If you grew up watching adorable footballers in the 90s the likes of Hristo Stoichkov, Romario, Bebeto, Roberto Baggio, George Weah and the rest of the masters of their generation, you’d be used to, accustomed to beautiful football. Amongst followers of the beautiful game, there’s this belief that free-flowing football would never find its way to England; ever. No one would risk his legs or career to play in England. Flair and creative players have the impression they could never enjoy the pace and crunchiness of the Barclay’s Premier League. So Manchester United fans like me had to be content with winning our titles as unattractive and colourless as they came. The only other access we had to fine football was the UEFA Champions’ League on Wednesday nights. And it remained that way till Arsenal Football Club hired in the 1996/1997 season the French PhD holder and coach from the J-League. His name; Arsene Wenger.
His approach to the game and the transformation of players like Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown to fine players and winners was a different kind of thing altogether. He didn’t follow the same “long ball” fashion; he didn’t adopt the same kick-and-follow, “anywhere-belle-face” type of football followers of the English league were used to. He builds teams that combine winning titles with the desire to entertain and attack. Wenger brought with him his own magic and that produced free-flowing, ‘Champagne football’ much to the pleasure and delight of Arsenal fans and foes alike. Arsene Wenger wowed us all!
So you can understand my disappointment when Arsenal Football Club succumbed to Blackburn Rovers in the 5th round of the 2013 F.A Cup at the Emirates Stadium. My disappointment didn’t stem from the loss really; for every team losses at some point in the 10-month journey to glory known as the football season. I’m disappointed because the once feared, the once respected and the once revered Arsenal Football Club is a shadow of their once majestic selves! It could be likened to what Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr., arguably the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, felt that night the man once touted his only worthy opponent, Manny “Pacman” Pacqaiao, got knocked out cold by Juan Manuel Marquez last year. It is absolutely incredulous and utterly out of taste to see who had been touted your equal get cut down by another opponent much beneath you and them. It’s distasteful because it’s happening for the second time this season and to an opposition beneath them yet again! And it’s outright disgusting because it’s been occurring for the past 8 seasons in the same fashion! How could this happen and why for so long? Let’s examine Arsene Wenger a little bit.
Amongst friends and foes, the name, Arsene Wenger, is synonymous with achieving great things on the most meagre and the littlest of resources. He transformed a ‘has-been’ club to top contenders in Europe while playing beautiful, eye-catching football in the process. He’s won 3 Barclay’s Premier League crowns, 4 F.A Cups, 4 F.A Community Shields, he’s taken them to 15 successive seasons in the UEFA Champions’ League, and they were runners-up in the UEFA Cup final in 2001 and the UEFA Champions’ League in 2006. He built the 2004/2005 “Les Invincibles” team and transformed them from the side that was once referred to as “a boring, boring side.” Wenger arguably is the Gunners most successful manager of all time and unquestionably remains a master of modern day football…until lately.
Before talking about what went wrong, let’s talk about what was right. Before his stint in Japan, Arsene Wenger had coached in French clubs, Nancy-Lorraine and more notably, AS Monaco. As a Nigerian, I knew of AS Monaco when Victor “the Prince of Monaco” Ikpeba plied his trade there, plundering goals with aplomb. My little knowledge of the J-League came from when Kanu “Papilo” Nwankwo and his teammates put up a dominating display at the FIFA under-17 tourney in Japan ’93. So one can be permitted to be a little ignorant and cynical if you laughed at the mention of Nagoya Grampus 8. Nagoya Grampus 8? I bet readers of this piece would even pause to Google/Wikipedia the name, Nagoya Grampus 8. For a Premier League side to hire a manager from there was just outright ridiculous…So we thought.
Arsene Wenger (or Prof. Wenger as he would later be popularly known amongst followers of the Barclays’ Premier League) would later prove us wrong. And we didn’t have to wait too long for him to do so either, for he won the first of his 3 famous Premier League crowns right at the end of his second season in charge, the 1997/1998 season. And so began the rivalry that demystified Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United’s dominance and chokehold of the Barclay’s Premier League. Arsene Wenger and Arsenal FC would knock United off their lofty perch time and again, and they did it with impeccable style and panache. Their football artistry and display was simply incomparable and next to none in the league. The best part was Arsene Wenger achieved all his enviable results on a shoe-string budget. Emphasis on shoe-string budget because it cost Chelsea FC and Manchester City hundreds of millions of pounds in transfer, salary and losses to lay their hands on the precious title the Barclays Premier League has been known to be…
Under Wenger, Arsenal became a European powerhouse on meagre resources, both on and off the field. On the field, Arsenal Football Club plays the most mesmerizing football in England. The transition from defense to offense while exchanging crisp, fast, accurate passes and firing the ball in the opponent’s net while making them look clueless became the modus operandi of this wonderful club. They were a sight to behold. No English club had shown such captivating, classy football. Arsenal football club became wonderfully and awesomely breath-taking! And Off the field, Arsenal became the book-keeper’s delight. The club has managed to remain profitable while other big clubs were struggling with staggering losses over the last decade. Arsenal acquired Nicholas Anelka for 500,000 pounds and later sold for 24m pounds in the 90s. And there were many other players involved in such “acquire-young-groom-and-sell” deals and those financial transactions helped increase the club’s worth. Their financial position got a boost when Arsenal moved from Highbury to Ashburton Groove (later renamed the Emirates Stadium in another financial move). Arsenal is in football’s top ten earning teams today, in fact, they’ve been there for like 5 successive seasons. I wonder what we’ll call that if not successful. Arsenal is yet to miss Champions’ League football under Arsene Wenger. How else do you define successful? All is well, right? Wrong.
