The waning of Arsene’s Arsenal

It was when Fergie started being nice about Wenger that you knew Arsenal was no longer seen as a threat.

Duleep Allirajah

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What on earth is going on in football? Arsenal conceding eight goals for the first time since 1896. Sir Alex Ferguson speaking to the BBC. Sir Alex saying nice things about Arsene Wenger. These things simply aren’t supposed to happen in football.

The seismic events at Old Trafford on Sunday have left Arsenal fans reeling. One might be tempted to describe the game as men against boys – except that the United team that tore Arsenal apart were mere babes, too. ‘This is boys against younger boys’, quipped one wag on Twitter. Arsenal have offered travelling fans a free ticket for another away game, but it will take more than a goodwill gesture to quell the growing discontent. It’s difficult to imagine Arsenal without Wenger in charge, but a minority of disgruntled Gooners have been thinking the unthinkable. On Sunday night a succession of callers to Radio 5Live’s 606 programme blamed Wenger for failing to strengthen the squad in key positions. The message boards are also awash with mutinous sentiments.

Watching Arsenal ship eight goals should have made it a very good day to be a Spurs supporter. But they got battered by Manchester City and therefore the Schadenfreude was conspicuous by its absence in north London. The gloating was also fairly muted in the United camp, where Sir Alex Ferguson was uncharacteristically supportive of the beleaguered Wenger. ‘I think it is unfair to criticise him. The job he’s done for Arsenal and the philosophy he has – he has given Arsenal some very entertaining players’, said Fergie. ‘It’s a cynical world now and when you lose a few games the judges come out.’ What are we to make of Fergie jumping to the defence of his old adversary? Has he mellowed in his old age? Last year Fergie admitted that he’d adapted his managerial style to deal with the fact that modern players were ‘more fragile’ and ‘cocooned’. In other words, one hairdryer doesn’t fit all.

Fergie’s man-management of pampered stars may be less shouty, but I don’t think that explains his public support for Wenger. He has kissed and made up with the Beeb – for now – but journalists still regularly find themselves at the receiving end of a Malcolm Tucker-style torrent of abuse. ‘You and your paper can fuck off’, he told a Mail on Sunday journalist recently. Last week, Ferguson launched into a tirade against the Football Association for treating United ‘like shit’. All around us we see adult authority crumbling… except at Old Trafford. While public figures – from police to politicians – are no longer held in esteem, Fergie remains respected and feared. Somehow he manages to buck the cultural trend.

But I digress. I was trying to account for the conspicuous absence of enmity between Fergie and Wenger. The point I was trying to make was that Fergie hasn’t gone soft. Rather, his magnanimity reflects the shifting balance of power in English football. Put simply, Arsenal, for so long United’s main rivals, no longer pose a threat. Wenger’s team hasn’t won a trophy since 2005. First Chelsea displaced Arsenal as chief Premiership title rivals to United. Now Manchester City appear to have assembled a squad capable of challenging United. In terms of the Premier League title race, Arsenal versus United is merely a side show.

As regular readers of this column won’t need reminding, I’m no fan of Arsenal. Yes, of course they play pretty football, but I’ve long been a vocal critic of their fragility. When the media were purring over Arsenal’s aesthetically pleasing football, I was questioning Wenger’s purist rejection of pragmatism and his constant moaning about physical tactics. But these days there is no shortage of bar-room tacticians willing and able to explain Arsenal’s shortcomings. Walk into any post office in Islington and you’ll invariably find a couple of old ladies in the queue discussing how to defend set pieces.

Now that everyone can see Arsenal’s flaws, it feels too easy to stick the boot in. I’ll still laugh at their misfortune, don’t get me wrong. But I miss the days when Fergie versus Wenger was top billing. I used to enjoy those titanic head-to-heads between United and Arsenal. Intensity, passion and hatred combined with high-quality, high-tempo football made for sensationally dramatic football matches. I loved the square-up in the tunnel between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira and the spectacle of a bug-eyed Martin Keown screaming in the face of Ruud van Nistelrooy after his penalty miss. I don’t know if it’s because the top teams are less gung-ho and more tactically disciplined these days, but the current matches between title-rivals don’t seem to have the same edge or bad blood.

Forget all the hogwash about fair play and sportsmanship, football is first and foremost a human drama. Mutual respect might be the hidden subtext underpinning the great football rivalries but what makes them so entertaining is the enmity on the surface. Put simply, Fergie exchanging pleasantries about Arsene Wenger diminishes the drama. That’s not what we pay good money to watch. We want a fight. Not literally, but a war of words at the very least. Goal-feasts are all very well, but a one-sided contest denuded of needle and hatred is just one big turn-off.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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