "We have been in the final and consistently in the quarter-final, semi-finals, for years. People will say it is not the best opportunity now to do it. I think it is a fantastic opportunity because I feel I have a strong team. And I am sure they will prove me right."
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image: © Matt and Kim Rudge