Loathe it or hate it, all Arsenal fans must wish we could erase the month of November from the calendar, such is the metronomic regularity with which it signals a decline in our fortunes. Perhaps 2003’s fruitful November was the exception that proves the rule? Never the less, if there is one thing that rankles with me more than our almost annual autumnal nosedive, it’s the sudden vocal awakening of our most pessimistic fan contingent, I mean, where were these people hiding during that magical 49 match unbeaten sequence?
I read a thread the other day entitled ‘I Blame Wenger for everything’, a particularly acerbic piece dissecting the reasons for our lull in form, and placing the blame squarely at the feet of Arsene Wenger. As much as I disagreed with the tone of the article and as saddened as I was by the glee with which the author slammed the nails into Wenger’s apparent coffin, I found myself unable to disagree with the central theme. When all is said and done, our poor current form is Wenger’s fault. Ultimately the buck stops with the manager, he is the man that acquires the players, picks the team, trains them and gives them their tactical direction. From Arsenal’s perspective, Wenger is accountable for everything that happens on the football pitch, whether good or bad.
Perhaps subdued by the relentless peer pressure, or even the need for a cathartic venting of steam, I feel an irresistible urge to take my turn in the November blame game.
I was brought up on a rather bland diet of Bertie Mee, Terry Neill, Don Howe and George Graham: rice and potatoes compared to today’s exquisite filet mignon. The style of play at Arsenal today is quite unique, at our sublime best, the ball simply does not leave the ground, and we truly do play football. Of course we do concede more goals than our defense-minded George Graham teams. Occasionally we concede when losing possession playing out of defense - surely a cardinal sin in years gone by. But today, that is a small price to pay for the bountiful rewards. How many goals can you remember Arsenal scoring which began with an opposition corner?
Our refusal to hoof the ball away is occasionally our downfall, but more often, it is the beginning of a quite beautiful move. Wenger has taught our players that the ball is a friend; almost every training ground exercise involves the use of a ball. In football, possession is oxygen; you simply cannot survive without it. We watch an Arsenal team where a 30 pass sweeping move resulting in a sublime goal is a common thing. We play with a players interchanging so quickly and frequently that it can bedazzle the eye and baffle the mind. Quite simply, in terms of football style, we are utterly spoiled.
For this, I blame Arsene Wenger.
There has always been a certain aura of the impossible surrounding the Arsenal, and one of my favourite quotes is, “You only get one Michael Thomas moment in a lifetime.” In many ways, the magic has always been around at Arsenal. But can you remember another era where we witnessed it quite so frequently? Who can forget our first double under Wenger? I was lucky enough to be at Wembley when we completed the second leg of that double against Newcastle in the FA Cup. Even the memory of Nicolas Anelka controlling the ball on his chest, having slipped the offside trap and hammering the ball into the Geordie net sends shivers down my spine.
Perhaps you prefer your magic to be conjured from a source other than the infant terrible.
How about: Vieira wins the ball in defense and sends Robert Pires galloping away. The French winger beats one defender and spots Dennis Bergkamp making a run into the box. Pires plays the perfectly weighted ball into the Dutchman who is positioned just inside the box with his back to goal. Bergkamp performs a manouver of Pythagorian elegance as somehow he and the ball arc around either side of the hapless Dabizas only to rejoin in perfect harmony in front of goal. The Dutch maestro completes the goal of the season by calmly slotting the ball past the ‘keeper. What unearthly power gives these players the confidence to attempt anything so audacious?
Or: with echoes of “We love you Freddie” still ringing in our ears, we watch as Wiltord gallops down the middle of the Old Trafford pitch. Confronted by two defenders, the Frenchman slips the ball to Ljungberg, making a run from the right. Such is the Swede’s superb form, that every United defender is instantly drawn to the Red Mohican. His shot is good, but Barthez manages to parry the ball away - as far as the advancing Wiltord who calmly slots the ball home to seal the Premiership crown at the home of our closest rivals. The Champions Section of Old Trafford erupts.
Who could forget another of those goals that begins with an opposition corner: Thierry Henry receives the ball on the edge of our own area and tears away like a demented greyhound. Veering left past one challenge and avoiding another he slips the ball out to Bergkamp on the wing. The Dutchman’s fabulous cross momentarily looks too strong, but at the last possible moment, Vieira arrives and extends a telescopic leg to slide the ball into the Spurs net. If ever there was a signature Arsenal goal, this was it. Our talismanic midfielder sprints the entire length of the pitch to complete a scything move that lasted mere seconds. Not only was it a goal which bore all the hallmarks of the Wenger, the real magic was that it was scored at the home of our lilywhite rivals, and to clinch another league title.
As Arsenal fans, we are truly spoiled, we do get more than one Michael Thomas moment in a lifetime. And for that, I also blame Arsene Wenger.
My first ever live Arsenal match coincided with the debut of Malcolm MacDonald. “Super Mac” had arrived from Newcastle with a burgeoning reputation and a 333,333 pound price tag. The excitement at this transfer coup was palatable. Sadly, Arsenal lost 1-0 to a newly promoted Bristol City that day, but it was my first experience of Arsenal live, and my first summer of transfer season wonderment.
We didn’t get many exciting transfers down the years at Highbury when I was younger. Charlie Nicholas and Ian Wright were two of the more memorable ones. Even John Jensen was afforded a warm welcome upon joining us - largely due to having just scored a thunderous winner for Denmark in that summer’s Euros.
