The 2003-04 English Premier League season played host to a phenomenon only witnessed once before in English football – a team going unbeaten in the league for the entire season.
In the 1880s, this feat was first accomplished by Preston North End; in 2004, Arsenal scaled this mountain.
Since the miraculous 2003-04 season, apart from winning the FA Cup in 2005, Arsenal has continuously had to play second, third and even fourth fiddle to the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, and more recently, Manchester City.
Most Arsenal fans will undoubtedly argue that being in the top four, and hence qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, year-after-year is an achievement in itself.
In addition, the team has always finished above its arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur during this period. What more could a football fan ask for?
I am a staunch Arsenal supporter and am extremely grateful to current Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger for the many joyous moments he has brought to my life.
In addition, if it weren’t for his business acumen, my beloved club would almost certainly be in financial difficulties today.
Successfully negotiating through the construction and move into a fantastic new stadium would only have been possible with his patience and thoughtfulness.
However, as magnificent as the Emirates Stadium is, and as much as it has started paying back and increasing Arsenal’s transfer war-chest, it is not the fortress and trophy magnet Highbury was.
Part of the reason for this is that Wenger has seemingly lost his footballing brain. He has become too rigid and obstinate in his tactical and strategic decisions.
One of his tactical decisions – persisting with the much-preferred 4-4-3 formation over the last few years – has been a key pillar in Arsenal’s trophy-less era.
Now do not get me wrong, I fully understand that a formation is set based on the capabilities of individuals in a team. However, I also believe that individuals need to be accustomed to playing in different formations and different roles.
There was a time when the ‘utility man’ was a key player in every team. This player may have been ‘the jack of all trades and the master of none’, but he brought suppleness and dynamism to a team.
The modern day footballer is almost the complete opposite, specialising in a particular role and position. He becomes ineffective the moment he is asked to do something slightly different from the norm.
The problem with Arsenal hasn’t been a lack of utility men; it has been a lack of trying different formations. Understandably, the mark of a good team is consistency and hence, ‘default’ formations exist. However, naturally adapting to different formations at will is a mark of a great team. Arsenal has not been alone in forgetting how to do this.
The majority of football clubs today seem too entrenched in a particular formation, never daring to try something new. When such a philosophy becomes a routine, a team becomes the target of tactical battles.
They are easily sussed out, and hence begin drawing and losing to clubs you would not expect them to do so against. This has been the story of Arsenal’s last eight campaigns. But this is only half the story; the other half involves something experienced on a daily basis in any organisation – staff turnover.
Players will always come and go at a football club; the key is to retain the best mix of players at any one time.
The ‘Invincibles’ team of 2003-04 had this perfect mix – the dominance of Jens Lehmann in goal, the composure of Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell in defence, the reliability of Lauren and Ashley Cole at full-back, the strength of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva in midfield, the guile of Freddie Ljunberg and Robert Pires out wide, the class of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp up front, and the ability of all the fringe players to fill in whenever needed during the season.
This team was special; it was a once in a lifetime team.
Once this team started breaking up, Wenger was never able to replace it. The closer Wenger came to finding another perfect mix, one or more key players left, forcing the club to re-group and re-build.
Over the last few years, Arsenal have let too many key players leave too easily – Toure, William Gallas, Mathieu Flamini, Francesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie; the list is endless.
Whichever departure route was taken, Arsenal could and should have done a lot more to keep a hold of such top players. But the scariest thing is that Wenger has not taken necessary measures to replace quality for quality. He seems to be more engrossed in investing in a potential future star – potential and future, two words which do not even come close to challenging for trophies.
If in every transfer window Arsenal has the money to buy current players with a proven track record, which Wenger keeps reminding us of, why has he not done so? Or is it a case that such players no longer wish to play for a club like Arsenal?
I am a firm believer in protecting a club’s principles and so I would not wish Arsenal to go on a Manchester City-like gigantic spending spree and throw money at any Tom, Dick and Harry. All I want is for Wenger to show some ambition and jolt the club back into trophy contention positions, because at the moment, he and everyone at Arsenal seem to be satisfied and comfortable where they are.
They seem to have almost forgotten how to win trophies and the feelings they bring because I am sure those feelings greatly outweigh their current state of mind.
Arsenal fans have been greatly patient. They have stood by Wenger and his players time and time again.
I think it is time Wenger and his players reminded themselves of what it means to put on an Arsenal shirt and return the faith showed to them by their fans by delivering a strong season.
Let the talking and excuses stop; let the action and promises commence.
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