So this is it; the end of an era. If things had been planned properly, last week’s match against Burnley would have been the sign off; 5 – 0 with plenty of tears and beers.
It wasn’t to be, which sort of sums up the last years of Arsene’s reign. While it’s easy to split the reign in two from a trophy perspective, for me it is more straightforward to pitch the first decade as when he made dreams come true and the second when it was just dreams.
And what a first decade it was. To win the title in his first full season was an incredible achievement. The double was something else and with the style of football astonishing. There was a power and beauty allied to a ruthless streak.
It should have been back-to-back doubles and the shattering of Manchester United’s dominance of English football but that wasn’t to be. We were back in the bridesmaid dresses.
1997/98 remains one of my favourite league triumphs. The second half of the season was relentless, remorseless and ruthless. A long unbeaten run, including games where opponents were murdered 1 – 0. One-nil to the Arsenal; Highbury’s signature tune.
Then came ‘peak’ Wenger. 2001 – 2006. When the league and cups came regularly with a beauty which masked the professionalism. Teams which knew how to draw instead of losing, displaying a pragmatism we’ve missed for years. The Invincibles are remembered and hailed today as the conquering heroes, almost forgetting they had a trial run two seasons before.
This was Arsene in his prime when he outwitted rivals with ease. Not tactically in terms of formations but with expression. Possession with a reason. And players at the peak of their powers. Henry, Vieira, Bergkamp, Pires, Campbell, Keown, Toure; their names as easily recalled as Anfield ’89 or the ’71 double-winning squad.
Move On Up
Which led us to the Emirates. The move which forced Project Youth, which gave birth to the doomed socialist wage structure, an idea which needed to be drowned in the font.
It nearly delivered a title but Eduardo’s injury is the marker which sealed our fate. We needed an inspirational captain and instead got an egotist; ‘Mon Capi’ needed a nappy. It was a title we should have won and with the 2004 Champions League, I think will be Arsene’s biggest regret.
He wasn’t helped in that respect by the sales pitch of the Emirates. This was the stadium which would make us competitive with Europe’s elite. We’d been there with Paris 2006 and liked the feeling. While he hadn’t cracked the Champions League, Arsene at least understood it now. Arsenal were ready to have a full-on tilt at winning it.
That PSV dumped us out the following season ought to have been the warning. It was; we just never heeded it.
Still the lie was promulgated, not just by the manager but also by Gazidis, that we would compete and all you can do now is echo Johnny Rotten’s words, “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?”. But that’s my feeling about the stadium, more than the man himself.
For Arsene, there’s a path to redemption for the second decade in much the same way George Graham enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. The Premier League football is more or less forgotten, dismissed in a sentence. Sometimes not even that much.
Cup football? That will be a different matter. The defeats at Stoke, Forest and all other points will be forgotten, with the wins at Wembley replacing them. It’s a shame there wasn’t a Europa League triumph to speak of as well, but there you go.
People Get Ready
The genuine pity of it is that Arsene never went out on a high. Instead of agreeing with many of us that the timing was perfect, each time the FA Cup was hoisted by an Arsenal captain spurred him on, reigniting the belief that he had rediscovered his mojo.
Twice contracts were signed with Wembley in the mind; twice hindsight tells us it was the wrong decision. The divisions were too much to overcome, the weaknesses too easily exploited.
And we end at Huddersfield Town. No disrespect to them, but it isn’t the ‘glamour game’ he might have hoped for. I am pleased they stayed up. The Premier League needs refreshing. Stoke and West Brom hung around like a bad smell; the likes of the Terriers are the air freshener.
Our away form though; pffft, it stinks the place out. Today’s the day that the players need to get their mojo back for one last game. Sign off in style. Huddersfield won’t roll over but nor (hopefully) will they be the dour side which fought creditable draws at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge. Perhaps both sides can let the handbrake off and give us a match to remember.
The final line-up Arsène chooses? Something like:
Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Chambers, Monreal; Ramsey, Xhaka; Mkhitaryan, Wilshere, Aubameyang; Lacazette
If they pull off an away win, the first of 2018, the football gods will give a rare display of benevolence. Don’t expect it though…
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.