Thursday, November 25, 2010

97/98: The Revolution Wasn't All Televised

Arsenal 4-0 Everton, 3/5/1998

Most people remember.... "Tony Adams put through by Steve Bould would you BELIEVE it..... THAT sums it ALL up".

The tastiest ever cherry on the icing of a cake.

But the big turning point that season came about halfway through, and behind the scenes.

Arsenal had just been turned over by Roy Hodgson's Blackburn at Highbury, 3-1 after leading. After a promising start, the season looked in turmoil- defeats to Derby, Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool having punctured early optimism. Tony Adams, much like the current captain, was dogged by injury. And just like now, an overexposed defence was struggling to keep a hold on opposition attacks.

The team held a meeting to air some views on the mini-crisis. It was agreed that the aging legs of Dixon, Bould, Keown, Adams and Winterburn needed more protection, and the pairing of Vieira and Petit were tasked with adapting their respective games to suit that. Ahead of them, Arsenal had raw pace in the shape of Overmars and Anelka, genius in the shape of Dennis Bergkamp, dynamism and graft in the shape of the fast-improving Ray Parlour. The 'kick up the arse' that the two Frenchmen received worked a treat, and by the time Arsenal suffered their next league defeat, they'd already been crowned Champions- Wenger the first continental coach to win the Premiership.

Adams had been sent to France to recuperate, and came back energised. He and his old cronies forged a newly formidable rearguard and a run of 1-0 wins, including a memorable one at Old Trafford, was the catalyst for the title victory.

This illustrates the fact that Wenger did not revolutionise Arsenal alone. He has always been a fairly autonomous figure at Arsenal- that's surely why he has stayed so long having received many tempting offers- but from 1997 until around 2004, there were plenty more very influential figures at the club who had been around longer than the manager had. You can ask the question, could Wenger have assembled a defence as good as the one he inherited, and the evidence we've seen since suggests that the answer is no. Of course, he deserves credit too for helping change the lifestyles of Adams and co. and adding longevity to their careers.

And, to be fair, when most of the old guard had stepped aside, he was able to piece together a new, almost equally formidable unit, comprising an ex-midfielder (Lauren), an ex-Spur (Campbell), an unheralded Ivorian, who'd also played midfield (Toure), and of course the young Ashley Cole. It seemed at that time that Wenger could put a decent defence together.

But Arsenal have never been as solid since. And crucially, there seems little chance of a clear-the-air meeting to match the one that turned the season in 97/98. The big characters just don't seem to be there anymore. There are no battle-hardened, decorated soldiers, only a bunch of fragile nearly men. Even Fabregas only has one fortuitous FA Cup medal to his name.

Surely Wenger's autocratic ways have become a problem. Nobody on the pitch has the experience or the influence to challenge him and it seems to be a similar story off the field. Interestingly, when Arsenal set a record for minutes without conceding in the Champions League of 05/06, Martin Keown was a temporary part of the coaching staff. This was a defence that had a right-footed midfielder, in Flamini, playing left-back, an excitable clown, in Eboue, opposite him, and Big Philly Senderos, who's been useless ever since, partnering Kolo Toure in the middle. Surely that goes to show that organisation is more than half the battle. As individuals, you'd take Sagna over Eboue, Vermaelen over Senderos, Clichy over Flamini (well, at left back anyway...), but the defence of four years ago was, as a unit, much better than the one we see today.

Wenger's disregard for defence means that someone else needs to help hold things together. There is now a culture at the club of half-assed, clownish defending and the concession of soft goals is as much a trademark of Arsene FC as the beautiful football that is sporadically on show. Arsenal need another link to the solidity of the past but Wenger's tunnel vision won't allow for any perceived challenge to his flawed idealism.

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