It's no secret that Arsene Wenger admires what Barcelona represent in the footballing world.
Not many people, let alone a football manager, would take losing out on what they consider to be the pinnacle of their career so well.
Not many football managers, let alone Arsene Wenger - notoriously stubborn - would take such a defeat of their beloved club, in their native land lest we forget, with such meek acceptance.
The Champions League final
On May 17, 2006, Le Professeur himself attempted to complete a mission impossible after seeing his side succumb to a 2-1 defeat to Frank Rijkaard's Barcelona. There were many reasons for Arsenal's most decorated manager to feel aggrieved, which he - perhaps unsurprisingly - clung to in the immediate aftermath of the 51st (14th since its re-branding in 1992) Champions League final.
As he stated, the victors had "rarely looked especially dangerous"; even with the man advantage since minute 20, it took the team from Catalonia until the final 15 minutes to ignite. Yet when they did, it was as emphatic as it was dramatic.
Nevertheless, after what could be considered as ceremonial protesting, monsieur Wenger decided to praise his opposition's fight, focus and style.
His decision to compare his own side's lack of concentration to his rival's superior levels was an approach uncommon to the Frenchman; whether it was widely acknowledged that his team had been more, or less, skilled than their competition, he was always quick to boost his players' morale by talking them up.
This instance, therefore, grew in significance. With hindsight, one may argue that he inadvertently gave a nod of approval to the beginning of a trophy-laden era.
There was no Lionel Messi magic on the night in question; the then 18-year-old prodigy had yet to make his mark on a front three that included club hero Samuel Eto'o, the underrated Ludovic Giuly and the phenomenal Ronaldinho.
The latter, although near enough at the peak of his powers having been the reigning two-time FIFA World Player of the Year (Ballon d'Or) at the time, had a highly underwhelming performance up against Emmanuel Eboue.
It actually took the introduction of Celtic legend Henrik Larsson to act as the catalyst in this turnaround. Arsenal's players had fought fantastically, but their manager almost saw this blow coming, something he would almost admit to in his ultimate concession. One might even have even expected a grudge to be held by a man who had constantly yearned for continental success.
However, fast-forward five years, and Wenger's admiration for the Barcelona style had only been augmented. Two trophy-less seasons under Rijkaard followed that night in Paris, and he was consequently replaced by B-team manager Pep Guardiola.
The rest, as they say, is history; yet, in this instance, it was the style that impressed over the substance. Yes, Rijkaard was only able to win five trophies in his five seasons at the helm, but it is what he did to return the essence of the club's fabric that truly marked his time in Spain.
Making the youth products regular fixtures was the start, whilst reintegrating what his former teammate and long-time friend Ruud Gullit would label as "sexy football" was the integral reason Juan Laporta brought him in. Needless to say, with an average of over 100 goals a season, he did not let him down.
Unfortunately for Rijkaard, something had to suffer for this hell-bent approach. And so the defensive structure did; how was it possible to balance the attacking intensity and defensive focus?
Guardiola, a former deep-lying playmaker, appeared to be perfect answer to this complex riddle. Brought through the La Masia academy at the time when Johan Cruyff was at the helm, he was able not only to embrace the way Barcelona played, but also the way the players behave.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not the first player to witness superstars behaving like obedient children, but rather just the first to mention it. Guardiola was able to harness his education and, most importantly, pass it on to his squad with vigour. His reign culminated in him becoming Barcelona's most successful manager ever, and at the tender age of 41.
“It’s impossible not to choose Pep Guardiola as the best. He won everything and did it with style and class, which I absolutely love. He embodies the perfect development of the marvellous Barca school of football which he inherits from his mentor, Johan Cruyff,” Arsene Wenger, 2010.
It cannot have been an easy taste for Wenger to swallow; a man, over 20 years his junior, winning a trophy that has eluded him for 30 years once was bad enough. But twice? Yet envy was beat out by awe on this occasion. Yes, Barcelona spent money, but only for squad purposes.
Guardiola's biggest deal was that of the aforementioned Ibrahimovic, and that was actually the season he regards as his most difficult. It was more the mental attributes of his team that Wenger so dearly appreciated; the aesthetics were a bonus.
Mourinho has been his arch-nemesis since the former's arrival into British football; nonetheless the Frenchman freely confesses his commendation for Chelsea's championship mentality under his Portuguese counterpart.
It is a fighting quality not only instilled within the captain John Terry, but also in the goalkeeping stalwart Thibaut Courtois, through to the rangy-screener Nemanja Matic, through to the star Eden Hazard. It's a quality that, alongside technical skill, is necessary in order to win titles. It is something that Rijkaard began to give Barcelona; a job that Guardiola completed.
Back to that night
Go back to that 2006 night in Paris, and you will notice that Messi was joined by another of Catalonia's great sons in being absent in partaking. Xavi, arguably the second of the main driving forces behind Guardiola in the 2008-12 domination, had been hampered with injuries throughout the 05/06 season and would have to settle for a spectator's view.
