While poor Arsene Wenger has become a kind of Aunt Sally, constantly criticised and deluged with advice by the tribunes of the press, not to mention the disenchanted supporters, it is interesting to go back to a somewhat ancient piece of Arsenal history.
Herbert Chapman, as we know, was the revered founder of the Gunners’ success, taking them over in 1925 when they had narrowly escaped from relegation, leaving them after his sadly premature death in March 1934 as a tremendous power in the land, a team full of stars, League Champions on the way to another title.
But it is told that on his death bed – though, given the sad circumstances of his demise from pneumonia, probably somewhere less dramatic, he declared to his imminent successor, “The team’s played out, Mr Allison. We have to rebuild.”
George Allison, then vice chairman, an accomplished journalist and an Arsenal fan since before the Great War, when he used to cover them out at then inaccessible Plumstead, was no Chapman, in terms of any deep knowledge of the game. But rebuild in double quick time the Gunners did, winning not just the Championship in 1934 but making it three in a row in season 1934/5.
Since Allison was in charge and had the final decision on transfers, one had surely to give him credit for the successful acquisitions the club made in the 1934 close season. From Southampton came the muscular centre forward Ted Drake – a position which Chapman had been trying endlessly to fill during his administration – with enormous success. Forty two League goals in forty one games.
That elegant right half and future manager Jack Crayston arrived from Bradford Park Avenue. Tough wing half of contrasting qualities, Wilf Copping, came from Leeds. Three players of huge influence and ability. So whether you are Chapman, who was in charge at Highbury less than nine years, or Arsene Wenger, who has reigned at Arsenal for a remarkable fifteen, there are times when teams have to be rebuilt and renewed. Something which Alex Ferguson, the most enduring manager of them all, has achieved with such phenomenal success for so very long.
Beaten by Liverpool at the Emirates, surely in mitigating circumstances, the Gunners were then faced with the formidable task of surviving at Udinese after a scarcely deserved 1-0 first leg home victory.
Wenger has been assailed from all sides on the urgency of spending money on new players; yet how much has his and his club’s predicament been the outcome of sheer bad luck? Not least the loss of Cesc Fabregas, whose swift emergence as the midfield successor to Patrick Vieira whom he would wholly over play in an ensuing European Cup match, was a palpable tribute to Wenger, whose confidence in the much younger, much smaller player has been so abundantly rewarded. But Fabregas has been implacably determined to return to Barcelona; the club whence Arsenal spirited away as a 15-year-old.
One remembers standing on the pitch at Barnet one August afternoon, when the Gunners had played their usual pre-season friendly against the Hertfordshire team. Asked who could possibly succeed Vieira, who had just left, Wenger, with what seemed then excessive optimism said that one never knew what players come through. And the one who came triumphantly through was Fabregas. Who has irreplaceably gone.
Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey remain, two youngsters of outstanding merit. But Arsenal had to begin this season without the priceless creative abilities of the injured Wilshere in midfield. Ramsey of course shows brio, intelligence and confidence; but Arsenal had to do without him for much of a year after that appalling tackle, if you can call it that, by Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross. Who, judging by what we saw of him and two notable late fouls when Stoke played Chelsea this season, remains a defender to be feared, however much admired by Tony Pulis, his own manager.
As for calamitous injuries, Thomas Vermaelen, who showed against Liverpool what a bulwark he can be at centre back, injury put him out for almost the whole of last season. Which had barely begun when another irreplaceable player, the Dutch striker, Robin Van Persie, was crocked, playing in a friendly for Holland against Italy – he exonerated his opponent – which meant Wenger had to do without him too for many weeks.
Injuries, of course, are an inevitable feature of soccer, but the Gunners of late have surely had more than their fair share, Fabregas himself being subject to absence through hamstring injury, last season.
In the recent match against Liverpool Arsenal were without their quick and expensive winger Gervinho, properly expelled for striking the provocative Barton, who should certainly have gone as well, had there been a more efficient referee, one who chose not to turn away from the scene prematurely. No excuses for Gervinho, but first, he almost certainly deserved a penalty.
Secondly Barton, who dragged him up from the ground, was wrongly convinced Gervinho had dived and, even if he did, had no business in laying hands on him. Had the referee only been on the scene to witness that, who knows; though he plainly wouldn’t have given the penalty he might have expelled Barton and thus not been obliged to punish Gervinho.
In that same Liverpool game, Arsenal were materially weakened by the send off – fully merited – of the impetuous, 19-year-old Emmanuel Frimpong, who had previously shown drive and versatility, while the loss of the injured Squillaci, though he is hardly a convincing centre back, meant the premature blooding of the 18-year-old Miquel, who had the misfortune of driving the ball against hapless Ramsey, when it rebounded into the net.
There was, besides, a hint of offside about both the Liverpool goals, though the daft new gloss on the offside law arguably meant that on the second, a seemingly offside player wasn’t in fact offside: because he wasn’t interfering with the play!
Absent from that Arsenal team, too, was Alexandre Song, who deserved far more than Gervinho to be sent off at Newcastle by the unobservant referee for his stamp on Barton, though he was properly punished afterwards. Fair enough; but without him, Arsenal’s midfield against Liverpool was further deprived.
And then there is Nasri, who loyally turned out and distinguished himself against Liverpool in the midst of his imminent transfer to Manchester City. Plainly, Wenger would have dearly liked to keep him. Indeed, there was a bitter sweet irony about his fine display against Liverpool. But there was just one year left on his contract, after which the Gunners, so to speak, would have been Bosmaned.
He’d have gone for nothing. Chief shareholder Kroenke may have put his foot down over that, which would have made economic and financial sense, but gravely deprived the team of a key element.
No, I don’t for a moment think that Wenger should go, Job like figure though, alas, he now cuts. If Arsenal could only return to being Lucky Arsenal as they were long nicknamed between the wars, things could surely get better.