What the Emirates Stadium means to Arsenal fans has been something of a enigma since the move from Highbury in 2006. Before the club left the famous old ground the fans were told that the new ground was a necessity, that to compete with the very best teams in Europe the club needed a more lucrative source of revenue than their 36,000 seater stadium could provide. The move was certainly needed. In this new age of football, awash with riches untold and unimaginable even in the early 2000s, when Arsenal, along with Manchester United, stood unmatched as a giant of the English game, the Gunners had no choice but to seek to cement their place amongst the game’s elite with a new stadium that matched their stature. But the dream of standing toe to toe with Europe’s giants never materialised. Talk of new riches, new opportunities and new growth was replaced with talk of debt repayments, sustainable finances and austerity. Caviar, in the words of Arsene Wenger, had been replaced with sausage. In an age where the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City were spending £100 million in a single window in the pursuit of glory, Arsenal began selling their crown jewels at an alarming rate. Out went Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie. In came the likes of Andre Santos, Gervinho and Sebastian Squillaci. The team that had, a few short years ago, gone a whole season unbeaten and lost a Champions League final to Barcelona in the cruellest of circumstances had sunk to scrapping grimly for fourth place with eternal rivals Spurs, relying on luck on more than one occasion to pip them to the post. Arsenal’s critics pointed ad nauseum to their 9 year trophy drought between the FA Cup wins in 2005 and 2014 as a sign of the Gunners’ decline but the real symbol was the contrast between the majestic side of Robert Pires, Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp which swept all before them in the final Highbury years and the pale imitation that marked the early years at the Emirates.
The signing of Mesut Ozil last summer, a £40 million deal carried out in the dying minutes of the transfer window was seen by many to be a turning point. The financial shackles finally coming off after 8 long lean years of austerity. But expensive signings do not a winning team make, and so it proved last season. Despite a flying start that saw them spend 15 of the first 23 weeks of the season at the top of the league ,the same fragilities exposed themselves. The question remained whether Arsenal were capable of beating the biggest sides in the league. It was a test they failed emphatically, with a 5-1 defeat to Liverpool, a 6-0 defeat to Chelsea and even a 3-0 defeat at Goodison Park against 5th placed Everton punctuating their collapse from title hopefuls to the familiar scrap for 4th place. Of the 41 goals Arsenal conceded last season, 27 came in just 8 games against the rest of the top 5. New financial muscle, same old Arsenal.
[caption id="attachment_58779" align="aligncenter" width="628"] Arsenal goals conceded breakdown 2013/2014 – the problems they had away against the rest of the top 5 could not be clearer – (c) 7amkickoff[/caption]
Yet there were signs something was changing. The much maligned Aaron Ramsey, who had shown only glimpses of his true talent in a few barren years following his horrific leg break after a violent Ryan Shawcross tackle in 2010 started the season in sensational form as Arsenal racked up 8 wins in their first 10 games. Theo Walcott was finally starting to show why Arsenal decided to pay £12 million for him aged 17 in 2006. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, the victim of so much lazy criticism based on his perceived lack of physical pace, began to solidify their central defensive partnership which would end up securing 17 clean sheets by the end of the season, the joint best in the league. However the clearest indication of Arsenal’s new found intent was in a majestic performance in a 2-0 win over Napoli in the Champions League in October. After a first half where Arsenal enjoyed 70% possession and scored two exquisite goals, including Ozil’s first in Arsenal colours, the Napoli fans, the most vocal, aggressive and on occasion the most mindlessly violent in Europe were stunned into silence. This was the kind of European night Arsenal fans had not seen since the run to the Champions League final in 2006. Change was afoot. Arsenal were, perhaps, beginning to rise from their slumber.
