When a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough didn’t go down particularly well with the Highbury faithful, Arsene Wenger famously said:
If you eat caviar every day it’s difficult to return to sausages.
A fair point, really, and one which still applies. After that quote Wenger put together the team which created a domestic unbeaten record of 49 games, going through the entire 2003-2004 season without a defeat. There were a few scary moments along the way but they did what no team had done before and what no team has done since.
This wasn’t just caviar. This was foie gras, white truffles, saffron and caviar washed down with goblets of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945 and snifters of Macallan Fine Rare Vintage afterwards. This was a team of incredible talent, fired with ambition, desire and the confidence that winning runs bring about.
What’s also slightly taken for granted is the fact that at that time Arsenal had four of the very best players in the world in their team. Thierry Henry was not just incredible goalscorer, his eye for an assist was uncanny and he was unselfish enough to make it a big part of his game. Patrick Vieira was the finest central midfielder of his generation, Robert Pires a wonderfully gifted player with an amazing goalscoring record, and even though he was heading into the twilight of his career Dennis Bergkamp’s craft and vision linked the the midfield and attack with ruthless efficiency.
At that point you would certainly have chosen the first three in any World XI, Bergkamp would have probably made the bench. For a club like Arsenal, in a stadium which held only 38,000 and had no way of competing with the biggest clubs in Europe with regards wages or prestige, it was remarkable. Players brought to the club by Arsene Wenger (Bergkamp aside) and crafted into outstanding talents. The ‘world class’ label is thrown about far too easily these days but there’s no doubt about in this case.
The supporting cast wasn’t bad either, was it? Toure, Campbell, Lauren, Cole, Parlour, Edu, Keown, Gilberto, Ljungberg, Wiltord, Reyes, Kanu and even a bit of a young Cesc Fabregas thrown in.
It was almost a perfect team, the combination of pace and power, experience and youth, talent and ability, players who could change games in an instant, and they developed an aura which intimated other teams. Not just physically, even though this was an Arsenal team that could mix it with anyone, but in sheer footballing terms. The old saying about teams being beaten in the tunnel is a bit trite but they knew the game was probably up when Arsenal opened the scoring early in the game as they did so often. Even if you did score Arsenal would just score more.
The problem with football like that, however, is that at some point the veneer of invincibility will crack and so it was with Arsenal. It was absolutely normal, an inevitability of the cyclical nature of football. Arsene Wenger, knowing he was going to have to cope with the move to a new stadium began to let Invincibles go to make room for the next generation. Edu, Wiltord and Parlour, then Vieira, Pires the season Arsenal left Highbury, Thierry Henry to Barcelona, Bergkamp and Keown retired, Campbell lost the plot and had to go, Gilberto made way, Reyes Arsenal career ended badly, Cole’s acrimoniously.
Teams have to evolve as time passes, financial constraints and a plan to build a team which would grow up together meant that Arsenal had to devolve first. Certainly there are questions to be asked if it had to happen so quickly and even now you have to wonder why Arsene Wenger didn’t do something as simple as buy a goalkeeper this summer. Yet what team could have survived the loss of four of the best players in the world in such a short space of time? What team could have survived so many important, experienced and quality players leaving so close together?
So you have those player departures, the move to a new stadium which was hampered by the fact that the property side of things, which was supposed to be a real cash cow, suffered due the worldwide economic downturn, along with some curious decision making from Arsene Wenger and it’s no wonder Arsenal have struggled to regain the Premier League crown.
Yet perhaps overlooked is the fact that Arsenal mounted a reasonable challenge in 2007-8 until injury and incident saw them fade, there was the first Champions League final in 2006 which they came within 14 minutes of winning having played since the 19th minute with 10 men, a Carling Cup final and a challenge of sorts last season even though Arsenal were very much hanging on with their fingernails most of the way there. The fact remains they were within 3 points of the eventual champions with 5 games to go.
I just wonder if the Invincibles have set the bar so high that Arsenal fans, of which I am one, find it hard to appreciate what they do have. They were so, so good that everything else since doesn’t feel like enough. Every failure is exacerbated and all the more painful because the memory of the Invincibles is still so fresh. That team would never have thrown away the league winning position the team of 2007-8 did, for example.
Yet Arsenal have gone through enormous changes and managed to stay more or less constant. Champions League qualification every year isn’t easy. You just need to look at Liverpool, finishing 7th a season after their strongest title challenge in years, to see how easily and quickly things can change. And they went through nothing like the changes Arsenal did.
I’m not trying to make excuses for Arsene Wenger. I think he’s made some odd choices, some wrong choices, and continues to do so. He is, at times, a very frustrating man, but nobody said he should be perfect. At the same time he has been working since 2006 with a net profit in the transfer market. That might be one of his odd choices when we’ve heard so often there’s money there but to keep Arsenal in the top four with the radical squad changes and basically spending no money at all is, when you think about it, a bit good.
It might not be good enough, at the end of the day all fans want their team to win trophies, but you just can’t help feeling the spectre of the Invincibles looms over everything he does. Arsenal fans were lucky to see an almost perfect team, lucky that four of the greatest players in the club’s history came together at the one time to blend with the other players at the club to form that winning group. but it’s unfair to judge teams that have come since against them.
There isn’t another Thierry Henry, there’s no new Pires, Vieira in his pomp was a once in a lifetime player and Bergkamp was truly special. The next generation have got a big fight on their hands to bring the success to Arsenal that those that came before did.
Perhaps the same manager who sculpted the crack-like Invincibles might just be capable of turning his next team into crystal meth. In a good way though.