As a Liverpool fan watching Arsenal choking at the end of the season, I can't help thinking that Arsene Wenger could cure his club's ills by taking a leaf out of Kenny Dalglish's book.
By now we are all, no doubt, well versed in Hugh Everett’s ‘many worlds-interpretation of quantum physics’. You know, the theory of quantum mechanics that asserts the objective reality of the universal wave function, but denies the actuality of wave function collapse, which implies that all possible alternative histories and futures are real – and each represents an actual ‘world’ (or ‘universe’), parallel to and yet out of reach of our own. In one of this infinity of parallel worlds, on some nightmarish alternate planet Earth, I suspect I may just be an Arsenal fan.
In this particular reality I wasn’t kicking a ball in a desultory fashion in my parents’ long narrow suburban garden on a hot Saturday in May 1974. I didn’t hear the ecstatic eruption from next door that cut through the still heat of the day. I didn’t run round to see what all the fuss was with our neighbours from Merseyside. I didn’t join them to watch Kevin Keegan and Steve Heighway as they stripped Newcastle United naked, to paraphrase a suitably awed David Coleman, and Shankly conducted. I didn’t fall in love.
Instead, I imagine, I fell inexorably and obediently (as one should) into the orbit of a more ‘local’ side, or at least a London side – the team from Highbury. And no bad thing that might have been, for much there was much to admire in the club housed in Art Deco splendour on the northern reach of the Piccadilly Line. Boring, boring Arsenal, indeed, but resolute, obdurate and proud they were. More often than not, it was one-nil to them and another two points in the bag. With a strong and loyal following among the Irish Catholic population of North London, it would have made sense had my head been turned in their direction. The trophy-room cabinets hardly groaned under the strain, of course, as they did in L4, but that began to change when ‘Gorgeous’ George Graham strolled into the Highbury’s marbled halls. So at least, on the evening of Friday 26th of May 1989, I’d have shed tears of joy rather than weep shamelessly in desperate disbelief as Michael Thomas burst through at the death and then waited and waited before placing the ball calmly beyond Grobbelaar, thus writing for himself perhaps the most fabled chapter in the Gunner’s folklore.
The Beau Brummell of Bargeddie gave way in time to Bruce Rioch, who in turn wasted no time at all in giving way to one Arsene Wenger, who then set about designing and building a brave new Arsenal of his very own upon the solid foundations of the old. This new order beguiled and bedazzled, taking a hat trick of titles and, for one famous season, even refused to lose. So not too much to complain about for my hypothetical self, then…
Except that, back here on Earth One, the absolute highlight of a season that for so long looked as if there wouldn’t be a highlight, came on Sunday 17th May 2011 when King Kenny dismissed Wenger with all that was left to say - “p**s off.” It seemed that Wenger had prompted that brief contretemps, although we don’t know what it was he said. For a moment, in response, it seemed Dalglish sought perhaps to reach out and share a moment between rivals who thought they’d seen it all before, only for Wenger to revert to recent type and blame the world. The Liverpool boss reacted appropriately, and industrially dismissed his counterpart on the touchline.
Perhaps he feels that the title ought to be awarded at season’s end to the team who, in the opinion of an esteemed panel of judges, played the best football.
Arsene was to complain later in the week to the media that “Our job is to talk a is little, do a lot. Your job is to talk a lot.” Dalglish clearly knows that already. And the press certainly have talked a lot this season when it comes to Arsenal, as Arsenal have given them every reason to do so – time and again surrendering a lead, often a commanding one, and turning winning positions into dead ends. The fact is the media have now virtually milked the Arsenal conundrum dry, and it’s tempting to imagine that Dalglish has had the last word.
In the interests of fairness, and in deference to my numerous friends who quite reasonably remain acolytes of Arsene, the plea of financial prudence can of course be invoked. He hasn’t spent big, and it seems he may have operated under constraints put in place by his employers over the last five years. Stability and sustainability have been of paramount importance and Wenger is to be congratulated, given that very sustainability is maintained at football’s top table. And yet the natives grow restless – after all they’re fans, not customers, and whilst they will, in large part, applaud the good sense of the club’s board, there’s no doubt they’d rather be toasting a title. As for the much-vaunted model finances, the more curious among them may yet begin to wonder out loud as to how generously their directors reward themselves while the squad soldiers on without the investment needed in only a few key areas. For as close as they are in real terms, it seems there is a gulf to cross yet before they are ready to take the final step once more.