The Champions League dream was eventually snuffed out in the last 16, as per usual, by Bayern Munich – but not without a blistering first half of the home leg where Ozil missed a penalty and Arsenal could have been 3-0 up before Szczeny’s sending off for a reckless challenge on Thomas Muller. However another cup dream was just beginning. After an unexpectedly easy win over Tottenham in the 3rd round and a victory over a brave Coventry team in the 4th, Arsenal came up against Liverpool in the 5th round just 8 days after their 5-1 annihilation at Anfield. This was a shattered Arsenal side, shorn of three of their best players in Ramsey, Ozil and Walcott and shorn of self belief following their dismantling the week before, facing a Liverpool side just starting to dream that maybe, just maybe, they might be able to claim their first title in 24 years. However in perhaps their most gutsy performance of the season the Gunners dug deep, took their chances when they got them and saw off a late Liverpool fightback to win the game 2-1. The atmosphere throughout the game was intense, the response at the final whistle was electric. As the fans walked back across the Ken Friar bridge towards Arsenal tube station, and home, the traditional Arsenal FA Cup chant ‘she wore a yellow ribbon’, penned during Arsenal’s legendary 1971 double winning season struck up. ‘She wore, she wore, she wore a yellow ribbon’ sung the 1000 or so fans crossing the bridge; ‘and when, I asked, her why she wore that ribbon, she said it’s for the Arsenal and we’re going to Wembley’ and for the first time that season, for a number of seasons, they truly believed it.
And so, crucially did the team. A highly professional 4-1 quarter final victory over Everton led to a semi final meeting with holders Wigan. A nervous, disjointed performance, led to a 1-1 draw and Arsenal limping to a penalty shootout where they held their nerve. The previously despised and erratic Lukas Fabianski put in the performance of his Arsenal career to twice deny Wigan from the penalty spot and send Arsenal to their first FA Cup final since the start of their trophy drought 9 long years ago. In the final Arsenal started in traditional flaky fashion going 2-0 down inside 8 minutes from 2 set pieces against a Hull City side that could hardly believe their luck. Yet Arsenal came back. If these years in the wilderness have taught Arsenal anything it is tenacity, patience and the art of survival. They came back into the game through a Santi Carzorla free kick before half time before equalising through a scrappy header from Laurent Koscielny (so often Arsenal’s saviour when the chips are down) in the 71st minute before finally breaking Hull City hearts with an Aaron Ramsey goal in the second half of extra time. It was the culmination of a tale of redemption for Ramsey. Left broken on the Britannia Stadium pitch 4 years ago, he has recovered, regained his place in the team, suffered dog’s abuse from sections of the Arsenal support and has now emerged as one of the best midfielders on the planet. It was also a tale of redemption for Arsenal, 9 years of hurt, envy and anguish finally ended by a season that began in tears and was punctuated by tears but that ultimately ended in triumph.
With the monkey of financial restrictions and crucially, of a trophyless run of almost a decade, lifted from their backs Arsenal have acted this summer like a club revitalised. Whereas last summer they had to wait until the last minute to land Ozil, an opportunistic masterstroke rather than a planned pursuit by Wenger, this summer they got on with their business without a hitch. The media and Arsenal fans lambasted Wenger for gallivanting on the beach in Rio during the World Cup, assuming that he was resting on his laurels and preparing for another summer of nervy inaction. In reality he was hard at work, and by the time Columbia’s David Ospina, France’s Matthieu Debuchy and most excitingly Chile’s Alexis Sanchez, signed from Barcelona for £35 million, had signed for the Gunners, his World Cup jaunt seemed like a masterstroke. Added to the signing of Southampton’s exciting young defender, Calum Chambers, for £16 million, Arsenal’s summer business has so far been efficient, exciting and most importantly, as un Arsenal-like as it has been possible to be.
Arsenal have been acting, for the first time since they left Highbury, perhaps for the first time ever, like a truly big club during this window. Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers, being uncharacteristically sour, bemoaned the fact the Sanchez had plumped for Arsenal over them. The truth is they were never in the picture. As soon as the prospect of Suarez’s sale to Barcelona started to become a reality Wenger moved quickly, sweet talking Sanchez, in his native Spanish, into joining Arsenal. It was a similar story with Debuchy. As soon as Sagna made it clear that he was to let his contract run down and join Manchester City on a free transfer, he quickly and calmly identified the Frenchman as Sagna’s heir and replaced the outgoing right back with a man 4 years his junior and ahead of him in the pecking order in the French national team. A farther cry from the infamous ‘supermarket sweep’ of deadline day 2011 it is hard to imagine.
