Arsène Wenger takes a seat with the hacks as Arsenal cling on
Frustration shows as he sees out touchline ban from the Stamford Bridge press box
Arsène Wenger watches on from the Stamford Bridge press box. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA
Of all the assorted indignities foisted on Arsène Wenger during his time in English football, this was perhaps a fresh level of zip-fumbling, hood-gnawing horror. Before kick-off at Stamford Bridge the news that Wenger would be crammed into one of the shin-barking blue plastic seats of the Chelsea press box, peering at the back of Antonio Conte’s elegantly coutured frame on the touchline 30 metres in front of him, 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 trying to find his seat in among the corporate banquets or jammed up against a bank of jeering fans.
Wenger opted to serve the second of his three-game ban in among the hacks and newshounds – and he chose a good night for it, too, as his depleted Arsenal team produced a performance of pluck and defensive gumption that seemed to bear little relation to the group of men in the same coloured shirts stumbling around the pitch at Nottingham Forest three days ago.
Cup semi-final first legs are often tight, grudging affairs and this was much the same, although Chelsea had the edge and will feel they might have scored in the opening hour.
There was at least a point of novelty in the press seats. One wag had floated the idea of asking Wenger for a “five things we learned” piece. Although this, of course, would have presupposed an ability to learn things from watching Arsenal play football.
He did pick an interesting team for this first leg. So stretched are Arsenal’s resources it is hard to really pin down what a first-choice team is these days, but there was the obvious absence of Alexis Sánchez, relegated to the bench alongside Konstantinos Mavropanos, and the League Cup titan of years past Theo Walcott.
Stamford Bridge had inflated its razzmatazz budget for this semi-final, the ground bathed in spotlights and a flashing white glare before kick-off. There was a thunderously ominous soundtrack as two teams waited in the tunnel and in the stand the kind of carnival feel you often get for domestic semi-finals.
And then, finally, there he was, Arsène, emerging a little gingerly, elegantly turned out in standard full-length grey quilted gown, tucking his great gangling legs beneath the sharp edge of the low-slung 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 in the near distance, a strange kind of filter through which to watch the action, a prism of gesture flinch and tangled managerial brainwaves.
Arsenal’s shape early on resembled a 5-3-1-1, with Alexandre Lacazette and Danny Welbeck, just behind him, asked to chase, forage, shield and generally drag their team up the pitch at every opportunity. For Chelsea Eden Hazard again played as a cross between a second striker and a left winger.
At one point, as Héctor Bellerín was dragged inside and Hazard looked to spring into that space, Wenger hauled out one of his vast telescopic arms and began to wave it in that familiar star-jump of (seated) frustration, a blue-gloved hand whistling past the row of ears in front of him. There was something a little sad at seeing even his exasperation constrained, crammed in between the press pack heads. Nobody puts Arsène in the corner.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles started at left-back and twice in the opening half hour Victor Moses ran inside him without the slightest resistance, like a man bolting through a set of cardboard western saloon doors.
Arsène was off early at half time, whisked down the stairwell and into some hidden ante-chamber. He was out late too, and there was a gripping quality to those opening second-half minutes as Arsenal were pushed back, as Iwobi and Jack Wilshere gave the ball away, and as that familiar altered gravity fell over the press box, the moments where you can feel one team getting on top, and this time witness close up its effects on a manager who could see it too, fretting and frowning and throwing his head back as Arsenal clung on.