A night with Arsene Wenger as Arsenal boss sits with press at Chelsea
LONDON -- Covering matches at Chelsea has always been partly a people-watching business; the Stamford Bridge press box, unusually low in the stand and close to the pitch compared to most Premier League grounds, is only a matter of yards behind the managers, their backroom staff and the substitutes. There are no better seats in the house from which to observe both the action on the pitch and the action on the touchline.
On a Wednesday night in which the goalless first leg of this Carabao Cup semifinal tie between Chelsea and Arsenal yielded little in the way of entertainment or narrative, however, the eyes of many journalists rarely left the press box itself. They had been joined by Arsene Wenger, who must have felt a million miles from his natural habitat.
It was decided that the Arsenal manager would sit among the media as he served the second of his three-match ban, flanked by a press officer and Jens Lehmann, who relayed his instructions to the dugout. Nowhere else in the stadium could he so easily access the tunnel at half-time, while at the same time observing the game from a vantage point mercifully apart from the thousands of Chelsea supporters who can never resist goading him.
Some in the press pack joked that this would be the night that Wenger would realise how much time those who judge his team's performances spend looking at their laptops rather than the pitch, such is the rush to file match reports and features as soon as the final whistle blows.
In the event they need not have worried. For much of the evening Wenger seemed oblivious to those immediately around him, utterly absorbed and often seemingly tortured by the experience of watching his team battle their London rivals with a place at Wembley at stake. "It was frustrating," he said with a smile in his post-match press conference to the journalist who had felt the Arsenal boss kick the back of his chair several times.
The most awkward few minutes for Wenger came shortly before half-time, when the Chelsea supporters in the seats around the press box finally became aware en masse of where he was sitting. "Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay," they sang with gleeful smiles, to no reaction from the man himself.
Chelsea seized control of the match after the interval as Arsenal retreated, and Wenger's anxiety became harder to contain. "Come on, come on!" he shouted as Calum Chambers high-fived Alex Iwobi to celebrate an important tackle, before glancing briefly at the journalists who had craned their necks to look at him.
Ultimately, though, Arsenal rarely looked like surrendering the draw that Wenger had set out his team to achieve and after the match he insisted that the experience had not been totally uncomfortable, even if it looked that way.
"I must say you are well treated, you have the best places in the stadium and you cannot complain," he told the assembled journalists in his news conference.
"It was frustrating, but the position was quite interesting as I was close to the bench and not too far high up, and that's where I like to be."
Barring further disciplinary action from the Football Association, Wenger will be relieved to go back where he truly likes to be when these two teams meet again at the Emirates Stadium in a fortnight.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.