I don’t condone the actions, of course, but everything about the incident underlines what is wrong with modern football. Throwing wine at the opposition bench is moronic to the nth degree but wine? Wine?!!? Roy Keane’s prawn sandwich brigade introduced their cousins to football and the game has been beholden to them ever since.
In recent weeks, with little better to speculate on, the media wondered if Chelsea could go the season unbeaten. It wasn’t a notion that they considered this early in 2003/04, particularly since they had ridiculed the prospect when Arsène touched on it a year or so previously. It is ridiculously early in a season to contemplate such an outcome but being a decade on and with a couple of excellent books (the Andrews Mangan and Allen, Together: the story of Arsenal’s unbeaten season, and Amy Lawrence’s Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season) recently published, the achievement of a full season undefeated is fresh in our minds. The anniversary of the defeat at Old Trafford passed very quietly a month ago, little anguish or vitriol apparent with attention focussed elsewhere.
The nadir of the reportage came when a daily newspaper ran a poll on its website, posing the question whether we would trade Chelsea matching that achievement for lifting the Champions League. I don’t know what the result was but if it was anything other than 100% acceptance of the trade-off, it is madness. I would quite happily let Chelsea go two seasons unbeaten for the chance to see an Arsenal captain lift the Champions League. I would probably even make the trade for winning the Europa League. Shallow? Of course but as everyone can attest, a good cup run brings some light relief from other labours.
Records are a nice to have but such is the fluidity of football, they come and go. Nobody in English football pre-1930 would have considered it remotely possible that within twenty-five years, Arsenal would have gone from never being crowned League champions to holding a record seven titles. When Tottenham completed the double in 1961, I doubt many people thought that by the turn of the century, Manchester United would have matched the feat three times, Arsenal twice and Liverpool in 1986.
Football records are there to be broken. Some are flimsy, readily broken; others have a longevity, a uniqueness but ultimately the passage of time lends itself to their passing. And let’s be honest here, Arsenal are not alone in having gone unbeaten for a season in the top flight of English football. 49 games is a record in the same way that Chelsea’s unbeaten 86 home game run or Arsenal’s 27 games unbeaten on their travels is. They are there to be matched or broken but they don’t, in themselves, bring any prizes. They are nothing more than fond memories. Wonderful memories and that is what we miss. Surely that is what these records are about; invoking seasons past, the good and the bad. Records are celebration of those events.
All too often when we reminisce, it is at the provocation of a past which made the club what it was, as a part of what it has become, is disparaged at the aggrandisement of the present. Modern football suffers from a short attention span. Anything pre-1992 is being consigned to highlights packages on minor ITV channels at obscure hours. They used to have the word ‘gold’ in these programme titles; they are gathering dust now whilst publishers clean up on the bookshelves.
But the Premier League era football supporter laps up Sky’s programme, complicit in the abandonment of the past, disparaging by any means necessary whatever was previously achieved. It’s the wrong way of looking at football; to reduce a club to an era is flippancy, it certainly isn’t understanding the ethos of the club. Arsène Wenger hasn’t created The Arsenal Way, he embraced it, modernised it but at its heart, it is underpinned by the conservatism imbued following financial failures a century ago.
On the pitch is different. His success in the first half of his reign was built on a solid defence, no-nonsense and with players who could quite happily have slotted into another era. He has eschewed that philosophy now; attacking football, based on a short passing game with less attention to detail at the back. Sacrifices have to be made in the bigger picture, building a team around the back four is the one he has chosen.
Speaking after the game is always a difficult thing for a manager. There is a balance between condemnation of the players and rebuilding their confidence. With the latter at a low, he came as close to chastisement as he ever will after the defeat against United,
We were 1-0 down and we wanted to desperately come back, and we forgot our principles a little bit. I have to see it again because I was surprised there wasn’t anyone there [in defence]. It was a moment where – especially with such a long injury time – if the game stays 1-0, it gave [United] some confidence because they just defended after.
The lack of discipline is a common theme in recent weeks. Swansea, Anderlecht, United, Chelsea’s second, Hull; a weakness ruthlessly exploited by average opposition. Of that group, only the current Premier League leaders are anything but ordinary. Which is of course, what Arsenal are at the moment. We have some excellent players but the performances are distinctly average which is why Saturday’s defeat rankles; it was the best for a while in most departments but when Arsenal concede, headless chickens are more organised.
And Arsenal will always concede. Arsène needs to look at why it happened; simple, lack of discipline, leadership, whatever you wish to call it. He needs to look deeper than just Saturday and understand what changes have happened since the summer to make a team that was relatively strong defensively, lose their purpose. Was Laurent Koscielny such a lynchpin to the defence, more crucial than we believed in its organisation? Per Mertesacker looks a different player with the inexperience around him. Is he over-burdened with that?
But then defending is not just the back four, is it? The whole team has to accept responsibility when five or more are caught forward, out of position when possession is invariably ceded cheaply. And more to the point, why wasn’t anyone on the touchline spotting the warning signs that Nacho Monreal would be hopelessly exposed when the ball was lost.
Communication is crucial in a team sport, leaders on and off the pitch are required, messages got across on training grounds and when the players cross the white line for the heat of battle. It’s a step that is missing at the moment and the regularity with which the players are losing self-control is worrying, not just for the results but a sign they are not listening to the manager anymore. Worrying for us, them and Arsène.