So what went wrong? Arsene Wenger had built a good outfit into a great one domestically and an uprising power in Europe, especially after that final against Barcelona in 2006. The footballing world expected Arsenal would be challenging for “the big-eared one” aka the Champions’ League trophy almost immediately. Why didn’t they kick into the next gear? Why didn’t Arsenal move to the next level? An admixture of complacency and failure to make timely replacements.
The Arsenal board were so happy with their financial success they felt they could put winning trophies in the back burner. The board was comfortable with second best so long as the books were balanced and profits coming in. The club’s financial model was pleasing and one to die for but unfortunately the moment the board started getting insulated and wrapped up in “the-next-big-thing” cocoon, it was a downward spiral from there. When players of the “Les Invincibles” era began to move on with their careers to other clubs, do we remember why? Arsenal FC wouldn’t sign or give players older than 30 years old a contract extension of more than one year at a time. All those players, Sylvian Wiltord, Robert Pires, Gilberto were shown the way out when they still had some good years in them and what’s worse, they weren’t replaced by players of the same calibre and stature; they were replaced by youngsters bandied in the media as “the-next-big-thing”. Players of the iconic era were replaced with kids. Players from the Arsenal youth system/academy had no experience and one to look up to. The youth/academy policy didn’t exactly work because they lacked experience. A young and fragile Cesc Fabregas to replace the midfield maestro, Patrick Viera, young Philippe Senderos came in for Sol Campbell, Theo Walcott, a promising youngster got signed from Southampton, to play alongside Thierry Henry instead of a Didier Drogba. They’re mesmerizing at first but what eventually happened to these youngsters? They’re unprepared for the big-time and got injured in the vital periods of the season, 3/4 of the season gone and no chance of signing a replacement. Leaving Arsenal short with the most important 4-7 weeks left to play for. And this pattern repeated itself season after season, after season. The downward spiral had begun in earnest. It just needed to be accelerated. And sadly, we didn’t wait too long for that to happen too.
Thierry Henry asked to move to Barcelona in 2008/2009 season, a movement that culminated in his lifting the UEFA Champions’ League trophy with the Catalans. Whatever was left of respect and loyalty for the once revered Arsenal got diminished after that. Season after season, key players would ask to leave or force a move away from the Emirates. Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Eboue, Kolo toure, all left in quick succession. The problem wasn’t really their exits; the problem was replacements weren’t very adequate. Arsenal was still trapped in the youth/academy system bubble. Failing to dole out of the huge windfall in time to cover their weakened positions had damaged their reputation. The club’s and the coach’s reputations. Their austerity in the midst of plenty had cost Arsenal FC a king’s ransom. A decade ago, players would be jostling to wear the Gunners’ shirt ahead of their London rivals’ today; however, the story has changed as players consider other clubs more ambitious than the Gunners. The cookie had finally crumbled. Are Arsene Wenger and the Arsenal board getting what they deserve? Maybe…But then how ambitious are his players?
Coaches pass instructions and ambitious players give life to those instructions. Arsenal players lose matches easily because they lack character, passion and winning spirit. No team gets to the top without losing (only Arsenal FC and Juventus FC have managed that feat in recent football history), reacting positively and quickly is what distinguish and separate winning teams from losing ones. Players could never aspire to be more ambitious and determined than their managers, right? True…But then they can aspire to be as ambitious and determined as their coach. The story was told of how the LA Lakers were on the cusp of losing out in their best-of-7-series Championship finals on the road; having shared every tactic and game plan he had used in his previous Championship winning teams, Coach Phil Jackson showed up on game-day wearing one of his 6 previous Championship rings he won with his former team. His players couldn’t help but notice they’re being coached by a winner, they got fired up and went on to win not only that game but the Championship and the next 2 consecutive championships! Arsenal players have all the inspiration in their manager and in their trophy room. Arsene Wenger created and managed “Les Invincibles”, true fans of the game have not forgotten that. Arsenal players should learn to be as ambitious as their manager. Around October/November 2006/2007 season; Manchester United had gone 2 seasons without winning the league title. Middleborough FC came visiting one evening, at end of which United got hammered 4-nil at home. Needless to say, Sir Alex was furious but even more furious was Captain Roy Keane who didn’t waste time to berate and take his teammates to the cleaners on national TV and most especially on MUTV. He labeled them a bunch of overpaid players who think getting paid huge salaries was what made them superstars. Sir Alex known to be a no-nonsense manager wouldn’t have any player split his camp, he had Keane’s contract struck out and unceremoniously asked him to leave Old Trafford. A painful ordeal but the message wouldn’t go unheeded. Though it took another season, the players berated by Keane brought the League title back to Old Trafford. That kick from a teammate, that chastisement was all they needed. And they responded like winners. Big teams lose games but they don’t remain losers, they bounce back and don’t repeat the same error often.
There’s no reason under heaven those 11 players fielded by Arsene Wenger against Blackburn in that tie shouldn’t win that game. Even though history doesn’t play the game, there will always be pedigree and there will always be reputation. The Super Eagles of Nigeria proved that against the Stallions of Burkina Faso at AFCON2013. Arsenal FC remains a giant of a club and there’s no reason why they should succumb to teams pundits consider small fries to them. We want to see good football and we want Arsenal to give us a piece of the action and artistry we’ve known them to provide. We, the fans of good football, especially Manchester United fans, don’t want to be like Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. A champion with no credible opposition so bored out of his mind he’s going to “spend time” for punching up his girlfriend. We want action, we want Arsenal FC’s competition and we want it now!
So do you still think the fall of Arsenal Football Club is entirely Arsene Wenger’s fault? Well, think again…
My name is Olumide Ogungbemi and I rep Manchester United.