Only losers say ‘it’s the taking part that counts’

Arsenal may play beautiful football, but there are no trophies for artistic merit.

Duleep Allirajah

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To paraphrase Keats: Is it better to have played lovely football and lost than never to have played lovely football at all? Johan Cruyff’s reply, and perhaps Arsene Wenger’s too, would be ‘yes’. Cruyff has suggested that it was Holland who were the real winners of the 1974 World Cup because they played the prettier football. The correct answer, in case you’re wondering, is that it’s better not to have lost.

This week Arsenal, often hailed as the team who play the most beautiful football in England, got dumped out of the Champions League by PSV Eindhoven. That defeat completed what Arsene Wenger described as a ‘horrendous’ two weeks in which his team lost the Carling Cup Final and were knocked out of the FA Cup. Arsenal’s season is now as good as over. So much for beautiful football!

Regular readers of this column will know that I’ve always been a harsh critic of media-led lionisation of Arsenal: ‘Arse-fixation’ as I’ve described it. Remember Motty creaming himself over Arsenal’s 5-0 demolition of Portsmouth in the FA Cup three years ago? ‘Arsenal don’t so much pass the ball as caress it’, drooled the BBC’s senior commentator like a besotted teenager with a crush on his French teacher. It’s not that I don’t admire Arsenal’s style of football. You’d have to be a fairly unreconstructed route-one philistine not to appreciate their exquisite passing and movement. England could learn a lot from Arsene Wenger’s men about the art of ball possession. I’m not ashamed to admit that I even enjoyed watching Arsenal run rings round Real Madrid’s clapped-out galacticos at the Bernabeu last season, not to mention seeing Liverpool get a spanking at Anfield in the Carling Cup in January.

But the point about both those games was that the Gooners not only played stylish football but, more importantly, they won. And winning, after all, is the whole point of football. When people tell you that it’s not the winning but the taking part that matters, they’re simply talking out of their sad Corinthian arses. If you can win while playing entertaining football, that’s a bonus. But beautiful football for it’s own sake is worthless. Any footballer who thinks that entertainment is more important than winning is in the wrong profession. They should go join a circus or sign for the LA Galaxy, which is much the same thing.

I’m not suggesting that Arsene Wenger doesn’t want to win. It’s clear from his increasingly petulant post-match rants that he is a very bad loser. But, what I can’t really stomach is his apparent belief that Arsenal are entitled to win by virtue of their beautiful football. Look at how Arsenal cry foul when they play a physical team that gets ‘in their faces’. Arsenal were found out long ago. On 28 November 2004 to be precise, when Manchester United ended their 149-game unbeaten run in a fractious game at Old Trafford. After that game, which culminated in Fergie being pelted with pizza (if you can’t beat them, throw food at them), opposing managers realised that the way to thwart Arsenal is to crowd the midfield and deny them time and space. Yet Arsene Wenger and his precious artistes still seem affronted when teams put men behind the ball or rough them up a bit.

Take for example, Cesc Fabregas’s exchange with Mark Hughes after Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Blackburn in the FA Cup fifth round tie at the Emirates Stadium. ‘He asked me if I had played for Barcelona,’ said Hughes. ‘And when I said yes, he shook his head as if in disbelief. Then he said, “Well, that wasn’t Barcelona football”.’ Blackburn certainly don’t play Barcelona football (mind you, Barcelona don’t play it any more either judging by their insipid performance at Anfield this week). But it was Hughes who had the last laugh when Rovers dumped the Gooners out of the FA Cup at Ewood Park last week.

Similarly, although it was hugely enjoyable to watch, the mass brawl at the end of Carling Cup Final, was effectively an act of collective petulance on the part of the Arsenal players. ‘We deserved to win so we’re not playing anymore and we’re taking the ball home too,’ was the playground subtext. (Also, if you wanted to be ultra-critical, it wasn’t really a proper punch-up like the glorious scrap at the end of the Valencia v Inter Champions League tie that required the intervention of armed police.)

When Arse-fixation was at its zenith three years ago, Arsenal were not only weaving the pretty passing patterns but very difficult to beat as well. Now they’re playing attractive football but losing rather more often. As a consequence of their inconsistency there’s been a discernible cooling of the media’s love-in with the Gooners. Yes, they’re still given to gushing about ‘the Arsenal philosophy’ or ‘playing the game the way it should be played’. But the team’s flaws are now all too evident to all but the most one-eyed Arse-lover. In case, you’re still besotted, these flaws are:

  1. They don’t like it up ‘em
  2. Wenger is ungracious in defeat
  3. Thierry Henry disappears in big games
  4. Arsenal too often want to walk the ball into the net
  5. They are vulnerable to set pieces
  6. Arsenal players wear gloves when it’s cold

Personally I’d take Jose Mourinho’s pragmatism over Wenger’s beautiful loser idealism any day. After the Carling Cup Final, Mourinho pointedly said, ‘It was a great game between two teams with two different styles but history will show we have taken the cup home’. Never mind the aesthetic quality, count the trophies: that’s Mourinho’s ethos and you can’t argue with his sizeable collection of winners’ medals. Arsenal need to rediscover some of the defensive steel and ability to win ugly that characterised the ‘boring boring’ George Graham era or else they’ll remain perpetual also-rans. It might violate Wenger’s aesthetic principles but in football there are no trophies for artistic merit.

Previously on spiked

Duleep Allirajah has argued that the footballing balance-of-power in London has shifted West; that Arsenal’s Carling Cup punch-up was entertaining, but couldn’t save a pointless competition; and football spats between managers are no business of the police.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

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