One of my favorite scenes from John Boorman’s Excalibur is when Percival retrieves the Holy Grail and presents it to King Arthur, cuckolded, sickly, and dying on the throne because of his own hubris. Percival entreats him drink, for he and the land are one, and Percival knows that drinking from the cup will heal Arthur and England. Arthur reluctantly drinks from the cup and his eyes light up “Percival,” he says “I didn’t know how empty was my soul, until it was filled.” Arthur then calls for his knights and as they ride through the countryside to face their final destination, the tune of “O Fortuna” plays loudly and the land springs back to life. Cups and Kings, then, are a tale well worn.
In much the same way that the land and the King are one in Excalibur, the people and Arsene seem to be one. And like Arthur, Arsene has been betrayed by his closest confidants, and so nearly had his hands on the elusive cup. A cup which would heal so much.
But Nearly, that’s the way it has been for Arsene in the last decade. Nearly.
Arsenal nearly won the League Cup, with Cesc the squire and Adebayor the jester, Arsene took his men in to battle against the juggernaut of Chelsea under Mourinho. Fortress Mourinho, an unassailable brick wall at the back, and Didier Drogba up front. Against all odds Theo Walcott snatched the opener. His first ever Arsenal goal. The killer pass provided by Diaby. More than any squad since, that team with Walcott, Cesc, and Diaby, filled me with such hope for the future of Arsenal. But Arsenal lost the match when Mourinho uglied the game up. In the end, Toure and Adebayor were sent off by Howard Webb and the inevitable Drogba brace gave Chelsea a trophy. At the time I wrote paeans to the legacy that team would leave. They may not ever win a trophy, I mused, but teams in the future will want to play “the Arsenal way”.
That Arsenal way, the beautiful football of Fabregas and others, has since fallen tarnished into a bin of “sterile domination” which was so prominently displayed in last season’s Champions League run. Teams are happy now to concede Arsenal possession at almost every level of the game. And in the Champions League last season Arsenal were 10th in terms of possession but 31st in shots taken (7.8 per game) and 9th in terms of shots conceded (15.9). And for a manager who was once known for tiki-taka and short little passes on the ground, Arsenal were tops in the Champions League last year in Aerial Duels per game with 17.8.
Cesc nearly found Arsene the chalice in 2007/2008, the closest Arsenal have been to winning the League since the Invincibles. With Fabregas running the midfield, Flamini backing him with energy and steel, and Hleb providing the creative outlet needed to break through the two banks of four every team threw at Arsenal, the Gunners nearly found Wenger his cup. Nearly. Martin Taylor’s tackle broke Eduardo’s leg and seemed to break the will of that Arsenal team. I can only guess at how our fortunes would have changed had Arsenal won the League that season: would Arsene have been able to convince Cesc and Robin to stay?
And of course, the only “nearly” cup that I had the displeasure of seeing in person, the League Cup final in 2011. Three years after the leg breaking tackle at Birmingham (nearly to the day), Arsene sent his men out to face the Birmingham horde once again. Robin van Persie struck for Arsenal to bring the teams level and Birmingham were looking beaten, their men littered the field stretching and claiming cramp at every stoppage of play. But fortune intervened once again, Zigic won a header and Obafemi Martins scored the winner off an Arsenal mistake at the back. Like a Tunguska blast, everyone in the Arsenal end of the stadium sat down in their seats. I imagine everyone watching at home had been standing in anticipation as well and when the goal went in all fell back into their bar stools and couches.
That was the moment that I first felt real anger from Arsenal fans toward Arsene. I’ve never felt afraid at a football match but when the final whistle went off that night men tried to rip the seats out at Wembley. A man smashed his hand into bits out of anger right behind me. Children sobbed into their father’s shoulders. And as we made the long, mournful, walk back to the trains, the crowd was pocked with decidedly angry fans yelling out “why can’t we buy a defender who can head the f*cking ball?” And like a funeral dirge, the fans sung songs about players past; Tony Adams, Rocky Rocastle, and Perry Groves. There were no chants of Arsene Wenger’s Red and White Army, no songs about Robin van Persie or Cesc Fabregas: just wailing into the dark night about loss.
It’s exactly 30 months since Wenger’s knights nearly found him the Holy Grail at Wembley and the anger has only grown. Two consecutive League finishes where Arsenal are no longer nearly winning but rather barely hanging on — both last season and the one before Arsenal finished just one point above the old enemy, Spurs. A ignominious exit to Bradtford in the League Cup and to Blackburn in the FA Cup fueled the anger which grew to a head with Bayern’s dismantling of Arsenal at the Emirates 3-1 and Tottenham’s 2-1 win with two soft goals allowed through the heart of the Arsenal defense.
Arsene dropped his captain and made changes to the way Arsenal approached matches, playing deeper and inviting the pressure at times. Those changes kicked Arsenal on to finish one point above Tottenham which did release some pressure on the manager and club. The was followed with scenes of the Gunners celebrating at Newcastle as if they had won a cup — a false grail.
And now Arsenal fans have been reassured that Arsenal are awash in money, new TV deals, shirt deals, naming rights, money in the bank, cash on hand, and we have been told it’s all there for the manager to spend. Moreover, the club have culled the ranks, made Arsenal leaner, and provided further breathing room in terms of salary, but also weakened the squad in terms of numbers.
And Arsene gives us hope that those numbers will be replaced and not only replaced but replaced with real quality.
I’m very, very happy with the squad we have. When I tell you that, it’s about the quality of the players I have. With the number, at the moment we are short.Therefore I would be a bit worried that number-wise, we are not strong enough to cope with all the targets a club like this has. We will not go into the new season with only the number of players we have.
And for the first time in as long as I can remember, Arsenal have been linked with real (Real) quality; Higuain was first and while that transfer failed Arsenal are now being linked to Ozil and di Maria, both players who would add super quality and versatility to the Arsenal attack.
The secret of the Grail is that it is hidden in plain sight. Within arms reach of Wenger. He doesn’t need to search the world over, all he needs is for Dick Law to hand it to him.
What remains to be seen is if Wenger will sip from Law’s cup and spring suddenly to life in the transfer market. Like Arthur in that famous scene, one sip and Arsene could wake from his stupor, spare no expense and order his men to bring him Ozil, Casillas, Cabaye, and Alderweireld. They might not play on Sunday but if Wenger did that I know it would energize the fans. I imagine it would also energize Wenger and his players. And they could ride into the stadium, armor gleaming, and the flowers of North London brought back to life.
Arsene, you and the fans are one.
Drink from the Grail.