Arsenal's Arduous Road Ahead: From Henry and Bergkamp to Giroud and Walcott
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49 games played, 36 wins, 13 draws, no defeats.
Only in October 2004, 17 months after this staggering run of form began, did "The Invincibles" falter at Old Trafford and end a record-breaking unbeaten streak, outdoing Nottingham Forest’s effort in the late '70s by seven ties.
The Arsenal of Henry, Vieira, Bergkamp and Pires was a once-in-a-lifetime assembly of talent; since his arrival in 1996, this was the standard that Arsene Wenger had been building towards, his vision of perfect football and a talent for sourcing bright young players coalescing to give us what is regarded as arguably the greatest team to ever grace English football.
There is no questioning the impact that Arsene Wenger has had on the game—and post-match interviews—especially in England. His fluid plays were capable of being direct without resorting to speculative punts out to wingers glued to the corner flag, while his players were elegant and ruthless, terrorising defences with that je ne sais quoi of which only Henry and Bergkamp really know the secret.
After their unbeaten title-winning season of 2003-4, they clinched the FA Cup once more in 2005 before finishing fourth the following season. For the first time under Wenger, they landed outside the top two, and unfortunately for the Gooners, they have never looked back.
Now, halfway into the 2012-13 season and without a trophy for seven years, the infallibility of Arsenal seems to have completely evaporated and replaced with a sense of vulnerability.
The philosophy hasn’t changed; rather, it is the way in which it is being executed that is a cause for concern, and recently it has been very hit-and-miss.
Are Arsenal's troubles really just down to money?
The Invincibles could collect the ball on the edge of their 18-yard box, and excitement would reverberate around Highbury, as the fans knew they were more than likely going to be celebrating a goal from the impending counterattack.
Nowadays, Arsenal fans find themselves under great stress watching as Ramsey and Rosicky attempt to play their way up-field, usually resulting in their gifting the ball back to the opposition and finding themselves way out of position.
It is time to be blunt: Wenger is good manager, but he is hamstrung by a philosophy that is now outdated, and it isn’t his tactics. Simply, you cannot run a self-sufficient club and compete at the highest level in the current climate; the game has changed in the favour of the mega-rich, and will remain this way until UEFA or FIFA or some other body takes decisive action.
So, while "Le Professeur" may have an admirable business plan which keeps Stan Kroenke and Ivan Gazidis happy, the fans are left in the background taking flak from their comparatively spoilt Chelsea, City and United rivals.
The steady fashion in which their star players have been venturing elsewhere in recent years is alarming. The resurgence of Manchester City has lured four Arsenal first-team players to the northwest since 2009.
Add to that the recent losses of talismanic captain Robin van Persie and Alex Song to Manchester United and Barcelona respectively, and with Tottenham showing their intent to qualify for Champions League football, and the Gunners are in danger of being usurped, not just of their place challenging for the title, but also of a top-four position.
It can be argued that had they held on to Van Persie and Song, the arrivals of Podolski and Giroud would be enough to ensure an abundance of goals; the reality is quite different. The gulf between 2004 and the present is immense; if you compare the Arsenal first XIs for each season, none of the current players would get anywhere near The Invincibles’ starting line-up—even the lately prolific Van Persie would struggle to oust Henry and Bergkamp.
For Arsenal to get back to previous heights, Wenger must convince himself and the board that, at least for now, money must be spent.
It is not as if they don’t have it, but gone are the days when the fans could have optimism that some of the vast cash reserves in Arsenal Holdings plc would be spent bolstering the squad, rather than bolstering Kroenke’s holiday schedule.
The club hierarchy have made some utterances about their belief that Arsenal are financially stable enough to challenge sugar-daddy clubs such as City and Chelsea, but if that was the case, Giroud and Podolski would have been brought in to support Robin van Persie, rather than through using the funds generated from his sale.
There are glimmers of hope. Jack Wilshere has made startling progress in his return to form, essentially just picking up where he left off all those months ago, and has given the engine room some much-needed youthful energy and fresh ideas.
Granted, he and Santi Cazorla are not yet the match made in heaven that it was speculated they would be, but the forming of great partnerships takes time, and unfortunately are not susceptible to wishful thinking (see Rooney and Van Persie).
What Arsenal have in Wilshere is a great player, who will—bar a nightmarish scenario—go on to be one of the finest players England has produced. He is aggressive, has tricky feet, a powerful shot and vision to rival that of a young Paul Scholes.
And of course, there is the priceless advantage over other players whom Arsenal may covet that he is a life-long Arsenal fan who actually cares about the club.
Wenger knows this is a player who is destined for greatness, who should go on to forge a career laden with silverware; that is down to the manager. He can build a team around Wilshere that is cut out for supremacy, should he sign the right players for the right price.
If Wenger fails to persuade his superiors that spending is necessary, there will be many people connected with Arsenal who feel they have been done an injustice—none more so than Jack the Lad.
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