"If you eat caviar every day it's difficult to return to sausages."
- Arsene Wenger, speaking in 1998.
Just before 4pm tomorrow (Sunday), the distinctive figure of Arsene Wenger will take his place in the White Hart Lane dugout for a record 40th north London derby. Depending on how his erratic team perform in the 90 minutes that follow, Wenger's body language will then oscillate between the professorial demeanour of his early Arsenal years and the angry, frustrated and even tortured expressions that have characterised more recent times.
Wenger has lost only five of the 39 derbies so far but he knows that his team's ascendancy over Tottenham - and with it their cherished place among English football's top four - has never been more threatened. His once-revered methods have never faced more scrutiny and, with his contract expiring next year, Wenger's own position has never been the subject of more fervent debate. The sensitivity on that subject was evident in the now infamous press conference prior to the recent Bayern Munich match.
Wenger felt aggrieved that an inaccurate story had been published but his reaction also pointed towards a more deep-seated hurt at recent criticism. So, as he approaches a match that could define Arsenal's season and conceivably even his future, is he really still relishing the challenge? Those with a detailed personal knowledge of Wenger's working methods and state of mind paint a consistent picture.
Wounded? Yes. But unwavering in his desire and belief? Absolutely.
"Arsene is as focused and determined as he has ever been," says Jacques Crevoisier, a friend of 40 years, who provides psychological profiles of Arsenal's young players. "He is one of the greatest warriors I ever met in football in the most difficult situations."
Those familiar with Wenger's working patterns say that, away from the cameras, nothing has changed in almost 17 years at the club. He is generally still the first to arrive at Arsenal's London Colney training base and the last to leave. At 63, he continues to follow the same diet as the players and the highlight of his day remains the hour or so he spends, stopwatch in hand and whistle in mouth, overseeing training.
"I consider myself a football nut but he lives, eats and sleeps it," says Bob Wilson, his former goalkeeping coach. "That has never changed. If I throw up any topic, he always makes me think. He is a one-off. He is an academic in love with football.
"He has total belief in himself and he feels this responsibility to the people who have paid to go to matches. He believes that win, lose or draw, the person going away should say that it was an amazing game to watch."
There is no disguising the hurt, however. Wenger seems to look a little slimmer, greyer and more stressed every season. "He wants to win more than anyone I have ever met in football," says Damien Comolli, Arsenal's former scout. "In the third season at Nancy, he lost the last match before the midwinter break. He shut himself away on his own and didn't even have his family around for Christmas. He'd make himself physically ill after a defeat."
Wilson believes that defeats - and there have already been 10 this season - visibly age Wenger. "Agony is the word I use to describe it," he says. "He cares so much. He talks about it like a marriage. He believes that Arsenal has been his destiny. When I see his face, if we have won there is a relaxation in every muscle. I see that same face after we have lost and it is 10 years older."
Among friends of Wenger there is a shared frustration that Arsenal's recent decline is generally measured in the narrow context of his extraordinary past success, which has yielded 17 top-four finishes in a row. Arsenal's former vice-chairman, David Dein, speaking last month on the Footballers' Football Show on Sky Sports, put it like this: "It is very simple. Under Arsene Wenger's stewardship, Arsenal have had good times and very good times. He is the most driven and focused person I have ever met in football."
Comolli can still recall the day that Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea in 2003 and Wenger predicted a profound alteration of what he called "the scenery". Add in Manchester City, as well as the constraints of paying for a new stadium, and an eight-year trophy drought becomes more understandable, if no easier to accept. "The issue is not Arsene, but simply the fact that they have been fighting against teams with more money and enormous debts," Crevoisier says.
The question of what happens beyond next season lingers. Wenger's friends all suggest that nothing has been decided beyond his contract in 2014 and that it will be the last thing on his mind now.
"He is intelligent enough to know when enough is enough if people really wanted him to go," Wilson says. "There will come a time but I really don't think it is that time yet. We want it to finish in the way it should finish: under his terms and with a bit of silverware."
Health will also be a huge factor. Wenger has previously told friends that he would look carefully at his position when he reached his sixties. Against that, football has been an obsession since he was old enough to listen to the stories of players from his local village team in Duttlenheim, where his parents ran La Croix d'Or pub. "I don't think he could live without it," Wilson says. "I expect Arsene to still be a manager, here or somewhere else, at Alex Ferguson's age ."
Could he really go elsewhere? For all the recent difficulties at Arsenal, his standing in Europe remains considerable. "In his recent press conference, Arsene said: 'One day I will tell you all the offers I have had', but we know them," Crevoisier says. "It is France, England, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Barcelona. They were all desperate to get him. At the end of the season, Jose Mourinho will leave Real Madrid. If Madrid feel that Arsene is not happy, Arsene will be the first choice. I don't say he will go there but it is as simple as that. I think he will respect his contract until 2014. Then, if he feels people don't like him, maybe he will not extend his contract."
Wenger has himself described his future as "short-term" but, if results do turn back in Arsenal's favour, the most telling insight can perhaps be found in an interview he gave in 2011. "The time goes by at the speed of light," he said. "All of these years haven't at all changed the fact that I'm always looking ahead to the next match, hoping it will be a perfect match but knowing it won't be. I remain addicted to the next match, like a drug."
That search for perfection could yet extend at Arsenal into a third decade.
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