Arsenal: the ‘beautiful losers’ of football

If he wants the Gooners to stop being perpetual bridesmaids, Arsene Wenger must forget about playing pretty and try playing to win.

Duleep Allirajah

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And so farewell, Arsenal. You played beautiful football. But you won bugger all. Again.

Defeats at Anfield and Old Trafford in the space of a week mean that Arsene Wenger’s team will finish the campaign without a trophy. Indeed, both games pretty much told the story of Arsenal’s season. The Gooners started well, played the better football, went in front, but then contrived to lose.

The reaction to Arsenal’s failure has followed a familiar pattern. Firstly, a raft of anti-Gooner gags doing the email rounds. (You know the sort of thing: What have Arsenal and a three-pin plug got in common? They’re both useless in Europe.) Secondly, a supersize vatful of sour grapes from Arsene Wenger. Finally, the old beautiful football versus winning ugly debate reignited.

Wenger won’t win any football silverware this season. And nor will he win any medals for being gracious in defeat. In typical one-eyed fashion, he blamed the 4-2 defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-final second leg on a ‘dodgy decision’ by the referee. ‘In terms of the decisions going against us, this is the worst I’ve seen in my 11 years at Arsenal’, he complained. ‘This team has been punished in the last seven weeks more than any team I have seen in England since I arrived here.’

It was a similar story after the 2-1 defeat at Manchester United on Sunday with Wenger unhappy about the decisions that led to the two United goals. ‘Those two decisions made it difficult for us but overall we have to take it’, said Wenger: ‘With the penalty you can give it or not give it. As for the free-kick I do not think Gilberto touched Evra.’

Wenger’s persecution complex sits rather uneasily with his reputation as one of football’s great thinkers. Admittedly, his team should have been given a penalty in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final when Dirk Kuyt clearly fouled Alexander Hleb. But was the referee to blame for the four goals that Liverpool scored in the return leg at Anfield? I don’t think so. Despite playing the more attractive football, there were two glaring reasons why Arsenal went out of the Champions League: poor finishing and poor defending. Arsenal didn’t take their chances in the first leg. At Anfield, three of the Liverpool goals were the result of rank bad defending. Philippe Senderos lost Hyppia for the first, he allowed Torres too much space to turn for the second, while Toure got the wrong side of Babel for the penalty. Schoolboy errors.

Finishing and defending. These are fairly basic requirements of any team with title ambitions. Yet, in both departments, Arsenal are lacking. The passing and movement bit is still great to watch, but there’s no end product. With Eduardo injured, Van Persie recovering from injury, and Adebayor out of form, Arsenal lack a cutting edge. And even when they do take the lead, as they did at Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Old Trafford in recent weeks, they simply can’t defend it. The old grinding-out-results anthem ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’ is now a dim and distance memory.

It used to be a cliché that Arsenal ‘don’t like it up ’em’ – that the way to beat the Gooners was to ‘get in the faces’ and stop them playing (a euphemism for ‘kick lumps out of them’). This season, however, it seemed that Arsenal had toughened up. There was a new feistiness in midfield, with Hleb and Fabregas no longer muscled off the ball so easily. They even started winning away games ‘up north’. They got results at places like Bolton and Blackburn where preening continental nancy boys usually come a cropper. Arsenal, it seemed, had added a bit of steel to their beautiful football. Until the 4-0 FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford, that is. Followed closely by the 2-2 draw with Birmingham when Eduardo suffered his horrific injury. Arsenal haven’t been the same since. There’s a discernible psychological fragility, which wasn’t evident earlier in the season. Arsenal have acquired the Keegan-like knack of throwing away winning leads. There’s also a complete absence of leadership epitomised by William Gallas’ theatrical tantrum when Birmingham were awarded a harsh penalty.

Arsenal’s failure to win a trophy for a third successive season has invariably reopened the debate over the correct way the game should be played. Is winning more important than entertaining? Wenger begs to differ. ‘Winning cannot be everything’, he said. ‘What is important for me is to play in a fair way and in a way that people will enjoy… To win trophies is important but that is not the only thing in sport.’ However, his captain William Gallas, who doesn’t seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet, is clearly fed up with the beautiful loser tag. ‘For me the most important thing is to win, not playing well and still losing. For me, for everyone, for the fans, the most important thing is to win something’, said Gallas.

Wenger once said that ‘everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home’. But, to extend the metaphor a little, is a pretty wife really what men want? Would we prefer a looker who is rubbish in bed or a not-so-pretty wife who is great in the sack? And what about all that other wifely stuff? You know, love, companionship, supermum, domestic goddess, someone to clean the toilet (only joking, ladies). I suspect most men would go for someone who ticked all the good wife attribute boxes rather than just the ‘pretty’ box. In football terms, we’re talking about a team which can turn on the style but can also grind out results when necessary. In that respect, while Arsenal might be prettier, Manchester United are the more complete package. They can scrub up well but also deliver on the domestic goddess front.

The problem with Wenger’s pretty-wife metaphor is that football isn’t a beauty contest. There are no prizes for artistic merit – the objective is to win. So, unless Arsenal can add a bit of pragmatism to their undoubted beauty, they’ll be in danger of remaining perpetual bridesmaids.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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