A few years back, when Arsenal came unstuck firstly at Bolton in the league and then Stoke in the FA Cup, Arsene Wenger sounded off in the media about rival teams’ willingness to use defensive toughness and physical menace to defeat his group of footballing artists. It would be fair to say that Wenger regarded the likes of Pulis’s Stoke and in particular – Allardyce’s Bolton – as purveyors of anti football. When the Gunners suffered a defeat on the road at some hostile Northern outpost, the Frenchman virtually cried “foul,” suggesting that Arsenal’s opposition had practically defaced an expensive piece of fine art by daring to defeat his team, which was clearly at odds with his own singular vision of how the game should be played.
Since March 2013 however, when the Gunners embarked on their long unbeaten run away from home, Arsenal have not been afraid to “mix it” when the going has got tough (as much as you can “mix it” in the modern game anyway) and during a period of sustained Norwich pressure on Saturday, the Gunners’ defence was happy to play percentage football and simply bang the ball clear of danger. When tougher matches against the likes of United and Liverpool come along in a fortnight or so, we’ll see just how robust the Arsenal defence is against top performers like Suarez and Robin Van Persie, but there are clear signs at least that a corner has been turned.
For several seasons, it seemed that Arsenal believed that any kind of physical battle was somehow beneath them. It was entirely the wrong kind of arrogance. There has always been a certain brittleness running through Arsene Wenger’s teams. Even in the glory years of the late 90s and early noughties, Arsenal sides would often get railed when the opposition put it “up them.” A prime example of this came at the Reebock in April 2003, when Arsenal blew a seemingly impregnable 2-0 lead. Bolton’s strong armed approach saw Freddie Ljungberg stretchered off, and several other members of the team morph into the walking wounded. The match proved to be turning point in the title race, as Manchester United ground down Arsenal’s lead in the Premiership to end the season as champions. A year later in the FA Cup Semi Final at Villa Park, with the Gunners still in line for the Double, it was fairly obvious that Alex Ferguson had instructed his midfielders to target Jose Antonio Reyes – deemed to be the weak physical link in the Arsenal side. Some rough treatment from Paul Scholes in particular saw the Spaniard stretchered off, and Arsenal lost 1-0 against their great rivals. Afterwards, Wenger ranted and raved about the lack of protection afforded to Reyes from the referee, and there were several grains of truth in what the Frenchman said, but it was an arrogant type of message to send out to his team. In effect, he was saying that despite tough characters like Campbell, Vieira and Gilberto in the side, his Arsenal team were “too good” for a scrap. That view permeated through his sides in the years that followed.
As the Invincibles broke up, the team became physically more fragile. By 2008, the team was on average, 3 inches shorter than the 2004 title winning team, and considerably lighter on the weighing scales. Wenger’s mood on the touchline became darker. Gone was the cool and collected presence we’d known from his early days at the club. On a regular basis, he’d now rant, rave and scream every time a challenge didn’t go his team’s way, and his media interviews were peppered with comments about how his team had been “targeted” by the opposition, and how only his charges had attempted to play football. It was the wrong kind of arrogance. The truth was that his personnel simply wasn’t strong enough, either mentally or physically, and Arsenal became regarded as a soft touch; regularly bullied out of games by the likes of Drogba and Scholes. When the going got tough, Arsenal went into hiding.
Hopefully those days are over. There appears to be a new realism about the football played by Arsenal, thanks in no small part to Steve Bould’s influence. The “Flamini effect” certainly seems to have cemented the players’ mindset that harrying and hassling the opposition is part and parcel of the game. What’s been equally pleasing about the start of the new campaign is how Arsenal have rediscovered their attacking mojo. The right kind of arrogance is back.
With good reason, Henry, Bergkamp, Pires et al had a great deal of self regard for their attacking prowess, and now with Mezut Ozil in the team (he described some of the football played on Saturday as being “like Playstation football”), the Gunners play up front is a joy to behold. Of course, Arsenal have been pleasing on the eye even throughout their trophyless seasons, but frustrating in equal measure due to their inability to kill off chances, and matches. Now, with goals flooding in from the team’s array of playmakers and midfielders, they certainly appear to have re-acquired a killer instinct, but as pessimists point out, Arsenal’s only top quality (ahem) league opposition so far has been Tottenham.
The true test of Arsenal’s new found form is yet to come. In several recent seasons, the Gunners have begun the campaign well, only to peter out in November. Wenger’s successful Arsenal sides prevailed against the very best through both their coruscating attacking, and ability and willingness to scrap for victory when they needed to.
Let’s hope that the superlative form of recent weeks isn’t simply an illusion, and that the defensive solidarity, and super charged attacking play with Ozil at the centre of things continues as Dortmund, Liverpool and United hove into view. Intricate passing triangles and fancy flicks won’t be sufficient factors on their own to win the league, but they nonetheless represent the right of kind of arrogance which the club needs in order to be successful this season.