Saturday, 8 November 2014

How Arsenal Have Never Recovered from 49 And Out: 10 Years On

October 24th 2004 proved to be quite the watershed day for Arsenal. The Gunners, boasting perhaps the most dominant Premier League side of all time, came to Old Trafford, the home of their biggest rivals at the time, on an incredible 49-game unbeaten run in the Premier League.

 For the defending champions, coming off an unprecedented unbeaten season, this would be their crowning glory, a chance to really rub United's nose in it. Clinching the title at Old Trafford two years ago was one thing, but this would really be a chance to assert their superiority over their fierce rivals. United were a team in transition. Ferguson's once dominant gladiators were on their knees, ready to fall. This was Arsenal's moment.

It's the last few minutes of the game and Arsenal chasing a late equaliser to keep the game alive. Alan Smith breaks down the left and squares it across the Arsenal box. Wayne Rooney, on his 19th birthday, is there to tap in, put United 2-0 up and send the Old Trafford crowd into raptures. The Invincibles had fallen. 49 and out. 

van Nistelrooy and Rooney break the streak

The brawl in the tunnel that followed, known since as pizza-gate, and Arsenal's reaction to the defeat showed just what bad losers this side had become. And I mean that as a massive compliment. No great team should take a defeat well. And this was a great team. One with heart, passion and, crucially, balls.

What is curious is that now, just over 10 years on from that infamous day, Arsenal have never been the same since.

Immediately after the defeat, Arsenal went into a tailspin in the league. One win from the next five including another defeat, this time at Anfield. They lost again to United at Highbury later on in the season in another ill-tempered encounter, memorable for another tunnel clash, this time pre-game between Vieira and Keane. They lost further games at Bolton and Birmingham and ended up 2nd in the table, 12 points adrift of runaway champions Chelsea

They did end that season with a rather fortunate FA Cup win, Patrick Vieira scoring the winning penalty with what proved to be his last kick for the football club. The following season they were completely unrecognisable from the all-conquering team of 03/04. Two years removed from an unbeaten season, Arsenal had lost six times in the league before Christmas. They lost eleven overall that season and finished the season 4th in the league, scraping by Spurs on the final day, thanks in no small part to some dodgy lasagne. Wenger's worst season by far. Having blown the competition away in 2004 to win the Premier League title, 2006 saw Wenger's Arsenal only win the 'North-London title' on the final day.

05/06. A different jersey and a very different Arsenal

2006/07 they moved to the Emirates but on this pitch, Arsenal's fortunes remained much the same. Pires had left after falling off badly the previous year, Ljungberg was on his last legs and would be shown the door soon. Bergkamp had retired. Wiltord had left. Campbell left. This would be the final season of Thierry Henry's great Arsenal career. A new team was taking shape but this year can most definitely be chalked up to 'transition'. 

In place of the departing big names came the likes of 19 year-old Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor. Promising, if not quite the finished articles just yet. It was bound to be a year of transition and so it proved. The following year, 2007/08 was their best season since the title winning campaign of 03/04. Arsenal led the way for most of the year, only a meltdown in spring kept them from the title. It was these meltdowns that have become typical Arsenal over the years. United always seemed to get better as the season went on, their hunger for the title driving them on. Arsenal have never shown any such drive or determination. 

2008/09 saw a match, again with United, that came to define what Arsenal have been all about the past ten years. The Champions League semi-final second leg. At home to Man United, trailing 0-1 from the away leg, a wonderful opportunity. The game was over in ten minutes. Two quickfire United goals and they dominated the game. Patrice Evra summed up the game exceptionally well: men against boys. United had a team stacked with winners. Van der Sar, Ferdinand, Vidic, Rooney, Ronaldo. A solid foundation, complemented brilliantly by proven match-winners. Arsenal had nothing. No more Vieira, Henry, Pires et al. Like a once mighty lion who'd had his claws removed and was now no more dangerous and fearful than a common house cat.

Reliance on young talent has cost Arsenal in the big games

The years have gone by and Arsenal have failed to rediscover the swagger they showed during the Henry/Vieira era. It's been setback after setback, highlighted by key players leaving the club seemingly every summer. Adebayor and Toure jumped ship to Man City in 2009. Samir Nasri, at the time their best player, decided to chase the dollar in 2011. Fabregas chased his boyhood dream and finally went back to Barcelona that same summer. Alex Song also went to Barcelona in 2012. Robin van Persie left for Manchester United, 'to win trophies' the same year on the back of winning the PFA Player of the Year award. Can you imagine Henry, the division's best striker, jumping ship to join Ferguson's side in 2004?

Look at the Arsenal of today and they look as soft as they have done for the best part of ten years now. Eight months ago they suffered humiliating defeats at Liverpool and Chelsea within weeks of each other. In 2001, Arsenal collapsed at Old Trafford and lost 6-1 in a fairly meaningless game, the title already virtually decided. They responded by coming out the following season and blowing United out of the water, clinching the title at Old Trafford for good measure. Last year's Arsenal side, on the back of a tonking from a title rival, played the exact same way a couple of weeks later and got a similar result. Madness. This was a team supposedly on the cusp of a title win who had led the league for most of the season, falling to pieces when it was put up to them by a rival.

As the years go by it's the same old Arsenal. No fight about them.

This past week they were at it again. Squandering a 3-0 lead in the second half against Anderlecht. Reminiscent of the 4-0 lead they famously managed to throw away at St James Park a couple of season's ago. Alexis Sanchez has been a brilliant addition to the side and he will win many games on his own for them this season, but they need more that that if they want to seriously compete for honours. Players like Sanchez and Ozil are excellent for games against the likes of Burnley when the defence is not likely to be tested to much and they just need match-winners to do what they do. When they do come up against good sides, they need to, for want of a less simple description, stand their ground and fight for their cause. For this they don't have the players willing or able to do it. Where is their enforcer? Their Nemanja Matic? The Patrick Vieira type figure of old who you could always rely on in a fight. A player who didn't mind getting his hands dirty.

Wenger is one manager who refuses to compromise his beliefs about the way that football should be played and he deserves respect for that. But it's not going to win Arsenal trophies. Strong teams win trophies and Arsenal, a good team, are not a particularly strong one. The recent defeat to Chelsea highlighted that there is quite a gulf between the two sides, one that Wenger won't be able to bridge through sheer footballing talent, Arsenal need some balls.

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