As mentioned earlier, the acclaim was poured unto Larsson's entrance - around the hour mark - as the raison d'être. There are some, however, that believe one particular player's impact was overlooked.
He came on at the beginning of the second half, slipping effortlessly into one of the roles ahead of the holder Mark van Bommel. Used fairly sporadically until Xavi was hamstrung, this player had continued to show undoubted promise throughout the season after one in which is role had been primarily as a substitute, learning his game more by watching than by doing.
After his introduction in the final, he kept it simple; giving and going between his teammates, making sure that they all kept their focus levels up. Barcelona had around 70% possession in that second half, yet it was the territorial possession that had increased the most and, thus, lead to the possibility of the goals.
If you do not know who I am talking about yet, I am fairly sure you have not been watching football as much as you should have over the last decade or so. Andres Iniesta has proved to not only be one of the most talented technical players of our generation, but also one of the most mentally strong footballers of all time.
His record in the big games speaks for itself, and this year's Man of the Match award in the Champions League final made him the first man to win the award in the respective finals of a European Cup, European Championships and World Cup.
"You're going to retire me [to Xavi]. This lad is going to retire us all," Pep Guardiola reportedly said.
Like many effective players, he began highly understated. Yes, he was revered in Barcelona circles; but the world was no where near as aware of his talent as they were of most of the others that have passed through that infamous academy.
No, he has never won the Ballon d'Or, but he believes he has already won it all, regardless. That is the attitude that manager's dream of, the collective being the most important goal of their player. Consider how many 'superstar' players that come out with comments about winning the title of the world's best player and you will notice that this number continues to rise with each passing year. Players like Iniesta are a dying breed, along with one-club men like Paul Scholes; the technical ability nowadays seems to far precede the more humane qualities.
There are a number of reasons that Jack Wilshere should follow the lead of Iniesta; not least being the fact that he should recognise the similarities between the two of them from, simply, a human perspective.
They both started at smaller clubs before moving through the academies at their huge club; Wilshere at Luton, whilst Iniesta was at Albacete. They were both heralded within their club's inner circles, without the attention of other big clubs circling like vultures and adding pressure to their progression.
They both achieved success with their club and country at youth level, tending to play with older players due to their higher level of technique. Perhaps even more essentially, they both possessed slighter builds than those around them, thus making their technical ability evermore crucial to their playing style.
Time to steal the show
After Wilshere's impressive display for England in their 3-2 away victory of Slovenia, a number of critics enthused that Wenger should allow the midfielder to adapt to this role at club level. After all, the Arsenal man has won the Man of the Match award each of the six times he has featured in that particular role.
The question is, what is this role? Pundits analysed, over and over, at how Wilshere played with and without the ball. Glenn Hoddle seemed to have come the closest to working out Wilshere's instructions when he said that: "Without the ball, Jack drops deeper to fill the hole in front of defence. With the ball, he is allowed to carry it as long as one of the other two drop and cover him."
Indeed, this same question of roles was, perhaps, what prevented Iniesta in making an earlier impact for both Barcelona and Spain.
He actually began as a deep-lying playmaker, but his talent and mind allowed for him to be able to move around where needed. In some sense this appears to be parallel to Wilshere's situation at Arsenal, even as it seems Roy Hodgson has decided to put his hat on the 23-year-old's future at the heart of his team's spine.
Even now, at the age of 31, you ask most people where Iniesta plays and it is almost a guarantee that the answer will be as vague as 'midfield'. Play as Real Madrid on FIFA and it is almost certain that you will play against Barcelona in successive matches, with one player putting him wide-left, one placing him off Luis Suarez, one putting him alongside Ivan Rakitic in the midfield, one could even play him as a false nine!
No matter where, the likelihood is that he will be the reason you throw your control pad to the floor in anger. And it is for this reason that I believe Wilshere should aim to replicate this impact at his club.
Yes, Wilshere would do well in a number of positions, with perhaps central midfield being his preference due to that being the area in which he grew up in, so to speak. However, it is highly dubious that many are aware of Guardiola 'growing up' as a right-sided midfielder, with only Cruyff's intervention moving him to his legendary pivot role.
Consider his Arsenal teammate, Santi Cazorla, who has displayed such majestic performances at the deep-lying position that he could even redefine the roles requirements in a similar way to Claude Makelele if he continues to impress.
The point is that to improve, you need to play, and as long as he prevails through injuries then Wilshere should aim to make himself available to play in all of the positions he can. Look up the signature footballing traits of Iniesta and you will see keywords such as balance, vision and movement coupled with work ethic, versatility and invention.
Look up Jack Wilshere's and you will see antonyms of such words. Iniesta's willingness to play anywhere on the pitch earned him the sobriquet El Ilusionista. Maybe it is time both Arsenal and England had their very own Illusionist.
Arsenal fans, can Wilshere ever be as good as Iniesta at the most elite level? Let us know what you think in the comments box below.
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