This was Arsene Wenger raw and unscripted.
In the depths of the Camp Nou after his side's 3-1 defeat to Barcelona on Wednesday, the Arsenal boss was reflective, philosophical. In succumbing to Barcelona, this Barcelona, there was no shame, and he knew it; his team had been commendable in the face of something extraordinary—something that had moved Wenger, his profound admiration clear.
"At some stage in our sport," he said, leaning forward, his expression calm, a sense of acceptance in his voice, "we must admire art and they have two or three players who transform normal life into art. I respect that and I believe it is pleasure as well."
This wasn't just another snippet from a press conference; no, this was so much more. After a two-decade long pursuit for a meaning beyond football, these two sentences were the crux of Wenger's figurative manifesto. One centred on style. Art. Joy. Emotion. Sensations. The search for something greater, something more.
Wenger is one of football's iconic stylists. Under his watch, Arsenal have taken on an aesthetic identity like few others, one of the world's colossal clubs built entirely in the image of one man.
Arsenal is Wenger; Wenger is Arsenal.
Barcelona, on the field, might be the truest physical representation of his vision, but through persistence and force of will, the Frenchman has been able to impose a sense of idealism on Arsenal.
As an institution, the club carries a certain dignified polish that is emblematic of the man at the helm. In a footballing landscape riddled with mismanagement and exploitation, the north London club is self-sustainable and well run, its existence highly admirable, its identity and football distinct and easy to respect even if the self-imposed, familiarity-fuelled on-field stasis is bemusing.
So how are Real Madrid similar?
Well, in many ways, not at all.
Despite the club being a symbol of dominance, there's little to love for the neutral or outsider in the modern incarnation of Real Madrid. Under the presidency of Florentino Perez, the essence of Madrid has been taken away from the pitch, the club now run for the purposes of the business rather than those of the team. This is a club obsessed with heavy and needless spending, gripped by impulsiveness and at which loyalty and continuity are non-existent.
Indeed, managers are undermined and discarded with haste. Players who are necessary are sold. Ones who aren't are lavishly purchased. The dressing room is hopelessly politicised. The swirl of self-interest is immense. There's no encompassing idea or philosophical model.
In many ways, Arsenal and Real Madrid are the antithesis of one another, their problems totally separate.
And yet, perhaps what holds both of them back is the same thing: the concentration of power.
At Arsenal, Wenger's positional security is unshakeable. At a club that, at ownership level, is content with stability and sustainability—majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, speaking recently at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, said "if you want to win championships then you would never get involved," essentially admitting competing for titles doesn't make financial sense in an organisation run for profit—Wenger is perfect: responsible, consistent, financially aware and a guarantee for a certain level of performance and entertainment.
For on-field progress, though, this is the issue. His authority unquestioned, his power fixed, free from the insecurity that grips his counterparts, Wenger, whether consciously or subconsciously, is able to indulge himself in his personal pursuit of style. Art. Joy.
The triumph of his way.
As such, the whole thing snowballs or becomes self-perpetuating: The further Wenger goes down his own path, the more determined he becomes to prove its validity and achieve vindication. "I am more motivated than the day I arrived," he said on Tuesday. "When you're a long time somewhere you always question your motivation, but I don't question mine. I don't question my dedication. It is 100 per cent and I give more time to my club than when I arrived."
Thus, with each passing day, week, month, year, Wenger becomes more Wenger-ish; Arsenal become more Arsenal-ly. For a decade now, the Gunners' strengths and weaknesses basically haven't changed. They win the same way now as they always have. They lose the same way. Others come up and fall away in cycles, but Arsenal continue to exist in Harold Ramis' film.
Elsewhere, it wouldn't be tolerated, not for this long. But in the absence of intense scrutiny from within, any critical self-analysis isn't what it might be otherwise.
The pursuit, then, the status quo: It goes on.
"In his introduction to the 20th-anniversary edition of Infinite Jest," wrote the Guardian's Jonathan Wilson in a wonderful piece, "the writer and critic Tom Bissell observes that 'all great stylists eventually become prisoners of their style.' It's understandable that managers should fall victim to the same process: rather than asking how best to solve a problem, Wenger begins to ask how Arsene Wenger would solve the problem."
This is what handcuffs Arsenal to stasis.