Arsenal took this new found bullishness onto the pitch with them when they faced league champions Manchester City in the Community Shield on Sunday. Lining up in an aggressive 4-1-4-1 formation, with Wilshere and Ramsey acting as dual box to box midfielders in front of Arteta sitting deep as schemer in the Pirlo role they took the game to the Champions, scoring 3 goals of real quality to run out 3-0 winners. It is true that the Community Shield is little more than a glorified friendly, the barely half full City end at Wembley and disappointing attendance of 71,000 confirmed that much but it is always better to win a game than to lose it, and there is no doubt that Arsenal will take huge heart from their performance. What is significant is that even as late as last season it was impossible to imagine a scenario where Arsenal could beat Manchester City 3-0 and do it as comfortably as they did on this occasion.
This is a new Arsenal, newly aggressive and confident in the transfer market and on the evidence of the Community Shield win, newly aggressive and confident on the pitch. Despite a season of anguish it is easy to forget that Arsenal were 7 points off winning the title last season. Whilst their rivals, and Chelsea in particular, have added just as well as they have in the transfer market this season should see a new Arsenal; an Arsenal with the air of winners restored and with a squad (a couple of defensive additions notwithstanding), not just a first XI, fully capable of matching any in the league. After almost a decade of famine, success could be about to return to Arsenal, finally fulfilling the promises that accompanied the move to the Emirates Stadium.
Will this be Arsenal’s year or will they suffer their usual collapse and fail to last the pace? Have your say in the comments:
The world of football is a fickle one. After embarrassment at Bradford some were calling for Arsène Wenger’s head. Yet victory last week at Reading caused some of the dissension to simmer. Saturday’s victory at Wigan papered over the cracks, but the jury for Arsène and his team is very much still out.
An issue that has taken up as many column inches as Wenger’s supposed decline is Theo Walcott’s reluctance to sign a new contract. On Saturday his plea to play a central role were answered; Wenger perhaps becoming more pliable the more a new contact is resisted. Bewilderingly however, he played Walcott up front without a strike partner. Time and time again the forward was forced to drop deep to pick up the ball, when his obvious strength involves sitting off the last defender and using his pace to get in behind the defence. The one time he managed to do this in the game; Arsenal were rewarded with the match-winning penalty (albeit a highly dubious one).
Having Walcott as the sole striking outlet also affected Arsenal’s style of approach play. On several occasions Gibbs found himself in crossing space on the left, but elected to cut inside to his central midfielders – the diminutive Walcott does not offer much of an aerial threat. As such Wilshere and Cazorla repeatedly tried to force play through the middle of the defence where the inevitable swarm of blue and white shirts ensured that not a clear cut opening was created throughout the match.
Wigan also had their fair share of opportunities. For much of the afternoon they were beating Arsenal at their own game. They were afforded far too much leisure on the ball by Arsenal’s three central midfielders and comfortably worked openings around the pitch; a statement reflected in the fact that Dave Jones did not misplace a single one of his 47 passes in the first half.
However, Wigan were as wasteful as they were industrious. Arouna Koné missed two clear cut openings, with Beausejour and Stam consistently getting into good wide positions but failing to deliver.
Ultimately, it was an unconvincing win for Wenger’s side, yet the bare facts remain that it brought them 3 points and their 3rd straight league victory – the first time they have maintained such a run since March. At the close of play Arsenal sat at 3rd the league, making far happier viewing for Arsenal fans who have seen their team drop as low as 10th in recent weeks. This apparent turnaround is as much a testament to the tight nature of this premier league this season: along with Arsenal are three other clubs on 30 points all vying for lucrative Champions League qualification.
The murmurings of discord have subsided in North London for now. Earlier in the week Arsenal made a fan-fare of securing the long-term signatures of five young British players. Carl Jenkinson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, and Kieran Gibbs are touted are the long-term core of the Arsenal team. The future and security of Arsène Wenger is by no means as certain.