It’s unfair to suggest that Arsenal have never made significant transfers, it’s not for nothing that we used to be known as ‘The Bank of England” club. But in comparing the number and quality of transfers we get these days to the past, it is worth remembering that most have been on a relative shoestring.
I don’t think I could ever have imagined a day in which I’d have seen players like Henry, Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Overmars, Anelka, Petit and Kanu play for Arsenal. But I’ve seen these and many more superstars of world football in just a few short years. Ironically, most of Wenger’s signings were not superstars when they arrived, but his knack for spotting and nurturing talent is perhaps the man’s greatest asset.
For example, the team that started against PSV Eindhoven the other week was: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Ljungberg, Vieira, Fabregas, Pires, Henry and Reyes. Admittedly this list includes Sol Campbell who arrived on a Bosman free-transfer, and Ashley Cole who was a product if the youth system, but all the same, this Arsenal team was acquired for a combined total that is less than the amount of money that Chelsea and Manchester United spent between them on Juan Veron.
I read somewhere that under Arsene Wenger, over 100 players have either joined or left Arsenal. What an amazing production line of talent we have that flows through our system. The network of scouts that has been built is the envy of every major club in the world. Forget the 40 odd million profit Wenger made on Anelka and Overmars, just think of this: in a few weeks time, we will consider it an injustice if a formerly unloved and unwanted Juventus winger only comes second in the FIFA world player of the year award.
That would almost certainly be Wenger’s fault.
As Manchester United proved, given enough good fortune any old rabble can fluke one European trophy, but to win back-to-back European silverware with an unfashionable Portuguese team is quite a remarkable feat. In years gone by, there would only be one destination for the manager who master-minded that success: Italy. But, where does he ply his trade now - The Premiership.
Okay, I’m not going to win many friends by suggesting that Jose Mourinho moving to Chelsea is a good thing, but there is an important point here. Prior to Wenger, there has only been a few overseas managers who have managed even limited success in England. Ruud Gullit perhaps was the most successful. Not until Arsene Wenger’s arrival has a foreign coach enjoyed sustained success in England, and inspired by Arsenal’s brave appointment, the hiring a foreign coach has become all the rage - quite comically so in Spurs' case.
The point is that what was once a rather dour and physical tournament is now considered to be one of the most glamourous and cosmopolitan sporting events around the globe. The Premiership is the most watched league in world football, both in terms of absolute audience figures and in geographic diversity. Murdoch’s money and the cosmopolitan appeal of the players attracted to England by Wenger and the foreign managers who followed him means that what we now watch as our weekly staple of sport is in fact the greatest show on Earth.
Arsenal is a major player in this marvelous period of the glorious game which is enjoyed by millions globally. Arsenal is now an internationally recognized brand associated with success, and for that, Arsene Wenger, J’Accuse!
Since Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal, he has made it his mission to improve every single aspect of the club. From silverware to playing style, from the academy and youth set-up to the training facilities, Wenger’s touch is everywhere. Sometimes it’s worth taking a look back to see exactly how far we’ve come. Indeed, you only need to take a look at the youth team’s exploits against Manchester City and Everton in the League Cup to see where we are heading. This kind of Investment in our future takes vision, time, patience, and courage.
The training facilities were personally designed by the boss, and are repeatedly quoted as one of the reasons that we are able to attract world class talent to the club.
The one remaining piece of the plan that is still incomplete is the new stadium, and according to reports, it is Wenger who has handicapped himself in the transfer market by insisting on this unprecedented investment. The man truly has the future success of the club in his heart, even if it is at the expense of short-term expenditure.
Within a couple of years, every single aspect of Arsenal Football Club will be an improvement on the version prior to his arrival, and for that crime, Arsene Wenger again has to take full blame.
Star strikers the world over will credit Arsene Wenger for making significant improvement to their game. Whether it is current incumbent Thiery Henry, whose loyalty to Wenger is repeated as often as his glorious goals, or former protégé Nicolas Anelka, who privately admits Wenger was the best thing that happen to him. Or indeed former FIFA world footballer of the year, George Weah, who invited Wenger on stage during the ceremony to receive his award - a bauble incidentally that now adorns Wenger’s mantelpiece - a thank you present from one of the greatest players in history to his mentor. The vote is unanimous: Wenger is the greatest man manager around.
Irrespective of his great achievements, Arsene Wenger is only human, and like the rest of us he has his faults. Sadly, November is the time when everyone wants to tell us exactly what they are, the most common three critiques that I’ve heard are: Wenger’s reluctance to change things around by giving others a chance, his apparent lack of tactical expertise, and an unwillingness to join the mega-buck transfer merry-go-round.
Whatever the current criticism, there is an explanation which yields a concomitant benefit. The same loyalty to his players that instills in them the “unbelievable belief” necessary to reach the absolute pinnacle of their physical capabilities also means that they don’t get dropped after a handful of poor games. The encouragement of freedom of expression that allows the players to reach their creative peak and conjure the moments of pure magic which have become so common is the same freedom that some would criticise as a lack of tactical wit. Additionally, the same prudence in the transfer market is that which has seen us able to create a brand new stadium ready to propel the club into the absolute upper echelons of world football.
So while all explanations for the November slump do lead to Wenger’s office door, I believe you can’t have it both ways. If you want the beautiful free-flowing football that is the players’ reward for Wenger’s unswerving loyalty to them, then you have to be brave enough to accept the less palatable side-effects that come with Wenger’s unique brand of football. After all, it’s only temporary.