Monday, May 20, 2024

Boring Boring Arsenal is my favourite Arsenal

I am an anxious person. I always have been. People are driven by different motivators in life and mine is anxiety. It’s why I am early for everything, it is why I am well organised and it’s also why I don’t sleep well! Watching Arsenal makes me anxious. I have spent a lot of my life trying to figure out why I chose a pastime and a lifestyle that provokes my anxiety so much.

An answer I have fallen on is that my anxiety is a little like a pet dog, following me around dutifully, looking up with a sunken expression to see whether there are any scraps on the dinner table to feed it. Going to Arsenal is like taking the dog for a walk, wearing it out on something that, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t life or death.

This way, I tell myself, I expend less energy getting anxious about my roof collapsing or whether the sore throat I am developing is actually the beginnings of throat cancer. It’s not a convincing explanation, sure, but it’s all I have managed to conjure up so far. The bottom line is, when Arsenal are playing, especially in important games or derbies, I am largely a nervous wreck.

When I played football, that anxiety translated into the way I played. At my heart, I was a creative player but I was always too worried about the gaps behind me to be a killer in the final third. So I was moved from wing to full-back and from withdrawn striker to deep lying playmaker. Mentally I clearly prioritised security over risk.

I have never been remotely invested in the aesthetics of how Arsenal play. I used to lie to myself and others about the importance of ‘attractive football’ but one of the good things about reaching middle age is that you tend to be more honest with yourself and others about who you are and what you feel. I could not care less how ‘attractive’ the football is.

I just want Arsenal to win. That is all. That is entertainment enough for me. I would be happy for Arsenal to ‘Allardyce’ their way to a league title if I thought such a thing were possible. The only element of Arsenal’s playing style that I am invested in in a critical sense is sustainability.

The only real reason I don’t want Arsenal to play with eleven lunken headed super mutants smashing long balls to Pointy McElbows is because I think that style has a ceiling and that ceiling is below where I would like Arsenal to be. If we could get 90+ points playing that way, I would happily turn up to games in a shellsuit and baseball cap.

Don’t get me wrong, I do want to be able to relate to my team. I wouldn’t want Jose Mourinho in charge of Arsenal. Not because I would object to the style of football but because I would object to the absolute poison he insists on injecting into every atmosphere he inhabits. I would like Arsenal to stay within the rules of the game (relatively speaking) and wouldn’t want them to go around deliberately hurting opponents.

But I don’t want Arsenal to fail beautifully. The lack of defensive resolve during the mid to late Wenger era really bothered me, it meant the football just wasn’t aesthetically pleasing to me. We are all products of our environment, of course. I got my Arsenal season ticket in 1992, the second half of the George Graham era when he really started to lean on that famous back five.

The Cup Winners Cup victory in 1994 is one of my favourite Arsenal triumphs, built on a bedrock of solid defence. Again, Graham made the error in the second half of his reign of de-emphasising the attack, the sale of flair players like Rocastle and Limpar and the freezing out of the elegant Paul Davis saw the Gunners become a cup team and they stopped competing for the league.

I have often made the comparison between Mikel Arteta and George Graham 1.0. This season, I am even more convinced by that comparison as Arsenal, already a good attacking team, have bolted the back door. They have the best defensive record in the division and, in Declan Rice, probably the best off-the ball player in the Premier League.

The marriage of Gabriel, William Saliba and Declan Rice is the holy trinity as far as I am concerned, the feeling of safety they give me is so valuable. Not only that, I really enjoy having a manager who is not imprisoned by a ‘philosophy’, who sees setpieces as a valuable part of the game to be maximised and exploited, not an affront to ‘beautiful football.’

I love the way he is not afraid to put Kai Havertz upfront and go long if that is what is required. There is a goal that Dennis Bergkamp scores against Manchester United in February 2005 when he drills the ball as hard as he can through van der Sar’s legs. Andy Gray, on commentary that night, simply exclaims, ‘Exactly what was required!’

That was always the genius of Bergkamp for me. He could do things with a football that were feats of technique and imagination. But it was never about being showy or elaborate, he simply did what was required in the situation. Sometimes the situation required a good old fashioned laces through the ball finish and when that was required, he didn’t consider it beneath his artistic sensibilities.

I love that in Rob Edwards’s post-match press conference on Wednesday evening, his first observation about Arsenal was ‘they don’t give you anything.’ I love that I spent a lot of the second half on Wednesday evening looking at the scoreboard, wondering whether I could sneak out a few minutes early because I was a bit bored. I was bored because I knew that Arsenal weren’t going to let a stupid goal in and make the game ‘entertaining.’

Admittedly I didn’t watch it live, I watched the City away game subsequently, with the tension removed. But I enormously enjoyed it. I enjoyed that Arsenal can play like that when they need to. It’s the inability to do that that made the team and the club weaker than it should have been over the last 15 years or so.

It was another of Rob Edwards’s observations I really enjoyed, ‘of the three challengers they are the one that can play any game. If it’s a physical game, if it’s a running game, if it’s a footballing game, whatever it is, they’ve got the answer.’ Yes, yes and yes. Sign me up for all of that, please and thank you.

High minded footballing philosophies are like the elements, good servants but bad masters. The job is to win and I have absolutely no compunction in admitting that I don’t care how Arsenal do it and I think defending, having good off-ball structure and not being easily brushed off the ball are fundamental tools for that.

You have to be able to attack well, you have to be able to score a lot of goals to compete for the league title, you have to be able to dominate opponents. But I think inhabiting two Arsenal eras prior to Mikel Arteta, one that probably over emphasised the defensive side of the game and one that probably undervalued it, has made me crave the less celebrated side of the game.

Of course, Graham and Wenger’s best teams did both sides of the game brilliantly and Graham lost his way when he deprioritised attacking verve and Wenger lost his when he deprioritised off-ball prowess. What Mikel Arteta has managed to do this season is bring Arsenal closer to that balance that they lacked last season. Closer to the balance that the best teams have.

But honestly? In my heart, at my core? Boring Boring Arsenal is my favourite Arsenal. I just might have to find new outlets for my anxiety. Do I smell gas? Did I leave the oven on….?

Related articles

Share article

Featured on NewsNow

Support Arseblog

Latest posts

Latest Arsecast