Offside, 8 May
In the race for the title, Arsenal tripped over their own vanity.
Sir Alex Ferguson predicted that the climax of the title race would be ‘squeaky bum time’. (We think he meant it would be buttock-clenchingly tense but nobody dared ask Fergie to clarify.) But in the end, after spending all year boasting about how great they were, Arsenal’s surrender monkeys capitulated all too easily. More flatulent arse than squeaky bum, as it turned out.
In August 2002, before a ball had even been kicked in anger, Arsene Wenger was already talking a good game. ‘Sir Alex Ferguson says he doubts whether we can have as good a season as last, with no defeats away from home. But we can be better. Unbeaten? It wouldn’t surprise me’, said Wenger immodestly. Patrick Vieira proclaimed the end of Manchester United’s era of domestic domination. ‘United were the best team of the 1990s in this country but I believe that will change now because we are here to make it change…. Arsenal can be the team of the 2000s’, declared the Arsenal captain.
Arsenal started the season in imperious form. The British media, dazzled by the Gunners’ free-flowing attacking football, were prepared to overlook the visible cracks in their once-unbreachable defence. Arsenal’s problem was that they started to believe their own hype. In September 2002, Arsene Wenger was again predicting that his team could ‘go through the season unbeaten’. A bit premature, non? Not a bit of it. ‘Other teams think exactly the same but they don’t say it because they’re scared of looking ridiculous’, insisted Wenger. The Arsenal gaffer evidently belongs to that exclusive club, whose members include circus clowns, the Osbornes, and the Iraqi information minister, for whom looking ridiculous holds no fear.
Arsenal’s cockiness provoked Sir Alex Ferguson to accuse his rivals of triumphalism. ‘When you are over-confident, as Arsenal have been, the nature of football is that it will come back and kick you in the teeth’, warned Fergie. ‘However many times we have won the Premiership, we’ve never gone in for that bragging game’, he bragged. But Wenger refused to stop boasting. ‘Do people want me to say we cannot win the title when I know we can?’, he asked. No Arsene, we want you to win the trophy first before you start parading it. Capisce?
Self-confidence, ambition, a touch of arrogance even, are all qualities one would expect of champions, but Wenger’s delusions of grandeur belong more properly in the box marked ‘mad’. Arsenal were Premiership champions last season but they have never won the European Cup, and only once qualified for the last eight of the Champions League. But this hasn’t stopped Wenger awarding imaginary world rankings to his team. ‘Real Madrid are number one and we are number two in the world’, he crowed like a deranged James Bond villain. Never mind testing players for drugs, what kind of crazy pills had Mr Wenger popped?
‘We can win everywhere’, gurgled Wenger deliriously. ‘We play the kind of football that will bring success’, he added, prompting the Daily Telegraph‘s Henry Winter to remark that the Arsenal manager had ‘delivered an acceptance speech without yet having won anything in Europe’ (1). Eventually the nutty professor was rudely woken from his luvved-up reverie when Valencia dumped Arsenal out of the Champions League.
Not to worry, the domestic league and cup double was still there for the taking. ‘We have a chance of a double double’, said Thierry Henry on the eve of Arsenal’s home game against Manchester United. ‘Nobody has done that in English football. Now we can start to talk about it because we can do it.’
But talking about the double was all that Arsenal could manage. A series of poor away results handed the advantage to United, who were in irrepressible form during the title run-in. On Sunday 4 May Arsenal lost at home to Leeds, and Manchester United, supposedly a spent force, were crowned champions again. Yet still Wenger refused to accept that his team were second best. ‘When you look at the whole season, taking in the FA Cup and the Champions League, we are certainly the best team’, insisted Comical Arsene, oblivious to the reality of defeat.
‘One-nil to the Arsenal’, they used to sing in the days when the Gooners were derided as boring because they knew how to shut up shop and protect a one-goal lead. Today we drool over them like village idiots in thrall to their attacking swagger and style. But as Henry Winter rightly points out: ‘Trophies are not handed out for artistic impression.’
Arsenal lost their Premiership crown because, in a number of crucial games, they were unable to defend a lead. If only Arsenal had spent a little less time admiring their own va-va voom and deigned to do boring every now and then, they would probably still be champions.
(1) Wenger puts style to the forefront, Daily Telegraph, 26 February 2003
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