“We’re boring, and lucky, and dirty, and petulant, and rich, and mean, and have been, as far as I can tell, since the 1930s." That was Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch, his diary across three decades—1968-92—as an Arsenal supporter through the many lows and occasional highs. It’s hard to imagine nowadays but there was a time not so long ago when Arsenal were a boring football side (even by English standards of the day), when their most frequent scoreline was celebrated in the “One-nil to the Arsenal" chant. Other teams— Tottenham Hotspur, most notably, and Liverpool, most successfully—played attacking, exhilarating football; Arsenal ground out the results. Their “negative, unattractive" football (his words, and it’s a powerful testament to his sense of loyalty that he remained a fan) even spawned a magazine headline—“Why does everyone hate Arsenal?" Hornby calls the Arsenal of that vintage the “first of the true punk rockers", referring specifically to their crude, choppy rhythms.

In truth, despite Hornby’s withering self-criticism, Arsenal the club have always been about style. Their old stadium, Highbury, was a palace among football grounds; the writer Simon Inglis called it the Lord’s of the football world. The East Stand was an art deco landmark, built at the height of the depression to lure and lift the fans; below the stand were the Marble Halls, a suite of grand boardrooms and dressing rooms (featuring heated flooring and marble baths). The Marble Halls also had a bronze bust of the great Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, who not only oversaw the design and construction of the East Stand but shaped the club’s success on the pitch in the early 1930s with the innovative device of deploying an extra defender (three in the team formation instead of the usual two of those days). Thus was born the label of “boring Arsenal".

It all seems a long way away today. Arsenal play the most beautiful football in the Premier League—look for Jack Wilshere’s goal last month against Norwich the culmination of a five-pass move exquisitely delicate and swift—and even their status as punk rockers has been taken away from them; Jürgen Klopp, the Borussia Dortmund coach noted for his personal grungy style, recently called Arsenal an “orchestra". Somehow even the Emirates Stadium, their new home, manages, despite its obvious commercial connection, to exude the Old Money aura that separates Arsenal from the arrivistes of Chelsea and Manchester.

Arsenal have been playing beautiful football for most of coach Arsène Wenger’s 17-year reign; the three Premier League titles they won in 1998, 2002 and 2004, were secured by some of the best players ever to grace the Premier League combining to create the perfect harmony Klopp alluded to. It was no accident; Wenger, whose parents ran a bistro in Alsace, France, came to Arsenal via Japan, where he added Zen minimalism to his aesthetic. He brought sophistication to the Premier League, his arrival coinciding with the rise of the great French national side of the end-20th century. It lasted less than a decade before it plateaued. Wenger kept losing his best players. Some, like the peerless Dennis Bergkamp, retired but others, like Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fàbregas, chose greener pastures with plenty left in the tank. Other clubs with more muscle—financial, in their bank balances, and literal, in how they played football—brushed past Arsenal, who were reduced to fighting their hated north London neighbours Tottenham for a fourth-place spot in the League.

Hornby notes that for football fans of a certain generation, Brazil 1970 (and, for this writer, the 1982 version) ruined all the football that followed—nothing could match up to the skills of those teams and players. For Arsenal fans it was perhaps their own team that did it; for the past few years, the feeling—if subliminally—was that their football-watching experience was being ruined by the memory of Wenger’s three title-winning sides. Arsenal, with an exciting crop of youngsters, were still pretty, but now in danger of being rendered pretty irrelevant.

Wenger, famed for his fiscal prudence and loathing of spending big unless absolutely necessary, was faced with a choice: would he wait for his young brood to mature into their full potential, running the risk of it being too late to revive the club’s fortunes? Or would he act? In an earlier column (The end of innocence, 14 July 2011), this writer suggested that players would vote with their feet unless Wenger thought out of the box and acted out of his character.

In September, Wenger did just that, splashing the cash to sign up Mesut Özil, regarded as one of the most exciting, talented creative players in European football. The headline transfer of the European summer, it was the sort of statement the club needed; like the art deco stadium of the 1930s, it thrilled the long-suffering supporters and scared the opponents. Most important, it injected into his team—especially the younger players—a contagious buzz; finally, they had a superstar in their midst again, finally an Arsenal team could walk on to the pitch boasting one of the world’s top players. And so the whizz-kid Aaron Ramsey upped his game, the goalscorer Olivier Giroud regained his nose for goal and, perhaps most crucially, the midfielder Mathieu Flamini, returning for a second spell at the club—one of the several Arsenal alumni who would, astonishingly, publicly confess their love for the club while playing elsewhere—gave it some backbone and bite.

Today Arsenal stand top of the League, the occasional blip notwithstanding, and are the most successful Premier League team of the calendar year 2013. They have played some of the best football but now their style has substance, their poetic is balanced by the pragmatic. Wenger is today the Premier League’s most experienced manager—and, crucially, has won more League titles than any of his peers—and has at last begun to show some flexibility to add to his impressive list of qualities. And the 60,000-odd fans who pack the Emirates Stadium can even revive their “One-nil to the Arsenal" chant, with better humour.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

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