After a shambolic night at the San Siro and a toothless capitulation at the Stadium of Light, Thierry Henry must be asking himself two questions. The first must be: what has happened to the slick, dominant, and ruthless Arsenal team with which he lifted two league titles and an FA cup; went forty-nine games unbeaten, and came to within fourteen minutes of lifting the Champions League? He must also be thinking: ‘When can I come back?’
His arrival was presented by player and manager as subordinate and supplementary to the new main man at the Emirates: Robin Van Persie. After all, Thierry was only here to help. They certainly needed him. Henry demonstrated the touch; composure and finishing that won him his legendary status at Arsenal with his winning goal in the FA cup against Leeds. He got on the score sheet once more against Blackburn, and pulled Arsenal out of the mire with a last-gasp winner at Sunderland, ensuring that Arsenal continued to hold a tenuous grasp on the all-important fourth place in the Premier League.
Such performances left Arsenal fans with a question of their own. What the hell is he still doing in the MLS? His pace may have waned through natural progression of years, but his work rate, awareness and class remain. I think it is reasonable to assume that had the misfiring Gervinho or Chamakh found themselves in the same position against Leeds, Arsenal would have been forced to suffer a replay.
In the MLS Henry averages just under a goal every two games. In his return to Arsenal he managed just that figure, scoring three goals in his six appearances; one less than Gervinho has achieved in his entire Arsenal career to date. These figures illustrate that Henry is still good enough to compete at the top level, let alone in the pedestrian MLS. He provided more than just cover for Arsenal’s strike force, but for a short period was a reliable and dangerous option in Wenger’s armoury.
Of course one may say that it is precisely players like Henry transferring to the MLS that will allow it to one day become a truly competitive league. However, these problems run far deeper and are much more bureaucratic than simply a case of attracting more Thierry Henry’s and David Beckham’s. The MLS administrators repeatedly refuse to synch their season with FIFA’s calendar. This means that major international summer tournaments such as the Gold Cup or the World Cup provoke a mass exodus of international players from the league to play international football. Such administrative disruption is the league’s real down fall, rather than the allure of a few stars among a throng of mediocrity.
At the final whistle in the San Siro, Thierry Henry rushed over to the travelling Arsenal fans to say farewell. You could sense that he wasn’t quite ready to leave just yet, and there are many Arsenal fans that are wishing he hadn’t.
The chances for Andy Murray to win a Grand Slam, not unlike Arsenal’s own prospects at a Premier League or Champions League win, are shot. For Murray, the latest disappointment comes at the hands of World No. 1 and winner of the last three major tournaments, Novak Djokovic. For the Gunners, Manchester United posted the team’s newest setback by a score of 1-2.
The Scottish World No. 4, who took on eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl as coach recently, now suffers a 0-3 record in Grand Slam finals. He’s reached the semifinals on six other occasions, proving he has the talent.
This time, however, may add a little more insult to injury; the match against Djokovic was supremely close. Murry held two break points on the Serb’s serve at two sets apiece and five games all. Regardless, he couldn’t convert at the most crucial moment. This latest loss at the Sunny Slam comes after a three set thrashing from Djokovic in the 2010 Aussie Open final.
Murray, no stranger to critics in a country without a major champion since Virginia Wade’s 1977 Wimbledon win, said: “You’re always going to have people that doubt me and say, ‘He’s not that good’ and ‘He’s not as good as them’. I am aware that I still need to prove some things and win a match like this. It was so close.”
He remains positive this year, stating that the year’s goal is to claim the No. 1 spot from Djokovic.
Meanwhile, World No. 2 and 10-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal took aim at Murray. He said: “The level is there. When you are able to play how many, five Grand Slams in a row playing semifinals or final, it’s only a mental thing.”
Although Arsenal’s loss on January 22 was nowhere near their horrendous 8-2 routing by Manchester United in August. It cement their current lackluster No. 5 position in the league.
Even beloved Manager Arsene Wenger, according to a recent Globe and Mail article, isn’t safe from the effects of the loss. It reads: “For so long a hero to Arsenal fans, manager…Wenger was jeered during last weekend’s 2-1 Premier League defeat against Manchester United.”
