Tuesday, August 13, 2013

From Invincibles to also-rans: Wenger & Arsenal face defining campaign

It is 10 years since that unbeaten side began their 38-game journey towards immortality, nearly a decade on the landscape has changed and the Frenchman must show he can keep up

Every side starts a new season with a zero in the losses column but in the modern era only one has emerged unscathed and unbeaten after 38 games. It is hard to believe 10 years have passed since Arsenal’s Invincibles began their voyage towards immortality. The best team of the Premier League era, perhaps, are not forgotten, but very much gone.

A record that reads 26 wins, 12 draws and no losses over 38 league games is etched into the minds of every Arsenal supporter. Nine seasons on, and those 38 games were spread out between 21 wins, 10 draws and 7 losses.

Nearly a decade on from his finest achievement Arsene Wenger is surveying a very different landscape. It has been just over 3000 days since he last won a trophy – a slight contrast to having picked up three league titles and

four FA Cups, including two doubles, within seven years of each other.

Wenger’s contract expires at the end of the season. It is not just for this reason alone, though, that one can envisage the Frenchman without a place in the Arsenal dugout come next summer. This new campaign has a distinct watershed feeling to it. Wenger needs to get things right.

Things looked promising at the summer’s outset with the promise of star quality whetting the appetite of supporters who had longed for a loosening of the purse strings. Arsenal were, and still are, interested in Luis Suarez and Wayne Rooney, while terms had been agreed with Gonzalo Higuain.

Wenger had a £70 million “warchest” to spend. But with the transfer clock now starting to tick down, Yaya Sanogo, a free transfer from Ligue 2, is the Gunners’ only confirmed signing. Unrest has risen to something nearing a crescendo again.

That dissatisfaction has been boiling away, occasionally rising to the surface, for years before being cooled and soothed by regular Champions League qualification.

The first rumblings of discontent emerged during the 2005-06 campaign. Arsenal’s remarkable run to the Champions League final disguised what was a very poor season for the Gunners. The end of the beginning for Wenger? Or perhaps just the beginning of the end?

Arsenal finished 24 points off champions Chlesea and only scraped fourth place ahead of rivals Tottenham on the final day of the season. A freakish sign of things to come, indeed.

The ‘Invincibles’ had faded. And so too had their old home Highbury. Arsenal’s ultra-modern new residence was the envy of most but it came at a considerable cost. Even a man of Wenger’s considerable talent spotting ability could not unearth diamonds at a rate that would be able to keep his club competitive, not while Chelsea continued to spend and Manchester City joined the elite in the blink of a sheikh’s eye.

The talents of Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri were no longer seen as components of potential title-winning sides, but assets that could help pay off Arsenal’s considerable debts.

As former Arsenal midfielder John Hollins attested, Arsenal not only lost talent and technique, they lost the hunger, desire and will to win. The Invincibles may have been easy on the eye, but that silken touch was match by a ferocious desire, one which often pushed the boundaries of what is legal, to win.

He told Goal: “The Invincibles were so good because they didn’t just have talent, just as importantly they had the experience to deliver results even when the team wasn’t at its best. Many of those players were soon getting old and Arsene is one who will rather sell a player before they are past their peak rather than deny a young player his head.

“For instance, players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Fredrik Ljunberg were allowed to go within a couple of years of the Invincibles."

It hurt those who pay the most expensive ticket prices in the country to watch a sub-standard team struggling just to tread water, while those players they once cherished collected trophy after trophy elsewhere.

Those inside the club remained calm, however. The miracle Wenger was performing in ensuring Arsenal were still dining at the top table, if not heading it, meant the coffers continued to swell and the promise of brighter times lingered tantislisingly on the horizon.

 That time is now, yet Arsenal have remained staggeringly inactive in the transfer market.

With Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea all going through something of a transitional phase this summer, bringing in new managers, Arsenal, off the back of a strong finish to last season, had a chance to close the gap.

Things were finally going to be different. Higuain, however, was snared by Napoli as Wenger and Arsenal dawdled, Suarez remains a Liverpool player, while Chelsea lead the race for Rooney.
There is still time, but if Wenger does not change his approach all Arsenal fans will continue to cherish the memory of the Invincibles rather than retain hope that their modern counterparts can emulate their achievements.