Tomorrow Arsenal play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. A defining moment for their season. If they win, the Premier League title is back on. If they lose, the quest is probably over for this season. A massive game.
But it is massive for another reason. It is manager Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game in charge of Arsenal.
A few years ago I was on a “leadership” course at work. We were asked to nominate someone whom we admired as a leader. As ever Churchill got a lot of votes, Thatcher and Blair too… and of course, Alex Ferguson. I voted for Arsene Wenger. Why? For me he embodied all the leadership qualities I admire: vision, love for what he was doing, thoughtfulness, modesty, an ability to understand and motivate his players, a commitment to playing football the right way. No histrionics, dictatorship, no sense that it was all about him. An admirable man.
I stick by that on the eve of Arsene’s 1000th game. With the retirement of Fergie, he has managed Arsenal for almost as many Premier League games as the rest of the PL managers put together. 667 games against 693 for the other 19 (at their current clubs). That’s a tribute to Arsenal’s long term vision as well as the man himself, because, as we are all so aware, he hasn’t won a trophy since 2005. Arsenal’s focus financially has been the building of the Emirates Stadium and transforming Highbury into a residential complex. That, combined with Wenger’s preference for developing young players, rather than buying established superstars, has meant that Arsenal haven’t bought success over the past eight years. They’ve still qualified for the Champions League every year, but they haven’t won anything.
And that, of course, has meant that a lot of fans have been calling for his head. After the opening game of this season, when Arsenal lost at home to Aston Villa and the “Wenger out” chorus grew stronger, it has been largely a success story and those cries have been silenced. Mesut Ozil was bought for £45m from Real Madrid, and his presence galvanised the team. Aaron Ramsey finally recovered from his broken leg and played with real authority in midfield. And Mertesacker and Koscielny in central defence have become true successors to Adams/Bould and Campbell/Toure. There have been wobbles recently. Winning the League is now an outside chance and they were knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich (no disgrace). The FA Cup remains as a trophy they really ought to win, as the next best team left in at semi-final stage is Hull. But memories of the dreadful League Cup defeat to Birmingham remain.
Arsenal have been a fragile lot in recent seasons. While I don’t think Arsene ever lost the plot, he did lose sight, it seems, of the need for a strong backbone in the team. As he had in his first full season in 1997-98, when Arsenal won the League and Cup Double, and in 2003-04 when “The Invincibles” went through the League season unbeaten. What a team that was! Thierry Henry, Denis Bergkamp, Robert Pires weaving their magic. Freddie Ljungberg darting in from the right. Viera and Gilberto imperious in central midfield. Toure and Campbell rock-like at the back. Cole and Lauren marauding full backs. Lehmann, slightly crazed, but solid in goal.
And always playing football the right way. On the floor, fast and intricate passing. Skill encouraged. A true love of the game. Going back to that first Wenger team, in 1997-98, he inherited a great back four in Dixon, Adams, Bould and Winterburn, with Keown making five and David Seaman in goal. But he changed the way they played. I will always remember a moment towards the end of the season, when Arsenal beat Everton 4-0 and Tony Adams, who had once been reviled as “The Donkey”, took a looped pass from Steve Bould on the volley from the edge of the box, on the run, and fired it into the net. It was an amazing piece of skill. The ugly duckling had become a swan. The Wenger effect.
I would love to see Arsenal triumph against Chelsea tomorrow. I would love to see them win the League. I’m not that confident on either count. They still don’t have that backbone that the 97/98 and 03/04 teams had, although they are getting there. But they are still playing football the right way, the beautiful way. And there is still a chance.
Arsene still believes. And we must believe with him. #inarsenewetrust
The great Cesc Fabregas tweeted his appreciation of Arsene today, using this photo. Barcelona superstar, heir to the Xavi throne. Still called Arsene the Boss...
(And yes, I’m a West Ham fan, still!)