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19 May 2024, Edition - 3232, Sunday

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Wenger accepts underdog status but denies Guardiola has raised the bar



The Arsenal manager says players matter more than coaches as he aims to ‘create a surprise’ in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final

So, Arsène Wenger. Do you think Pep Guardiola has raised the bar in terms of elite-level football over the past 10 years? The question was designed to draw an insight from the Arsenal manager into Guardiola’s methods and how he has powered Manchester City clear of all-comers in the Premier League this season.

It was topical before Wenger’s meeting with Guardiola in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final at Wembley and it felt like an open goal for him – at the very least – to offer a couple of positive soundbites.

“No,” Wenger replied. “Because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs. We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In other words, the greatness of Guardiola’s Barcelona, who carried almost all before them from 2008-2012, was driven more by the brilliance of Lionel Messi and others. It is a school of thought that is believed to be shared by the Tottenham manager, Mauricio Pochettino. Messi has been the common denominator in Barcelona’s success. He is still there. They continue to excel.

Moreover, it was difficult not to mine more deeply into Wenger’s comment about recruitment; how a small number of clubs were hoovering up the top talent. Those clubs are the most wealthy and City, plainly, fit into the category whereas Arsenal are one rung down.

Wenger bit on the subject of Guardiola in an unexpected way and his remarks came across as uncharitable. It felt as though they were shaped more by his ego, a prickliness that any manager ought to be put on a pedestal, rather than any antipathy towards Guardiola. It is not Wenger’s style these days to have a pop at a rival – certainly not on the eve of a high-profile game.

But Wenger left nobody in any doubt as to where he thought the balance of power lay with regard to the final. Big-spending City had to be the favourites. Arsenal would be cast in the role of underdog. “We have to raise our level to create the surprise,” he said.

Wenger has been here before in recent times – most notably in last season’s FA Cup semi-final against City and the final against Chelsea. “City are dominating the league in the heads of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs now than in the semi-final [last season],” he said.

Arsenal won 2-1 that day and they deserved to win. It was a similar story in the final. Again, it finished 2-1 and, again, Arsenal were the better team. On both occasions the pressure on Wenger had been immense. Defeat would have condemned him to a trophy-less season and, with his contract set to expire and tensions running high among supporters, it seemed as though more than the result was on the line for him.

Arsenal found the clearheadedness to perform, just as they had done in the 2014 FA Cup final against Hull. That was another occasion when Wenger was at the end of his contract and a section of the fan-base was calling for him to go. On a fraught afternoon, Arsenal came from 2-0 down to win 3-2.

Wenger has stood in the line of fire but when the bullets have been loaded and the odds have appeared against him, he has found the means to dodge them. He has come to feel like an escapologist.

Arsenal, by Wenger’s admission, are only ever one defeat from crisis and the manner in which they lost 2-1 at home to Östersund in the Europa League on Thursday did not augur well – albeit, they played with a largely second-string team and they advanced to the last 16, regardless, by an aggregate score of 4-2.

Perhaps Wenger and his players are at their most dangerous when written off. Or perhaps they have learned how to win in these do-or-die Wembley showpieces. In their past nine visits to the national stadium for FA Cup semi-finals, finals and Community Shields, Arsenal have won all nine. “The history and the fact we have done it before tells us: ‘Why not do it again?’” Wenger said.

The doom-mongers can see the end for Wenger. Lose to City, fall short in the Europa League – next up for Arsenal are Milan – and fail to finish in the Premier League’s top four and they believe he will have to step down. On the other hand, Wenger remains on for the “José treble” of Community Shield, League Cup and Europa League and he feels that his recent haul of three FA Cups has been underappreciated.

“Trophies are very difficult to win,” he said. “Nobody has won the FA Cup more than us. Look at the big clubs – for example, Liverpool. How many times have they won the FA Cup in their whole history? Seven.”

Wenger did not need to add that he has won the FA Cup seven times. What he would give for another piece of silverware on Sunday – at the expense of Guardiola.

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