Right. Before we get on with evening’s serious business, a few thanks to make, and they go to those of you that voted for me in the OleOle competition, because I have been nominated to go to Japan in a week and a bit or so to report on the World Club Championships. I still have a bit of work to do to be able to go, but just to get the support of so many people has been wonderful. Even if it goes wrong for some reason (and regular readers will be more than aware that I am one of life’s natural pessimists), just have been involved in it for the last couple of weeks or so has been a pleasure. There we go. Soppy bit over. Now: TO BUSINESS!
Last night’s Championship matches saw Cardiff knocked off their lofty perch at the top of the table, to be replaced by Preston North End – their highest league position, I’m reliably informed, since 1961. As every schoolboy (and, indeed, many schoolgirls) knows, PNE were the first winners of the Football League, in 1888-89. With eighteen wins and four draws in their twenty-two League matches, they won it at a canter. Throw in the FA Cup as well, and you could well argue that it was a pretty successful season for them. Their record of going unbeaten for a whole season was one that, in all honesty, I never thought I’d see broken, but of course Arsenal went thirty-eight games unbeaten in 2003/2004. An exceptional record, by any standards that you could care to think of.
Fast forward two and a half years, and Arsenal appear to be stuck in a a rut. It’s starting to feel like the end of a dynasty. At the precise time of writing, they are 2-1 down at Fulham in the Premiership. It’s a result that may, and probably will, change, but this isn’t really the point. As the team of 1889 hit their highest point in nearly half a century, the team of 1989, and the team that broke their (as we thought) unbreakable record is going through what may or may not be described as something of a crisis. So: what’s going wrong in Islington? At this rate, Arsenal are going to have an almighty fight on their hands if they want to make next year’s Champions’ League, and not getting into it could just prove to be a crisis for the club with the biggest mortgage repayments in British football.
The French, of course, have the word “ennui”, which has been absorbed into English as the special kind of boredom that strikes as the result of a lack of stimulation. There is no more apt a word than this to describe Thierry Henry in 2006. There have been, as there always are where he is concerned, some wonderful moments of skill from him this season, but 80% of the time he has just looked plain bored. He looked it in the Champions League final, when Barcelona broke out of a stroll for five minutes to come from behind and beat them. He looked out of sorts on the World Cup finals, when France were propelled to the final by the defensive strength of Makelele and Gallas rather than any significant attacking flair. Since the start of the season, he hasn’t really looked hungry. It’s spelt trouble for Arsenal who, if they’re not a one man team, are heavily dependent on Henry’s contribution.
It’s also worth considering that, just perhaps, this new lot aren’t as good as the old guard. Most Arsenal fans thought they’d got a brilliant deal in getting shot of Patrick Vieira to Juventus when they thought he was over the hill. Now, he may or not have been, but the replacements’ lack of success seems to indicate that Arsenal haven’t managed to replace some very important cogs in their engine, such as Dennis Bergkamp and (gasp!) Sol Campbell. We’ve seen glimpses of brilliance from the likes of Robin Van Persie and Tomas Rosicky, but nowhere the level of consistency that is required to win the Premiership. By contrast, Manchester United’s much-maligned midfield is collectively out-stripping anybody’s (myself included) expectations of what they were capable of.
Then there’s the matter of The Emirates Stadium. Arsenal may well be unbeaten there so far, but they have drawn four of their seven Premiership matches there so far, which indicates a distinct lack of comfort in their new surroundings. Highbury may have been a “library”, but the only reason that I can think of why the new place hasn’t earned itself a similar nickname is that no-one can think of an appropriate rhyming word for “Emirates” (“ungulates” is the only one that I can think of, off the top of my head – is it time to bring back Tony Adams?). I don’t know how the players feel when they see the place starting to empty five or ten minutes before the end of a match as people rush off to beat the traffic, but I can’t see how it helps them at all. Maybe Arsenal supporters aren’t “supporters” any more. Maybe they’re the first of the fully-fledged football “consumers”.
They have, against Manchester United and Liverpool, shown flashes of the brilliance that one has (and I’m saying this through gritted teeth) come to expect from them over the last decade or so, but inconsistency is costing them a great deal. They’re clinging onto sixth place because everybody else in the Premiership (the top two excluded, of course) is beating everybody else. Liverpool are mid-table in ninth place, but are just three points off third place. It’s making for the most interesting Premiership season in a long time, but Arsenal are going in the wrong direction: backwards, rather than forwards. I have this feeling that Arsenal will come good this season. I don’t want them to, of course, but you have to accept that Arsene Wenger is nothing if not a canny manager, and the players that they have should be capable of much better than they are currently managing. Still… if we have to put up with Chelsea and Manchester United winning the Premiership in perpetuity, isn’t it nice to see the club run by the chairman of the G14 in danger of having to slum it in the UEFA Cup?