Tuesday, April 24, 2018

There Will Never Be Another Arsene Wenger


The Beginning

When I was growing up, I couldn't imagine Arsenal without George Graham. He was there year after year, while other clubs churned through their managers. He was Mr Arsenal to me. The immaculate blazer. The slicked back hair. The back 4. The 1-0 to the Arsenal. 

And then he was gone. There it was on the front of the papers - the bungs. Then there was well-meaning Bruch Rioch. Bergkamp too. We started playing nice football but Rioch was not Arsenal. He fell out with Ian Wright and the countdown began. 

My Dad saw Patrick Vieira's debut. He came home and told me he'd seen a that had run the game. He could do it all. And this was a Wenger player.  

Before Arsene took over, I'd never seen Arsenal win at Highbury. Arsenal winning was something I saw on tv; never in person. But 1998 was different. We went to Old Trafford and Overmars scored and it was possible. Then I saw Dennis score against Sheffield Wednesday and we were closer. 

Then I saw us put five goals past Wimbledon. Overmars again. Bergkamp. Petit. Wreh. Adams. Every goal took us closer. I walked out of Highbury with my family and people sang about how we were going to win the league. And we did. 

Nostalgia: 'it's a twinge in your heart far more painful than memory alone'. 

If you've supported Arsenal since 1996, you have a favourite moment that Arsene gave you. A gift. Maybe it was when we won the league at Old Trafford or White Hart Lane. Maybe it was when you saw Pires or Henry play for the first time. Maybe it's when Sol came over. Maybe it's just that feeling in April and May, when the days start to stretch out, when Arsenal were always in the running, even if sometimes we fell short. 

Maybe it was when we achieved perfection. When Arsene created a masterpiece and we never saw an L. They celebrated a draw while we celebrated a title, unblemished. We were fed caviar by the spoonful. For ten years, Arsene created a haze of happiness that I will never forget. We didn't just win, we won while playing the best football this country has ever seen. 

In the beginning, Arsene created masterpieces every week. He was the greatest manager in our club's history and we got to see it all.  


The Fall

The last game I attended at Highbury, I was at the third row from the front in the West Lower. At one point, Lauren took a throw in front of me. He took a few steps back and I could have touched his back he was so close. 

A year later, I was at the first league game in the Emirates. It is a magnificent edifice. Beautiful sightlines. Comfortable seats. Pristine toilets. The only thing that was lacking was a soul. You can't blame the Emirates for Arsene's decline - the reasons are much more complex than that. But the move was a line in the sand; Arsene stopped being great. 

I have read, by apparently sincere people, that Arsene's greatest achievement was keeping us in the champions league after we moved - a competition we never came close to winning after our trip to Paris. Sky flashed a graphic about Arsene's net spend - the fact this is now a commonly used term among the fanbase shows how soulless the club has become - the act of accounting, that dullest of professions, becoming something we should celebrate. 

After nine years without a trophy, the drought ended. And yes, we saw - sometimes - patches of great football in the interim. But this wasn't the Arsene of 98 or 04. This was a slow-motion decline from title challengers to a cup team, one capable of only sporadic performance rather than consistent excellence. The big money signings finally came and plastered over the cracks for a few more years but the writing was on the wall when a mediocre United side battered us 8-2. That Wenger survived for 7 more years after the most humiliating game in our history is a testament to his survival skills and the inertia that had overwhelmed the club.  

What went wrong? It's hard to put your finger on it. A number of trends coalesced while we sat in our generic enormodome and Arsene was left behind. 

1- Big Money. When Arsene took over, Arsenal were the Bank of England club. Bergkamp was a record fee for a UK transfer. We were behind United, but not by much. We were - and still are - filthy rich. But we weren't big money. We weren't an oligarch from Russia. We weren't a petro-country. We couldn't buy and dump 30m pound players in a season. But Arsene's answer was to retreat even further from a transfer market he clearly despised to build a vanity youth project. We'll likely never know, despite what you might read in certain quarters, how much we were financially constrained by the stadium move. But we definitely had more money than we used and the money we had could have used better. We flew the white flag to Abu Dhabi and Abramovich when we didn't need to.The new revenues from the Emirates seemed to serve little purpose but to pay off its mortgage and fill Stan's coffers. Our recruitment went to pot and too many players after 2006 were simply not good enough to play for Arsenal.