Even with the removal of the financial limitations previously imposed by the construction of the Emirates Stadium, Wenger's uncharacteristic splashes in the transfer market have, in a sense, remained typically Wenger-ish.
For what feels like an eternity, the Frenchman's squads have been loaded with slight, technical and creative midfielders, and wide forwards. So when splurging on Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, what exactly did he buy? A slight, technical and creative midfielder, and a wide forward.
It must be acknowledged that both men are standouts, comfortably the best at Arsenal and among the finest in the division. And yet the issue is that, in simply being upgrades on the types the club already had, Ozil and Sanchez haven't changed anything: The Gunners are on track for the same sort of finish with the same sort of points tally they've had for years; the things they've always done well, they still do well; the things they've always done poorly, they still do poorly.
In Ozil's first season at the club, it was revealing, fascinating, to listen to Wenger defend the German amid a difficult run, concurrently defending his own use of Ozil out of position on the left, as reported by Dominic King in the Daily Mail:
Zinedine Zidane went to Real Madrid he played on the left. He had to play there because in the middle they had Raul and Ronaldo and he made room and played on the left. When you have the ball you play where you want and go where you want.
It is a debate as old as the world. Since we played football. When you look at the Brazil team in 1970 they had Tostao, Rivelino, Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson, Clodoaldo. They played all No. 10 in their club. They didn't know what to do. They put them all together and they won the World Cup convincingly.
It was supposed to be a defence of his star player, but it became something else. This was Wenger, perhaps unknowingly, just as he did on Wednesday, peeling back the barriers and outlining his stylistic vision, citing examples built to stylistic principles.
The thing is, though, one is impossible to replicate; the other is one you shouldn't want to.
The latter, of course, is the bank-busting, underachieving Galactico project built by Perez, a man who in practice shares little in common with Wenger but who is in a similar position of concentrated power.
In 2012, before being re-elected unopposed as Real Madrid president in the summer of 2013, Perez successfully forced through changes to the prerequisites for presidency. Raising the necessary membership period from 10 years to 20 and stipulating candidates must be able to personally guarantee 15 per cent of the club's annual budget—based on current figures, that's now roughly €120 million—the construction magnate has protected himself from rivals, strengthening his own position.
Prior to his re-election, the president had ceded some control—Jose Mourinho had more authority than any other manager Perez has hired; the squad turnover slowed; the Galactico idea was shelved—but since, Perez has resumed being, well, Perez.
Last year, Carlo Ancelotti was discarded; this year, Rafa Benitez was, too. Ancelotti lasted 12 months after lifting the European Cup; Benitez lasted fewer than 50 days after a public vote of confidence.
In the transfer market, Los Blancos have spent colossal fees on Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez. The club used further hefty sums for Toni Kroos, Isco, Danilo, Asier Illarramendi and Mateo Kovacic. Angel Di Maria was pushed out. Xabi Alonso, you sense, saw what was coming.
Structurally, the team is a mess, but still the president doesn't seem to see it. "Each year, we do the impossible in order to win, but they [Barcelona] always take it from us by two points or something like that," he said in 2013. "I do not know why."
Everyone else does.
In charge now is Zinedine Zidane, the latest idea, the Galactico managing all that Galatico-iness that again and again has proved itself as flawed and yet continues anyway.
Tension is rising. At the Bernabeu, chants for Perez to resign now ring around the stands regularly, but it feels as though they're reaching the point of being counter-productive. To Perez, the increasing opposition seems to strengthen his resolve, heightening his determination to be the architect of the visual spectacle he believes can translate into dominance.
"Do I think that there is a smear campaign against me?" he said defiantly when asked about the hostility toward him. "I think that's true, we all know it."
Perez, then, becomes something like Wenger but in a less admirable manner. Going further down the path, taking the pursuit further, Perez becomes more Perez-y; Real Madrid become more Galactico-y, the whole thing self-perpetuating. In a hunt for vindication that his position of unquestioned authority affords him to indulge in, Perez persists with this project of warped idealism. Of grandeur. Of style.
Change is difficult, too. Like Wenger to an extent, Perez is too far along the line; ripping up what he's done and adopting an adjusted set of principles would be an admission that this has all been a waste of time.
As Wilson pointed out in relation to Bissell, Wenger can be considered a prisoner of his own style; Perez is perhaps a prisoner of his own idea.
Both men are in positions of concentrated power.
Both clubs seem handcuffed to stasis.