Monday, January 17, 2022

Arsenal Men

We’re very excited that Edu is joining the team. He has great experience and technical football knowledge and most importantly is a true Arsenal man. He understands the club and what we stand for to our millions of fans around the world.
Raul Sanllehi

The clamour for ex-players to be appointed to roles within a club where they enjoyed success is a common and understandable one. Fans are nothing if not sentimental and nostalgia has a powerful pull on all of us. So much about being a supporter is tied up in self-identification that we are easily given to fond reminiscence.

Being a fan of a club is one of the few true constants in life and, therefore, we miss times gone by very easily. I don’t just miss the ‘Invincible’ era because Arsenal were really good and very successful, but because this era coincided with my days at university, one of the happiest times of my life. We miss the old days for our football teams because we miss being young, frankly speaking.

It’s the same reason for the retro shirt boom. Kit manufacturers are always trying to make suggestive nods to the past when they release a new shirt. Nostalgia sells. The arrival of Edu Gaspar this summer was preceded by two other former players- Steve Bould and Freddie Ljungberg- swapping jobs for the upcoming season. In the summer of 2018, Per Mertesacker became head of the Arsenal Academy.

Much has been made of the ‘Arsenalisation’ of the new broom behind the scenes. Chelsea and Manchester United have recently appointed inexperienced head coaches who happen to be club legends. When Raul Sanllehi said, of Edu, that “most importantly he is a true Arsenal man,” I do hope this was a bit of harmless PR speak.

That Edu played for the club for five years nearly 20 years ago is nice, but it is absolutely not the most important thing about his appointment and the same goes for Ljungberg, Mertesacker and Bould. Most important is that they are qualified for their roles. I would like to think everyone would agree that competence for the role is the most crucial factor.

But how important is it to be ‘an Arsenal man’ when undertaking a coaching or executive role? Is it of any marginal importance whatsoever? Well, the first thing to say is that it’s nothing new. Arsene Wenger had George Armstrong, Pat Rice and Liam Brady in leading roles and later on, Steve Bould replaced Rice as assistant manager. Wenger said it was important to him to keep those ‘Arsenal values’ inside the club while he found his feet.

With Arsene now gone and Arsenal owned by a distant entity, a lot of supporters have begun to feel that the club is mired in an identity crisis. Promoting Freddie Ljungberg and appointing Edu, with Mertesacker already in situ, is a neat way of handling that identity crisis in PR terms. As much as fans clamour for old faces, what always strikes me is how it’s never the players you expect that return.

For all the talk of Tony Adams, captain fantastic, returning to the club, it’s Steve Bould who has enjoyed more than a decade in a coaching role. Gilles Grimandi became one of Wenger’s most trusted lieutenants. From the Invincibles era, the talk has been of Vieira, Henry or Bergkamp making a hero’s return. I am not sure many would have bet money on Edu and Ljungberg being at the forefront of a new era for the Gunners over a decade after their playing careers at the club concluded.

This, also, is nothing new. From the era defining team of the 1930s, Hapgood, Bastin and James never returned, but the less revered Jack Crayston and George Swindin did. Neither were hugely successful as the Gunners failed with a policy of nostalgia, designed to try and rekindle their 1930s heyday in the more difficult post-war era.

The appointment of George Graham in 1986 was a more successful ploy, as an ambling team were immediately told to pull their socks up, shine their shoes and don their Arsenal blazers. Graham was very strict on the idea of rekindling club traditions and, it has to be said, that really worked. It was the right approach for that time. It’s just that nobody who saw Graham as a player expected for one minute he would become the disciplinarian coach to enforce it!

Don Howe enjoyed a fairly unremarkable two seasons as a player at Highbury in the mid-60s. Few on the North Bank at that time would have earmarked him as the future coaching mastermind behind a domestic double as an assistant and the manager in his own right some-time after that. This illustrates how difficult it is to judge how a player’s career might shape up once they have retired.

Their suitability for certain jobs is not revealed by how they play, but who they are away from our eyes. Ljungberg came to Arsenal as a spiky haired 21-year old with a Sid Vicious aesthetic. I remember vividly Nigel Winterburn chewing his ear off as he made his way off the bench for his debut against Manchester United in 1998.

In a 2-0 win over Ipswich in April 2002, as the Gunners closed in on the title, I recall Tony Adams coaching Edu through the game, constantly encouraging him. The sense of old passing onto new has always been there and it has always been important. Arsenal have been quick to play up Edu’s old boy credentials, but he is far more a Corinthians man than an Arsenal man. He played for them across two spells and then became their Director of Football. His son Luigi played for their U-14s last season.

There is a sense that passing on values is important in any organisation. Ajax and Bayern Munich place a big emphasis on creating a golden thread from their past. It is difficult to judge just how much influence that has on their success, it isn’t the main reason, of course. Yet they clearly believe that it is of marginal importance at least and not just to create a ‘story’ for their brand.

Arsenal have made a virtue of redeploying former players before. Sometimes it has worked (Graham, Howe, Rice) sometimes it hasn’t (Swindin, Howe, Lehmann). The main factor is competence of course, but context also has a part to play. On occasion, a club needs reminding of its values and all of the things that once made it successful. Occasionally, that is the wrong hand to play.

The teams of the 50s and 60s spoke of feeling oppressed by the spectre of their 1930s forefathers- so much so that they changed their home shirt to an all red affair in the mid-60s in a deliberate attempt to sever ties with that era. Owned by KSE and locked into the transition of the post Wenger era, there is an argument that now is the right time for Arsenal to reinvigorate former traditions.

So long as Arsenal realise, as I am sure they do, that Ljungberg and Edu’s Arsenal lineage is a small cherry on the cake and not the flour, butter and eggs. Graham did not just reinvigorate mid-1980s Arsenal with club ties and blazers, he did it through good coaching and the approach required for the players he had at his disposal.

Edu, Ljungberg and Mertesacker have become important pillars for Arsenal’s medium-term future and they will be judged on their tangible skills. How much their intangible attributes count for is for future historians to decide. “When you talk about mentality, it’s not only the players. The club has to have the same mentality of the players,” Edu told this week.

We have to have the mentality of Arsenal, we always had to have winning in front of us.” Whether deliberately or otherwise, Edu used the past tense in that final sentence. Upon his departure from the club, Petr Cech admitted that losing didn’t hurt enough at Arsenal. That being the case, more characters within the club who played under a very different atmosphere is welcome, but it will not be the determining factor in their success.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

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