2 - Lost Allies. When Dein was forced out, Arsene lost his fixer. Post-Dein, we became a shambles in the transfer market, and let numerous players run down their deals. It's hard to imagine that the summer of 2011 would've happened with Dein around. And with Dein gone, Arsene retreated further into himself and his ideas. Genius left unchallenged or unsupported becomes eccentric. And when the parasite from Colorado arrived, Arsene was emboldened further. A symbiotic relationship was struck between Stan and Arsene - Arsene made Stan even richer than he already was, and Stan let Arsene do whatever he wanted as long as the money kept pouring in. Arsene let the club drift while chasing his various ideals and Stan had no inclination to correct him. 

3- Silk without Steel. All three of Arsene's title winning teams were built upon the rock of Patrick Vieira. Behind him, we had an elite defence, whether it was Adams and Bould or Campbell and Toure. From 2007, Wenger apparently gave up on the idea of having a dominating presence in midfield. Instead we would pass. Pass, pass, pass. Then pass. Then pass again. Bizzarely, Arsene seemed to forget that all our greatest achievements under him - the unbeaten run, getting to the Champions League final - were built on a solid defensive core, both in midfield and defence itself. The lesson from 2006 should have been that if you can stop teams from scoring against you, you will progress in Europe. Instead, we ended up with the likes of Silvestre and Alumnia, Denilson and Song. We had a team of lightweights for a decade, both in physical and mental strength, who were blown away when the going got tough. For someone who talked so much about mental strength, we showed very little of it when it mattered after the move to the Emirates.

4- A Failure to Change. Arsene is the radical who became a reactionary. Everything he brought to Arsenal in 1996 was ahead of its time in England. He was so far ahead of the curve that it took 10 years for the opposition to catch up. To realize that he had barely evolved tactically since he first pitched up at Highbury. That new ideas were not welcome. Ferguson found a formula for Wenger in 2005 and barely took an L from Arsenal in his last 8 years at United. It took ten years for Wenger to beat Mourinho. Sometimes things clicked into place and Wengerball got us a result against the truly big teams. But most of the time it was only enough to beat the sides below us in the league as we scraped to 4th. Wenger stood still for ten years and watched the new breed overtake him. 

The End

I still didn't think it would end now. I fully anticipated that Wenger to see out his contract. One more grim slog of a season. Two main factors did for Arsene in the end:

1- We have been truly terrible this year in the league. Blowing the title to Leicester (Leicester!) in 2016 was the start of rapid decline in the club's fortunes, as our rivals regrouped en masse and overtook us. Last year was bad. This year was terrible. Playing once a week - effectively - has not helped at all. The team can't win outside of Islington. We spent over a 100m on new attackers in the last 12 months and no-one thought to defend. Not building a new core to the team in 2015 was a monumental act of hubris that led directly to the detritus of the last year. Ultimately, even if we win the Europa League, our current trajectory is clear and the board finally accepted that Wenger would not correct it this time around. If one were being cynical, the football has finally got bad enough to threaten Stan's wallet, and he finally acted as a result.

2- The fans stopped caring. Arsene hasn't been hounded out. His reign has ended with a whimper, not a bang. The humiliating performance in the league cup final was the last straw for most. Why bother to turn up if the team wouldn't either? Aside from the loss of revenue, the empty seats spoke of a declining empire, a club in freefall. It couldn't go on like this and Arsene was finally put out of his misery. Apathy can sometimes be more deadly than hatred. 


Epitaph 

I was a child when Arsene took over. He's always been there as I grew up. I'm not ashamed to say I will miss him terribly as a constant in my life, someone who, on some weird level, I could always rely on. I have wanted him to leave for the last 7 years not because I hate or despise him, but because I want him to be remembered in the right way. He is one of the few individuals in the world I truly admire and I will never forget the happy memories he gave me at the peak of his powers.

Looking at the reaction to his departure, I would say my position is far from unique. Watching his decline has been an incredibly painful process; I'm glad it's finally over. I can let nostalgia wash over me and ignore the rest. 

Because there will never be another Arsene Wenger. There will never be another Bould chipping over the top to Adams. Another Henry slaloming through the Bernabeu. Another Wiltooooord. Another Pires lobbing it over Schmeichel's head. Another Battle of Old Trafford. We've seen things you people wouldn't believe. And it's all thanks to him. 

When I think of Arsene, I'll think of the beginning. Merci et bonne chance mon ami. 

Gb. 



Sunday, January 21, 2018

Alexis Gave More to Arsenal Than Theo Ever Did


Change, it seems, is afoot at Arsenal. Gazidis has finally pulled the trigger and is starting the long overdue re-build of the club to prepare it for the post-Wenger era. We’ve got Sven doing transfers, the guy from Barca as de facto Director of Football, and Huss doing contracts. Quite how Wenger fits into this, and who actually has the final say over transfers is unclear. But surely, the monolith has begun to dissolve.

