Before the second leg of the champions league qualifying tie, Arsene Wenger was full of talk about how this match was more significant than the impending domestic showdown with Man United. Bigger, yes. Harder, no, and hence a borderline complacent but ultimately justified team selection. With Fabregas already out, but a commanding lead from the first leg, Wenger saw fit to leave both Van Persie and Arshavin on the bench.
An early goal for celtic could have made this decision look foolish, but despite a more attacking line-up- McDonald and Fortune flanked by McGeady and Maloney- they were again toothless throughout.
The feeling I got was that what celtic needed was some of the undoubted steel they had in the recent past, especially under Martin O'Neill. They could play a bit, but their style was mostly somewhat agricultural, and this could upset teams in Europe who weren't used to push-and-rush football with added aerial bombardment. And even then, to describe that side in such terms is to do an injustice to the classy players they possessed. OK, that primarily means Henrik Larsson, but still... even the prosaic strengths of a Neil Lennon must set celtic fans yearning nostalgically when you consider their midfielders of today. What they have now, seemingly, is a team of inbetweeners with neither the tenacity nor the technique to trouble the elite.
Tony Mowbray is undertaking an admirable quest to get them playing the right way, but with the comparative lack of quality at the club, it's a long and difficult road ahead of him. No champions league revenue this year will worsen the struggle to attract the calibre of player we would have associated with celtic in the 90s and early part of this decade. As was the case with West Brom last season, a commitment to footballing aesthetics may win him some sympathy, but when it comes to the underdogs a win-at-all-costs attitude seems most effective in British football. This was proven again by the lack of threat celtic posed Arsenal. The only strong arm tactics employed by the Scots were the result of petualance, frustration or desperation rather than any pre-conceived plan to knock Arsenal out of their stride. In a battle of skill and cohesion over two legs, there could be only one winner. While you've got to admire Mowbray's idealism, it's the pragmatic underdogs who've most often troubled Wenger's Arsenal.
Most heartening on our side of it is the fact that Wenger seems to have regained some of the tactical bloodymindedness of old without compromising the flowing football. Arsenal, so far this season, are pressing high up the pitch, looking to win the ball early and it's paying handsome dividends. All of Wenger's succesful Arsenal sides have had a power in midfield that allowed them to do this. For all the talk of flowing football, our best teams were often as dangerous when YOU had the ball. How many goals came from a tackle followed by one or two forward passes and a finish? Quite a few.
After the sale of Vieira and the emergence of Fabregas as the main man, there was I think a conscious change in approach on Wenger's part. He covets the champions league of course but even in great years like 01/02 we had underachieved in it. I'll always remember that year, that we were absolutely flying in the league, but in amongst all the positive results, Deportivo came to Highbury, played us off the park and won 2-0. After that we lost to a poor Juve side and were out after that second group phase. While our mixture of power, pace and technique proved to be dominant that season in England, at times we were outplayed by European sides who knew how to keep the ball under pressure.
But with Fabregas becoming a central figure I think Wenger saw a chance to change tack a bit and build not only the team, but its overall style, around a central playmaker who could really dictate and dominate a game through, primarily, possession and mastery of the football. Vieira was, in Myles Palmer's words, a "warrior-technician", and embodied the type of stylish power-football that Wenger's early Arsenal teams played. But those sides never made much headway in Europe. Not to oversimplify, but it was only after Vieira left that Arsenal got past the Quarter Final stage, and it was the very next season, with Fabregas and Hleb, a new breed of Wenger player, at the heart of it. This emerging Arsenal style was less direct, more possession-orientated. Note also that while results have improved in Europe, we've most often fallen out of contention early in the league, where the more dynamic old Arsenal would be more suited to dealing with a lot of opponents.
