It’s incredible to think that there will be football fans blissfully unaware of “boring, boring Arsenal”. The song may still be heard on some terraces today, but there was a time when it was sung for a reason. Back in the George Graham era, Arsenal were masters of the offside trap and the 1-0 win. It brought plenty of success: two League titles, an FA Cup, a European Cup Winners’ Cup and two League Cups, but it was a style of play not normally too pleasing on the eye. Most Gooners, understandably, didn’t care too much; six trophies in eight years is an impressive haul. However, Graham’s reign ended in controversy, sacked after it was discovered he’d accepted an illegal payment from an agent.
Despite the solid foundations laid by Graham, it’s fair assessment to suggest Arsenal were a club drifting in the mid 1990’s. Graham’s successor Bruce Rioch struggled and it’s not an exaggeration to say that after succeeding Rioch as manager of Arsenal in 1996, Arsene Wenger revolutionised English football. From diet and preparation, to style of play and philosophy, he not only changed Arsenal, but also the Premier League.
Whilst teams such as Liverpool and Man United had always played passing, positive football, Wenger introduced a more subtle approach usually associated with ‘continental’ teams. The traditionally strong Arsenal defence from the George Graham era of Seaman, Winterburn, Adams, Keown, Dixon and Bould remained, but were mixed with a more technical approach to midfield and attack. One of Wenger’s first signings, a young Patrick Vieira, was the perfect example of physical prowess, mixed with technical ability. Arsenal could mix it with the toughest of opponents, but could also play with the best too; it was a blend that brought success.
At the back, personnel gradually changed as Seaman was replaced by Lehmann, Ashley Cole emerged; Sol Campbell, Lauren and Kolo Toure were all brought in, but the defensive record remained strong. Up front, in Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal arguably had the two finest footballers the Premier League has ever seen. They were supported by the immense Vieira and regular goals from Ljungberg and Pires, culminating in the much heralded ‘invincibles’ side of 2003/04.
Alongside this, there was much talk of the promising youngsters coming through the ranks to be the future for the Gunners, Wenger’s philosophy, it seemed, was being vindicated.
Despite Roman Abramovich pumping huge sums into a now Jose Mourinho led Chelsea; Man United ending Arsenal’s record unbeaten league run and suggesting Arsenal could be bullied out of a match, they were still serious contenders, reaching the 2006 Champions League final. By 2007/08, Arsenal were moving along the Barcelona and Spain model of smaller, more technically gifted players, particularly in midfield. At the turn of that year, the Gunners looked strong and in contention for all 4 trophies, but in the space of 4 weeks, they went out of the League Cup to North London rivals Tottenham 6-2 on aggregate; got dumped out of the FA Cup in a humiliating 4-0 defeat to Man United and then the horrific injury to striker Eduardo. Despite reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, the injury to Eduardo and going from 2-0 up to drawing 2-2 in that game with Birmingham seemed to be a turning point in the season. Eventually finishing 3rd in the Premier League, many fans and pundits felt that Arsenal were just 2 or 3 players away from being champions again.
For Arsene Wenger and Arsenal fans, this would become all too familiar, a recurring theme where they would either start a Premier League season well, but fail to maintain it or start badly and have too much ground to make up on the title challengers. Frustration amongst fans began to grow, creating a division between those who wanted Wenger to stay and those wanting him replaced.
It has to be said that Wenger keeping Arsenal in contention during a period of financial prudence, whilst the cost of moving into a new stadium was being covered, was no mean feat.
Wenger’s seeming reluctance to spend, even with financial constraints easing, was another bone of contention until the significant captures of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Many wondered if Wenger would now alter his prudent philosophy and compete with the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United for the big name signings to chase the Premier League title and Champions League. Back to back FA Cup wins have helped ease the pressure of going nine years without a trophy, but the biggest prizes still remain out of reach.
Only last week I wrote of the importance to Arsenal of their forthcoming fixtures and defeat away to an understrength Manchester United was a hammer blow to the Gunners’ title ambitions for another year. Arsenal’s defending was very poor and Wenger has been unable to find a solution to the problem of his team’s vulnerability to the counter attack that stretches back a decade. Wenger will have never had a better opportunity to comfortably leave Old Trafford with 3 points and he will likely never have a better opportunity than this season to win the Premier League.
Consistently delivering Champions League football and the revenue it provides probably makes Wenger untouchable to the Arsenal board, but whether or not that’s enough for fans is an entirely different matter. Has that comfort brought a level of malaise within the club? There can be no doubting the desire and ambition of certain players, that is evident on the pitch, but whether Arsene Wenger still has the fire and ambition to do whatever it takes to win the league again is less clear cut. He will rightly go down as an Arsenal club legend and one of the best managers in Premier League history, but the man once regarded a revolutionary is now struggling to catch up.