As a consequence, this has been one of the more consequential January transfer windows in recent history. Within it, two players have been sold, both of whom stand as emblems of the club’s decline under Wenger.

The first is Alexis. It’s easy to forget now, but Alexis was signed in a period of great hope for the club. We’d signed Ozil, broken our trophy drought, and seemingly taken a number of steps towards reinforcing our squad in the summer of 2014. Alexis hit the ground running, we won the cup again in 2015, and we were poised to take the great leap forward with a few more additions.

But none came. Wenger, in one of his signature moments of imperial decline, decided to sign no outfield players in the summer of 2015. We lost our opening home game to West Ham, recovered, then blew the easiest league campaign in a generation, with Leicester (Leicester) winning the title as our nominal rivals struggled.

When you look back at Alexis’ career, his second season at the club was largely bereft of open displays of insolence, but this was clearly the moment he realized he’d been had. Unlike most of the dross that has populated the team in the last decade, Alexis is an elite football player; a true winner. He will do anything to win and doesn’t care what bridges he burns along the way. This, of course, blew minds within the squad. While Giroud was busy celebrating a draw at Bournemouth, Alexis threw his gloves at the ground in disgust. He, wait for it, didn’t like being substituted. He told team members how he felt about our mediocrity in training; shock rained down. He fell on his haunches in Munich, appalled at the humiliation we’d received.

So, of course, the club have relentlessly briefed against Alexis since he was dropped for the away game at Liverpool earlier this year. He’s difficult, he plays for himself, he’s selfish, he’s a brat. We’re better off without him.

This is curious, because Alexis is, by a distance, the best player that Arsenal have had since the Invincibles. He has consistently produced. He has scored goals in big games against virtually every team. He scored in both cup finals he has played in for the club. He has single handedly won games on countless occasions. Until Lacazette scored yesterday, he was our joint top scorer in a season he had supposedly given up on, were we to believe the lines coming out of Colney.

The truth is that Alexis exposed the ever-diminishing expectations of the late Wenger era. Arsene has passed from revolutionary to reactionary and refuses to countenance players that expose him. Alexis asked simple questions – why aren’t the other players as good as me? Why don’t they care as much about winning as I do? What are we going to do to stop this relentless momentum towards mediocrity?

Alexis will earn a huge payday at United. Within the warped world of football wages, he deserves it. He is a game-changer, a force of nature who only cares about getting that next goal, regardless of the score. Seeing the logistical cartwheels that Arsenal fans have undergone in the last week to claim that losing Alexis for an inferior players is ‘the best we could’ve done in the circumstances’ is instructive. We have become so relentlessly attuned to underperforming that losing our best player to our supposed rivals has somehow become something of a triumph.

The circumstances should never have arisen. We should have brought proper reinforcements in 2015, won the league in 2016, and be basking in a golden ending to the Wenger era. How far we done fell.  

Contrast Alexis to Theo. There has been nothing but good wishes for Theo. Good old Theo. Stats Theo. A goal every 4 games Theo! Never complained did Theo. Loyal servant to the club. No mischief from him.

Just lots and lots and lots of bad performances. The fact that Theo got to almost 400 games in an Arsenal shirt is emblematic of the lowered standards that plagued the second half of the Wenger era. His stats are bolstered by braces and hat-tricks against the likes of Bate Borisov and League Cup nobodies. Theo’s record stands at about nine-ish goals a season. This was a guy who twice held Arsenal to ransom over his contract, culminating in his ludicrous stint at centre-forward. Bayern were surely quaking in their boots when they realized old Theo would be up against their centre-backs. When the signature phrase of your career is "unlucky Theo", it's not because you were a world-class player.

And look – Theo is clearly a nice guy, But who cares? I’d rather 11 winners who hated each other and won than 11 Theos who had a nice time at work together and took L after L when it counted. The fact that Theo’s greatest moment for Arsenal, his slalom run against Liverpool in the Champions League, happened ten years ago says it all. If you wanted a figure that summed up the second half of Arsene’s reign, it would be Theo – flashes of brilliance, injuries at key moments, and a lack of bottle when it ultimately counted. It may sound churlish to talk about Theo in this way, but he should have left the club long ago. To put it another way, Alexis could’ve fought Ljungberg or Pires for a starting spot in the Invincibles XI; Theo wouldn’t even make the bench. Given our colossal resources, it’s not unreasonable for us to demand players of the calbire and mentality of Alexis, rather than Theo, as the norm at the club; we must resist every attempt to make us think otherwise.

That the likes of Theo and Coquelin are finally being cleared out is a reason for hope. But only if Arsene follows. Otherwise, no matter who we sign over the next few weeks, the club cannot move forward.  Here’s hoping.


Gb.