Arsene’s Arsenal, 20 Years Playing Football The Arsène Way
Posted by Featured Articles | Published on September 30, 2016
It has been twenty years playing football the Arsène way. Twenty years. The number is striking on its own, but in this context, twenty years the coach of an English Premier League club, twenty years the coach of any kind of professional team is all but unheard of, the boss of a top club in his sport for twenty years is by any other measure praiseworthy. Really think about it, Arsène Wenger has been the coach of The Arsenal for twenty years, only Sir Alex Ferguson having done it longer. That alone is noteworthy in any job, but a job like coaching a team in the top flight of English football for twenty years and not once finishing below fourth, managing with that kind of consistency for five or ten years is remarkable but for twenty and all the titles, trophies, and records amassed along the way is unquestionably a fantastic achievement, even though over the last decade Arsenal have not won the League. Six 4th place finishes, five 3rd, six 2nd, and 3 League wins; the last League win in the infamous season of unbeaten games in 2003/04. Half of Arsenal’s 12 FA Cup trophies have come under Arsène, he’s received countless awards and honors in and outside of football including an OBE.
There is also no doubt that this man changed the game. Modern attacking football, while being influenced by many footballing cultures, was turned into a practice by Arsène Wenger since joining Arsenal. What we see today at clubs around the world, be them Barcelona or Southampton, are playing the kind of football they do because on October 1st, 1996 a tall intelligent, soft-spoken Frenchman named Arsène showed up at Arsenal as the new coach. The rest is history.
There has been a great deal written about this man, and by people with actual access to him, but as the man himself likes to note, he can only be judged by the performance of his team, game by game, and season on season. After twenty tempestuous years, we can look back on what was or look at what is. While it is clearly too early to make predictions about league positions or trophies, it is just about far along enough in the football season to make a fair judgement of Arsène’s Arsenal this his twentieth season. Arsenal have played six games in the Premier League this season, one game in the League Cup, and two games in the Champions League, earning with a record of LDWWDWWWW. This makes eight games in a row undefeated across three competitions, four wins in a row across all three competitions, and four wins in a row in the Premier League; the last win a sumptuous thrashing of Chelsea 3 to nil, a feat Arsenal have not done since 2011. It wasn’t just beating Chelsea after five years and nine tries, but it was that Arsenal made Chelsea look poor. To be fair, at times they were poor, but all credit is due Arsenal for forcing them into that place. Arsenal played with more than that extra drive of the ‘team who wants it more’, they played as if the pieces many, I included, have felt were missing for years, were all of a sudden intact.
Sometimes that Arsenal showed up on the day or the half, but there was something still that felt off. It was not the team of the Invincibles, and we all knew it. I am not comparing this team to the Invincibles, for one thing, they lost the opening game, so not invincible, but frankly it does a disservice to both sets of players, each team has to be measured on its own merit and in the context of its own time and place. This Arsenal, The Arsenal of the 2016/17 season have grown since that 3 to 4 loss to Liverpool on opening day. The pit in my stomach from seeing us down 4 to 1 at one point is now all but forgotten, instead, when I look at this team I now see something unique, something special, something potentially worthy of twenty years.
For all of the grief Arsenal’s defence often gets, they more often than not have one of the stronger defensive records come to the end of the season. Last season Arsenal had the third best defense in the EPL, with the new defensive signings seeming to adapt nicely, especially the blooming center back partnership of Mustafi and Koscielny this trend should continue and improve. In their last two games over the last week, first the battering of Chelsea 3-0 and then a 2-0 home win against Basel, these two looked like they had played together for longer than weeks, much longer. I already knew how good Kos is with the ball at his feet, how he can take the ball cleanly and the player in a tackle, but seeing both him and Mustafi pair up and do it in tandem was defence poetry. I don’t remember a defensive partnership that kicked off so well so fast. It is areas of the game like this that we can cite the coach. It is his training techniques, his methods that have enabled the two players to draw from the same reservoir. This can fast track player relationships in the best of circumstances, and the hardest of circumstances being exactly center back pairings. Even in the deal for Mustafi, there was confusion about who actually represented him, but Arsenal found a way through in the end, and this choice is already paying dividends.
