‘One nil to the Arsenal’ was the famous song that emanated from fortress Highbury during the lengthy and successful tenure of the pragmatic George Graham. They were the team that were the very antithesis of Kenny Dalglish’s latest incarnation of the Liverpool dynasty that was so full of flair with Barnes and Beardsley and Molby and Nicol. The solid Arsenal line-up of the day were the main competition in the late 80’s/early 90’s (i.e. before the Manchester United machine) and were the personification of a powerful, hard to beat team. With the early days of the famous ‘back 5’ and the remaining influences of David O’Leary and Alan Smith the muscle was only broken by the enigmatic Paul Merson and then eventually Ian Wright. The format was successful, and league success was joined by cup victory, an unprecedented League Cup and FA Cup double, followed by the 1994 Cup Winners Cup.
The unfortunate circumstances that followed due to the ‘bungs’ that resulted in the one year ban and obvious departure of Graham brought to an end that era and as it turned out, that style of football. After a few barren years under the skilled but unsuited Scotsman Bruce Rioch, highlighted by the signing of one of the Premier League’s greatest ever, Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal were soon to be taken over by the little known Frenchmen who was in charge of Nagoya Grampus 8 in Japan, Arsene Wenger. The man nicknamed ‘le professeur’ would revolutionise the Arsenal style, exciting players such as Nicolas Anelka and Marc Overmars, as well as the likes of Emmanuel Petit and the revelation that was Patrick Vieira, soon followed by the man who would become the clubs leading goalscorer; Thierry Henry. Arsenal would become the entertainers, playing a brand of football that nobody had seen before in the English game. A league and cup double in just his second season followed by further success in the league and in the cup was just a prelude to the ultimate achievement. In 2003/04, Arsenal’s 49 game unbeaten league run encompassed an entire league season without defeat, an achievement never before seen over the 38 game distance.
After the following year’s FA Cup triumph, icon and captain Patrick Vieira would leave for Juventus, and after the ’06 Champions League final defeat record goalscorer Thierry Henry left for their opponents that night, Barcelona. Within a few short years ‘The Invincibles’ as the team from the undefeated season were named, would break up entirely, along with Vieira and Henry- Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Gilberto Silva, Mathieu Flamini, Ashley Cole and the last of the bunch Kolo Toure would all leave within just a few years. And alarmingly for the supporters, they were not sufficiently replaced.
Even more distressingly, the success dried up. Without a trophy for season after season whilst Chelsea were busy overtaking them as London’s top club. Suddenly the seemingly flawless Wenger was being questioned, first by the media scholars, and then by sections of his own support. The summer of 2011 was one that saw the heat from the Arsenal support turned up on Wenger, the early departures of the previous seasons stars Cesc Fabregas to boyhood club Barcelona, and of Samir Nasri to oil rich Manchester City, the out-and-out refusal to sway from his principles, Arsene Wenger would not and did not spend the money on new talent, capable of replacing such established stars. A Crushing 8-2 defeat to Manchester United, the team that less than a decade earlier, Wenger and Arsenal were in a constant battle for supremacy in the English game prompted a swift reversal and a deadline day spree of panic buying. Whilst Mikel Arteta was suited to the club, the unusual signing of the powerful but lumbering German international centre-half Per Mertersacker, along with Brazillian left back Andre Santos, Korean forward Park Chu Young and Premier League journeyman Yossi Benayoun were rehabilitating for the season, but ultimately uninspiring.
So to the future, and the question is, does Arsene Wenger have a future? With this article written just a few short days after an inspiring but eventually unsuccessful comeback in the home leg of the Champions League tie against Italian champions Milan, short term impressive results, of which there will still be a few, is not the point. The basic fact is that Arsenal with their current squad are not and will never be good enough to compete with the title contenders, let alone Europe’s best. The current squad do not have the ability to play the style of football that Wenger made famous, but are still impressive possession artists.
Of course, he still has a future at the club, and he has not turned into a bad manager overnight. However his policy in the transfer market needs to change. The club, as a whole, needs to stop their excessive masturbation over their favourable financial status and their ability to make a profit compared to the other top clubs, and realise that they need to back their manager and force him to spend. Having lost ground on Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea (despite this year’s regression) and even Tottenham has demanded that Wenger can no longer rely on kids, and building a team for five years time, they need to buy their way back to relevancy. This calls for the need to buy established, quality players in order for the third most successful club in terms of league success in the country, to return to their place as a serious threat in competitions.