You should switch loyalties to Arsenal,” my colleague said, looking at the Manchester United fixture list on my desk. “They play such beautiful football. So pleasing to watch.” He added gratuitously, they would not have been so outplayed by Barcelona (in this year’s UEFA Champions League final in May).
I’m not so sure about the first and last bits, but the essence of what he said is true: Outside of Barcelona, it is Arsenal who last season played the prettiest football, wove the most intricate patterns and most awed the neutrals (and sometimes opposing fans too). In Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri they had a youthful, dynamic and sparkling midfield pairing—second perhaps only to Xavier Hernandez and Andres Iniesta of Barcelona. In Jack Wilshere, they had a still-rough diamond oozing with potential. Some of their play was almost unbelievable; ask Chelsea, Newcastle, Braga and Blackpool. Ask Barcelona, who suffered one of their rare defeats of the season—2-1—in the Champions League round of 16. It was often the stuff of dreams.
Now that dream is in grave danger of collapsing. Gael Clichy has already left the club; one of Fabregas and Nasri, possibly both, will follow him out of North London. If either stays behind, it won’t be for long. Who knows how long Robin van Persie will be around? If they all go, what is left of brilliant, bewitching Arsenal?
Does Arsene know? If Arsenal continue to lose players, Wenger may not be able to keep the magic alive. Julian Finney/Getty Images
As one friend said mournfully a couple of weeks ago, after Roger Federer’s latest Grand Slam defeat, with him goes the graceful one-handed backhand. Should Arsenal, for whatever reason, abandon their, well, sense of abandon, we will be left with the merely adventurous, the attacking, the swift and the strong.
For the past decade and a half, the Arsenal faithful have lived by a two-word motto: Arsene Knows. It is a simple, blind faith that transcends anything—even Alex Ferguson has inspired among Manchester United fans a reposing of trust and hope, secure in the knowledge that that wise, wizened old Gandalf would nurture that sentiment and bring it to fruition. For almost a decade, Arsene Wenger did just that—sprinkling stardust on cold grey nights, setting up a rainbow in summer sunshine through the sheer effervescence of his teams. It was essentially a simple game plan: Patrick Vieira kept guard, Dennis Bergkamp picked the locks and let Thierry Henry through. While Ferguson built his teams on a mixture of cash and kids, Wenger—working on a relatively shoestring budget, and miserly by nature—made do with his nose for picking the best bargains who could fit into his philosophy. Wenger won three league titles with that team and, in 2004, his Invincibles went a whole season unbeaten.
It was pretty; now it seems pretty pointless. Since 2005, when Arsenal won the FA Cup, they have not won a single trophy. That’s six seasons without any silverware; even Gandalf couldn’t have seen that coming. Yet Wenger persevered, tinkering with his magic formulae, assembling his crown made from the rough diamonds found after scouring the bargain basements of Europe and Africa. The magic weakened, but when the light shone on them, the brilliance dazzled; they could still tear apart teams with their speed, skill and, above all, their sheer joy of playing. When they won, they won big; too often, though, they lost. They lost points, they lost their self-belief and they lost their joy.
Wenger’s main problem is a blind spot the size of the Emirates Stadium that blocks out his managerial errors—not investing in a top goalkeeper, a defensive leader or an imposing centre forward who can attack the goal directly, and refusing to play ugly at the cost of winning. Where Arsenal fundamentally differ from Barcelona is their lack of that steel backbone, the equivalent of Barca’s Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique; they have not replaced Vieira, just as Real Madrid have not won the Champions League since sacrificing Claude Makelele for the Galacticos back in 2003.
It took Paul Scholes—a man who has seen, from the opposite side, the best and worst of Arsenal all through the Wenger era—to put it in sharp perspective. “They just flatter to deceive,” he said last week in a rare interview. “They may play the prettiest football, but it doesn’t always produce the results they need. They do play the best football to watch at times, but what is the point if you are not winning anything?”
Only Arsene knows. The point of sport is no longer to merely compete, however artistically. On the one hand, you have to please the paying public, the 60,000 who turn up every other weekend paying among the highest ticket prices in the Premiership. On the other, are the ambitions of the players, which in Arsenal’s case have evidently not been met—and the players are voting with their feet.
It may not come to that, of course; they may all stay back, even Fabregas may be convinced. But something will have changed; the spirit will be missing, Gandalf’s spell will have been broken. As Wenger himself put it earlier this week: You can only be in if you are completely in. Sometime over the next few weeks, possibly months, Wenger will make the changes his team needs.
It may not be the end of an era, but it will be the end of the innocents.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at firstname.lastname@example.org