Offside, 16 April
Arsenal's bragging bites the dust.
The start of April was Horse Racing Awareness Week but it should have been Let’s All Laugh At Arsenal Week.
First the Gooners got dumped out of the FA Cup, with strains of ‘Where’s your treble gone?’ ringing in their ears, and then they completed a choker’s double four days later when they toppled out of the European Cup. ‘We want to be remembered as a team who give pleasure to people’, Arsene Wenger said recently. It wasn’t quite how Wenger intended, but I haven’t laughed so much in ages. It was pure comedy.
It’s not that I have anything against Arsenal. Well okay, maybe I do, but it’s not the same fierce animosity that burns in the souls of all Spurs supporters. It’s not Arsenal per se that I despise, but rather the phenomenon best described as Arse-fixation, that gushing, fawning, salivating va-va-voom worship that has consumed British football pundits in the past two years. Witness a cringing Peter Drury superlative-fest or Motty purring that ‘Arsenal don’t so much pass the ball as caress it’.
I’ll be the first to admit that Arsenal often play free-flowing, attacking football. (You might have to blindfold and torture me first but I will eventually confess). And when I’m in a generous mood I’ll concede that Thierry Henry is quite useful too. But the extravagant praise heaped on Arsene Wenger’s men is ridiculous.
‘Arsenal are very similar to the Ajax team of the Seventies’, drooled Portsmouth boss Harry Redknapp after his team were spanked 5-1 in the FA Cup. Alan Hansen, who really should know better, recently claimed that Arsenal were the best British football team in the past 30 years. Sir Bobby Robson echoed those sentiments, saying: ‘if people ask me who the best British team of all time is, I would have to say it’s the current Arsenal side.’ A knight of the realm he may be, and a national treasure to boot, but that doesn’t stop Sir Bobby talking rubbish at times. Bestowing greatness on a team before it has actually won any trophies is, as the Gooners’ recent slip-ups illustrate, simply a bad case of premature ejaculation.
Last year Arsene Wenger made the mistake of bragging before any trophies had been decided. Remember his prediction that his team could remain unbeaten throughout the season? He even took it upon himself to hand out imaginary world rankings. ‘Real Madrid are number one and we are number two in the world’, he announced in an astonishing fit of hubris. In the end Arsenal blew the Premiership and only won the FA Cup (plus whatever fantasy honours Wenger himself dished out).
This year Wenger has been noticeably more measured when discussing his team’s title prospects. It has fallen instead to the Arse-fixated media to make premature claims of greatness. But the greatness of a football team should be measured by the silverware in its trophy cabinet, and Arsenal’s cabinet is still relatively bare.
Greatness means establishing the virtual monopoly over the domestic league achieved by Liverpool in the 1970s and 80s (10 league titles in 15 years) and Manchester United in the 1990s (eight league titles in 11 years). Even United’s claim to greatness is weakened by their failure to translate their domestic dominance on to the European stage. Although United won the European Cup in 1999 and reached the Champions League knockout phase in each of the past eight years, they have failed to emulate Liverpool’s European success (four European Cups between 1977 and 1984).
Ultimately, until Arsenal’s name is engraved on the European Cup, they cannot be compared to the great British teams of the past. Arsenal have never even reached the semi-final stage of the European Cup, let alone won it. Even Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa have better records in that tournament. And as for any comparisons with the great 1970s Ajax side that won three European Cups on the spin – well that is plainly absurd. So until the statistics say otherwise, Arsenal will remain mere wannabes.
And now there is a question mark over their mental strength. It’s all very well turning on the style against bog-standard Premiership teams, but what separates champions from the rest is their ability to win the high-pressure games. When United achieved the treble in 1999 they won two massive games: overturning a two-goal deficit to beat Juventus in Turin in the European Cup semi-final, and defeating Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final despite being reduced to 10 men.
Two weeks ago Arsenal played two huge games and bottled them both. What does that tell us? Arsenal: the greatest British team or great British chokers? Discuss.
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