While Murray’s battle is one of mostly mentality at this point, Arsenal simply has been suffering too many injuries to contend for the Premier League title. In fact, according to the article, the team’s “been playing without specialist fullbacks since early December.” As a result, teenagers Nico Yennaris and Ignasi Miquel are being forced to fill in the open spots in upcoming games.
It’s been seven years without a trophy for Arsenal, and no Grand Slams for Murray in his eight years as pro. If things are going to change, the best time to start is, well, now. Otherwise, both will remain target practice for the top talent in their respective sports.
At my primary school there were two groups: the Arsenal fans and the Manchester United fans. There were a few more exotic teams; West Ham weren’t even in the Premiership for a while. Being a hipster I went for an obscure team called, erm, Liverpool. But when Arsenal played Manchester United everyone cared, there was an acceptance that this would decide the title or, if the game was in the cup, would decide who would go on to defeat Newcastle/Liverpool/Chelsea in the final. This season is different though – the match today will not be the most important played this weekend. Ironically it’s the two teams’ local rivals, Manchester City and Tottenham, who will have a bigger impact on the title race when they meet at Eastlands. However when Wenger and Ferguson have met over the last decade or so the games have tended to define English football in some way.
Manchester United 2 – 1 Arsenal – FA Cup semi-final replay, 1999
Back in 1999 Sir Alex Ferguson still cared about the FA Cup. A year later he would choose to compete in the World Club Championships instead of the tournament, and a little bit of the ‘magic of the cup’ that pundits still obsess over was gone forever. As a last hurrah for the cup’s respectability though this was a fitting game. In hindsight this games seems like a microcosm of an era in English football; David Beckham scored with a curling effort from outside the box, Dennis Bergkamp equalised with a perfectly placed shot, Roy Keane got sent off and Phil Neville gave away a penalty. Oh and Ryan Giggs took his shirt off.
After this Manchester United went on to win the treble, still the pinnacle in Fergie’s career (the world club championships didn’t go too well) and in many ways the football landscape changed after this. Although it would be another six years until Roman Ambramovich funded Chelsea to the title they began pushing up the table before this, whilst Liverpool and Newcastle both found themselves challenging for trophies and European qualification; this game was the highlight of the monopoly these clubs had for a few years.
Manchester United 0 – 0 Arsenal, Premier League, 21st September 2003
‘Goals are overrated’ is the motto of the Blizzard, and this game definitely supports that theory. Unfortunately it’s not brilliant defensive tactics or two passing teams constantly outmanoeuvring each other that made this game stand out. Both sides did line up defensively, with Arsene Wenger dropping Pires and Wiltord for the less glamorous Parlour and Ljunberg whilst Manchester United played a 4-3-2-1, with Roy Keane taking command in a defensively minded midfield. Even with the likes of Cristano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistlerooy in attack United only managed five shots on target in the game. Arsenal, with Henry and Bergkamp leading the line managed none. Viera, rather predictably, received a red card but it was a last minute penalty that made this game infamous as Van Nistlerooy blasted against the crossbar. Arsenal’s players, dignified as ever, shouted, screamed and generally lost all human control right in front of the Dutch striker, cue the inevitable fight at the final whistle; both clubs had players charged by the FA whilst Arsenal were also charged with failing to control their players.
Once again it defined what was happening in English football. The actual match was in truth dull, with neither side creating enough chances to make it a classic in the way the 1999 game was. Arsenal were about to go on their ‘invincible’ streak of 49 league games without a loss, and you could see the nucleus of this determined team in the way Keown and Toure led the backline. Had Sol Campbell not been out for this game then perhaps Arsenal would have been even stronger. At the same time Manchester United was in one of their rebuilding phases – life in a post-Beckham world was not looking so great and Ronaldo was still finding his feet. There was also something to be said for the kind of player emerging; one of the fines issued to Ashley Cole was for ‘involvement in a confrontation with Cristiano Ronaldo after the final whistle’, a phrase that makes the skin crawl. The players were becoming more than media stars, they were objects of entertainment for our pleasure. More and more every aspect of their lives was ours and the likes of Ronaldo and Cole could propel themselves into the public eye through more than good performances. The way this game was called ‘The Battle of Old Trafford’ highlights more than just the laziness of the media; it revealed that what the audience wanted was, more often than not, this kind of off the pitch event, rather than a great on the pitch performance.
Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal, Premier League, 28th August 2011
The moment Arsenal fans were dreading. After years of floating around meaninglessly, living only with the vague memories of Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera and Dennis Bergkamp and that invicible campaign that was so nearly bettered by Huddersfield, Arsenal finally had to live up to a decline. At the same time though, so does English football. Wenger’s continued insistence on a particular style of football was revolutionary when it first came. In fact I admire any team that sticks to its game plan, be they Barcelona with tikka takka or Jose Mourinho’s Inter with their calico style defending. However when that style doesn’t work something needs to be done. Since Wenger’s arrival nearly every club has adopted similar ideas, introducing nutrition programmes and different styles of training. Arsenal are no longer unique and, whilst they are undoubtedly a good team, Wenger’s insistence on his way and his methods will continue to hold them back.
The same is true of English football in general. Whilst we have rested on the laurels of our club teams’ Champions League performances for the last few years uncomfortable questions about the national team and the general state of football in England have gone unnoticed. Now, with Manchester United and Manchester City out of the Champions League, these questions are becoming less ignorable. The likes of Germany and Spain have already moved out of reach for the next few years at least, and the calls for Harry Redknapp to take over from Capello only make me despair even more. We seem unable to recognise the tactical side of the game, the side that requires a good manager and good teamwork instead of individual talent. Whilst we fail to understand this English football will remain in stagnation, like an Arsenal team who have been so content with ‘doing okay’ these past five years.
Let’s put it in perspective: if – as looks all-but-certain – Arsenal finish the season potless, will it be a blow for the club and the supporters? Yes, undoubtedly. This is a team which lost in catastrophic circumstances against Birmingham, blew a four-goal lead against Newcastle, a two-goal lead against Tottenham (twice), a one-goal lead in the last minute against Liverpool, and have been held to goalless draws at home by Sunderland and Blackburn. So only the most myopic of Wengerite ultras could say there weren’t things to improve upon.
But you’ve got to look at what Wenger is working with. The team that beat United on Sunday cost less than the combined price of Carrick and Anderson. It cost less than Chelsea spent on Fernando Torres. It cost less than Manchester City spent on Kolo Toure and Emanuel Adebayor. It cost less than Steve Bruce has spent at Sunderland. So he’s going to finish behind two teams with far bigger budgets and ahead of countless teams with bigger budgets. Over the last six years, he’s developed some of the most thrilling and exciting players in the Premier League and in Jack Wilshere, he’s developed a player who will go on to do big things for club and country.
He’s done all this while playing some of the most attractive football on the planet. For delivering European football on a budget, for playing with style, Wenger must stay.
There are few medals in football with less sheen than that awarded to losing League Cup finalists. Arsène Wenger might argue that finishing third in the Premier League is better than winning a trophy, but aside from these made-up, notional trophies, his club’s trophy cabinet remains untroubled since the 2005 FA Cup.
But hey, at least they play exciting football. After the hideous first hour of the first leg of Madrid-Barcelona, this oft-used defence of Wenger should not be sniffed at. If the raison d’être of Arsenal was entertaining neutrals, Wenger would be doing his job very well indeed. But in football, entertainment and success so often fail to come hand-in-hand. After all, Arsenal’s run to the 2006 Champions League final was not based on entertainment, but on grinding out 0-0 draws in the second leg of the Second Round, Quarter-Final and Semi-Final ties.
The Gunners have been a shadow of their former selves since the departure of Thierry Henry. Leading from the front, the standout, key player of years of Arsenal success has proved impossible to replace. Wenger gives the impression of stubbornly denying the obvious, that he needs to drastically change his style of management to return to those days. Putting on my best Lord Sugar voice, it is with a heavy heart that I say, remembering all the good he has done for Arsenal and for English football as a whole, that he must be fired. Unless – and it’s a big ask – a bit of good fortune means they actually end up winning the league. In which case, would you be a dear and forget I ever said any of this?