The closest Wenger's got to striking a balance was 07/08. We came within a cunthair of winning the league, but injuries, bad luck and arguably a lack of big-game character proved costly, not only in the Premiership but in the champions league awell. Overall, though, we played some great stuff, and Flamini was vital to it. His partnership with Fabregas was perfectly complimentary, a huge improvement on Gilberto in two significant ways. Firstly, tempo- Flamini did things in a hurry on the ball, whereas with Gilberto and Fabregas in tandem, too many games the season before, particularly at home, had been played at a snail's pace that allowed a constant wall of ten or eleven in front of us to form and solidify. Secondly, the related point of winning the ball- whereas Gilberto, as his "invisible wall" nickname suggests, was most adept at nicking it and making interceptions in front of the back four, Flamini was a box-to-box terrier who got in opposition's faces as they so often did to us. In other words, a player like Flamini allowed Wenger to concoct a sort of fusion of early and latterday Wengerball philosophies, suggesting the possibility of simultaneous domestic and European success. While the masterful Fabregas had the ability to ensure midfield dominance of the ball, especially against less aggressive European sides, Flamini provided the steel and industry to supplement this, both upping the tempo of our passing and often winning the ball in areas that allowed Fabregas, Hleb and others the space in which to fully exploit the opposition.
The effectiveness of what I'm talking about was nowhere better exemplified than over the two legs of the tie against Milan. While it took a Fabregas potshot and a breakaway goal in the last ten minutes of the second leg to put the Gunners through, their dominance was complete over 180 minutes of football. Admittedly, Milan were having a poor time of it domestically, but the fact remains that they were European champions and had wonderful players at their disposal. Yet the way Flamini defused the threat of Kaka, and Fabregas prompted from midfield, was inspirational. A year earlier, Milan had destroyed Manchester United at the San Siro playing patient possession football that made a fatally passive United midfield look like schoolboys (that was probably the night Fergie decided to buy Owen Hargreaves). Yet here they were the ones who were outpassed. And it was the speed of Arsenal's passing that made the two games so thrilling despite the lack of goals until late on. I think that Flamini was the overriding factor in all this- in that glorious tie and in our sustained challenge over most of the season. He was, as far as I'm concerned, the most underappreciated Arsenal player that we've seen under Wenger, and the fans who dismiss him with that unimaginative "Flamoney" pun and say we don't miss him would do well to look at the shambles of last season and do some reflecting.
In any case, the optimism that 07/08 engendered was largely obliterated by the dual blows of the loss of Flamini and, ridiculously, Diarra, who should have been kept to replace the Flamster in the event of his departure. This was exacerbated by Wenger's infuriating refusal to replace in turn either of these players OR Gilberto who was also allowed leave. Anyone who went into last season expecting success needs their head examined. I don't care if we reach brilliance again, I'll never forgive Wenger for the way he allowed things to decay after a season that seemed to promise much. 08/09 was not even a transitional season. If 07/08 was a big step forward, this was a giant leap back. We lost the dynamism that Flamini and Lassana Diarra provided, and were left with unsuitable partners for Fabregas- Denilson, Diaby and the raw Song. For me, this ridiculous state of affairs was best summed up when Wenger lsot faith in these guys to the extent that he ended up playing Nasri in central midfield in the biggest game of the season, when United tonked us at the Emirates. What a shambles. If Villa had a bigger squad, I probably wouldn't be writing about a champions league qualifier right now.
But I am, and as mentioned, we've new cause for optimism. Hope is what being a football fan is all about, after all. While unwilling or unable to buy a player that could duplicate the impact of Flamini, or even one as physically imposing and technically adept as Vieira in his pomp (ok, not many of them actually exist), it's possible that this new 4-3-3 could be the solution. As I've mentioned before, two players alongside Fabregas in the central areas provides him with the support one feels he needs to play his best stuff. If neither Song nor, especially, Denilson have the game to do that alone, then playing them both seems a reasonable idea. In the games against Everton, celtic and Pompey we've played the high-tempo, pressing game that was conspicuous by its absence in the seasons either side of 07/08. As stated, I thought Flamini was vital to setting that tone before; he had the mobility and tenacity to negate the apparent weakness of not having a specialist holding midfielder. Now, the pressing is more of a collective thing that starts with the three man forward line but intensifies in the midfield axis of Fabregas, Denilson and Song. While I enjoy a bit of leisurely possession football as much as the next man, and it's amazing when it ends with a goal, as with Nasri's second against United in the league last season, there's probably nothing quite as thrilling as direct counter-attacking football. In 97/98, 01/02, 03/04, many a great move started with a tackle by Vieira around halfway and ended mere seconds later in the back of the net. The evidence so far this season suggests that Wenger's new 4-3-3 could see us replicate that explosive style of football, or at least fuse it with the pass-pass-pass style we've developed of late. Until chelsea decide to sell us Essien for 7 million, this may suffice. Man United at Old Trafford on Saturday will certainly tell us more.