From the outside looking in, it appears that for the faithful, the frustration must be that it remains in Wenger’s power to carry out the final necessary enhancements. And yet he declines to do so – captive, it seems, to a football philosophy that once garnered nothing but praise but now threatens to overshadow all his many and varied achievements. The real irony is that he needn’t look elsewhere or even as far back as the golden Graham era to see how he might stiffen the resolve of a playing side that still looks somehow fledgling – he need only remind himself of his own achievements before his side settled in at the Emirates. The Invincibles of 2004 served up fanciful fare, but earned the right to do so. It was a side that brimmed with pace, technique and imagination but these qualities were imposed on the opposition through players of immense physical presence, blessed with the power and strength which are now prerequisite for Premiership success. Vieira and Campbell dominated in their respective roles, and have yet to be adequately replaced. And speaking of inadequate replacements, Henry casts the most imposing shadow of all. Even without the purse strings cut, imaginative short-term signings could tip the balance Arsenal’s way – a player such as Van Bommel might have provided sorely needed bite (not to mention bark) in a team that visibly lacks leaders.
Admirably, though, they stick to their guns, as Gunners must. But, unfair though it seems, a whiff of delusion is in the air, a simple refusal at management level to acknowledge some brutal truths. Yes, Liverpool defended, defended, defended, as Wenger was quick to point out. They did so superbly, with a unity of purpose and a resilient spirit that Arsenal can only learn from. They would not yield, like Wenger’s own Invincibles of yore, and Graham’s young lions before them. For Wenger to discount these qualities as if they were in some way ‘anti-football’ is not only churlish on his part, it is does a disservice to his clubs own rich history - reaching back as far as Herbert Chapman’s sides in the thirties.
It was learnt some years back that you can indeed win something with kids, but the point was you couldn’t win something with kids alone.
Perhaps he feels that the title ought to be awarded at season’s end to the team who, in the opinion of an esteemed panel of judges, played the best football. Or perhaps the laws of the game itself should be reconfigured in order to better converge with Wenger’s philosophy? Perhaps it should be scored along the lines of synchronised swimming, with points awarded for artistic merit?
The patient is suffering from a severe case of philosophical and tactical intransigence, and a swiftly administered shot of pragmatism is what the doctor calls for. Arsene, of course, cannot hear him. His policy on squad building seems as inflexible as his tactical outlook. It was learnt some years back that you can indeed win something with kids, but the point was you couldn’t win something with kids alone. Bringing through and developing young talent is key to on-field success and key to the business model too, but the idea that you can develop a title-winning squad of twenty-odd players from youth teams alone is clearly ludicrous. Liverpool’s new policy under John w. Henry’s FSG may soon be the envy of Wenger’s employers, as they seek to develop as much home-grown talent as humanly possible and then allying it to top signings where and when needed. It’s a policy that reflects the eternal reality in football – to win big you have to speculate accordingly. It was ever thus.
Tactically, pragmatism and flexibility are virtues similarly unacknowledged on the touchline at the Emirates these days. For all the pace and technique, for all the positive endeavour, there simply is no plan B – because the need for one is simply not recognised. Instead, the play continues in the same (admittedly thrilling) vein, as if with it comes the entitlement to win. It’s hard to imagine that an Arsenal side able to call on Andy Carroll, or a similar type of player, would not have profited had they done so. Meanwhile their recent opponents will only prosper from the alternative routes he’ll bring to them…
As Steve Nicol put it when reflecting on that cataclysmic loss to Arsenal’s champions of ’89, “Now I’m a coach I try to explain to players that sometimes things just happen in life and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t put your finger on why they happen. They just do.” It’s a an almost unpalatable line of thought in an era in which any and every event on the field is scrutinised and picked apart until we’re all convinced it must have happened for a reason. Yet there may be a lesson in there for the beleaguered Wenger – s**t happens, and when it does, deal with it. All managers know this, but few better than Dalglish, and for this I can only be grateful…
Just as well I went next door in 1974.
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