The one area that Arsenal had seemed to lose ground over the last few years was in their ability to play ‘the kind of football’ they like to play consistent enough and at times even it wasn’t enough. The sharp passing, quick accelerated and incisive attacks came in fits, but over the last few games this team has changed before my eyes. Their incisiveness almost an aura about them. In their eyes and across their faces is a calculated and thoughtful determination that has been missing. Not missing all the time, but not there enough of the time. Frankly, I am not assuming that this trend will continue, but I do see the team growing each game, the areas where weakness is shown they come back with strength. Even this early in the long season ahead it is a good sign. The consistency of quality from competition to competition is equally transformed. The last two games saw only two starters differ, one certainly influenced by Coquelin’s injury, but justified by Xhaka’s performance, and the other in goal when Ospina donned the gloves instead of Cech, something familiar for Arsenal. Xhaka also had to come on for Coquelin in the 32 minute against Chelsea, so other than the keeper every player had played at least 30 min against Chelsea before beating Basil days later. In the League Cup against Nottingham Forest, almost an entirely different eleven started that game defeating home side Forest 0 to 4, and the physical manifestation of Arsenal’s final puzzle piece in the debut of number 9 and new striker Lucas Pérez even scored a brace.
In the past even with all of the ball sometimes Arsenal’s attack would not surprise you, it was creative and fluid at times, but ultimately inflexible. That’s changed. As if out of irony Mesut Özil has more goals than assists and Theo Walcott has nearly as many blocks and tackles as he does goals and has more tackles than assists. Arsène said we would ‘see a new Walcott this season’, and we certainly have. Whatever ‘chat’ they had spurned Theo on in the exact way so many of his fans had been wanting, while we must give credit to Arsène for what was said and the chance given, we must also give credit to Walcott for seizing the chance. If he keeps playing like he is I will forgive him for not taking it sooner. His runs are as fast and out of nowhere as ever and his movement off the ball and direction of his runs has improved, as if he sees the pitch in a different way. Gone are the days where Arsène dare not play him on the flank for fear of his not tracking back, replaced is an eager defender and ardent presser of the opponent’s back line. Although it hadn’t worked well in the past for Arsenal, watching Alexis Sánchez play center forward for Chile it may have only been a matter of time before it worked for Arsenal. Against Chelsea and Basel, it was a singularly driven performance. Although Alexis stood out as an individual, it was what seemed like a newfound understanding and even comradery with his teammates that looked to drive him on, an assist that did not come off as upsetting to him as a missed goal, though I think in his case the assists he did make, which were things of beauty and determination, do not make up for missed goals. That is Alexis. For the entire team they play for each other and they play for the Arsenal.
It seems when Arsenal are playing well one man is no longer the only one in the center of it. Although he started in fits this season it is safe to say he is back, Mesut Özil’s deft artful movement once again the personification of football and philosophy may be best seen in his his turn against Chelsea’s Kante, that took the newly purchased defender out of the pitch as if Mesut was squeezing past someone on the train, only he was on the grass with the ball at his feet and made the run that set up Alexis to assist Mesut in scoring the third nail in Chelsea’s coffin that day. Arsenal also have newly promoted to the first team and future superstar Alex Iwobi who continues to show every game why the boss names him to the eleven. Playing for the club since he was a young boy Iwobi has grown into a humble weapon in midfield, not afraid to take the ball even in the tightest of places, he pays back this confidence with quality and thoughtful control and movement, as integral a cog in the Arsenal attack machine as anyone. While being a testament to his own attributes Iwobi is also a testament to a club like Arsenal where the coach was willing to give him the chance, where the coach saw enough in him to feel confident with the risk.
Arsenal football club is a different place now than it was twenty years ago, both literally and figuratively. The stadium move finally paid for and the club turning a nice profit, Arsenal sit pretty as an organization. If I want to judge Arsène Wenger on the team he has today and not on the records and statistics of his past, to judge him not for how he transformed Arsenal into the exciting and oft-breathtaking style of football they play, not for how he changed modern football, but as we can while in the midst of it, on the season of football at hand, then I must think the ink had better not be dry on his biography yet. It really looks like good things are coming to this Arsenal team. After the win against Chelsea Arsène said his team played with ‘Style and Steele’, now they just have to keep that up.