Of all the indignities foisted on Arsène Wenger during his time in English football, this was perhaps a fresh level of zip-fumbling, hood-gnawing horror. At the end of a room‑temperature semi-final Wenger said he had quite enjoyed his 90 minutes in the Stamford Bridge press box. “You see, you’re well treated, you have nothing to complain about,” he told the gathered journalists, expertly seizing the opportunity to chastise, once again, the people he most enjoys chastising.
VAR issues aside – the image of Martin Atkinson fiddling with his ear will live long in the memory – this was the most notable aspect of Chelsea’s and Arsenal’s 0-0 first-leg draw. Before kick‑off at Stamford Bridge the news that Wenger would be cramming himself into one of the shin‑barking blue plastic seats of the Chelsea press box, peering down sadly the back of Antonio Conte’s elegantly coutured frame, had inspired a protective tenderness in the waiting press corps.
Touchline bans have always been awkward things, with something jarring about the spectacle of some probationary manager jammed up against a bank of jeering fans. Wenger had been discomfited once before on this ground. This time he opted to serve the second of his three-game ban in among the newshounds – and he chose a good match for it, as his depleted Arsenal team produced a performance of well-drilled gumption that bore little relation to the group of men in the same coloured shirts stumbling around the pitch at Nottingham Forest three days ago.
Stamford Bridge had inflated its razzmatazz budget for the semi-final, the ground bathed in spotlights before kick-off. There was a thunderous soundtrack as the teams waited in the tunnel and in the stands the kind of carnival feel you often get for semi‑finals, helped by the larger-than-usual away end.
And then there he was, the great Arsène, elegantly turned out in full-length grey quilted gown, tucking his great gangling legs beneath the carefully-sharpened plug shelf beneath his desk. And so began the basic weirdness of watching a football match from almost directly behind Wenger’s head, who was in turn stationed almost directly behind Conte’s back in the near distance, a strange kind of prism through which to watch the action, a confusion of flinch and gesture and tangled managerial brainwaves.
Watching Wenger watch football was a little disorientating, like having the headmaster sit at the back of the coach on a school trip, leaving everyone looking out of the window awkwardly or passing notes in silence. I can confirm he stares with a head‑jerking intensity at every moment of the match, wincing at each misplaced pass. He spoke a little to the miked-up Jens Lehmann but eventually gave up on the idea of putting a blue-gloved hand over his mouth, like a veteran consigliere wearily evading a routine CIA surveillance.
Two things occurred watching this. First was the strangeness of Arsenal’s display, the ability to perform with such levels of concentration against the champions, so soon after being panicked by a Championship club. Inconsistency is a familiar trope. The weakness of the back-up players is also a factor. Take away the top layer and their isn’t a great deal of game-grabbing talent lying around at the tail end of the Wenger years.
The game itself was the usual first‑leg fare, a pre-game game, always with something held back. Quite how English football has managed to jump through all the hoops to get VAR into existence without taking five seconds to abolish two-leg semi-finals is an unsolved mystery. Safe to say for long periods watching Wenger watch the goalless first leg of a league cup semi-final was more interesting than watching the goalless first leg of a league cup semi-final.
On the pitch Arsenal did a good job of compressing the space around Eden Hazard. At one point, as the Belgian looked to spring into the space beyond Héctor Bellerín, Wenger instinctively waved his telescopic arms around in that familiar star-jump of frustration, a blue-gloved hand whistling past the row of ears in front. There was something touching in seeing even his exasperation constrained. Nobody puts Arsène in the corner.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles, positioned at left-back, was Arsenal’s best player, although twice in the opening half‑hour Victor Moses ran inside him without the slightest resistance, like a man bolting through a set of cardboard saloon doors. Maitland-Niles grew into the game and showed real application late on.
There was a gripping quality to the second half as Arsenal were pushed back and as that familiar altered gravity fell over the press box, the moments where you can feel one team getting on top – this time we witnessed close up its effects on a manager who could see it too, fretting and frowning and throwing his head back. Arsenal, though, will fancy their chances in a second leg that will also see Wenger restored once again to his natural touchline habitat.
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