When Arsenal hired the former manager of Grampus Eight and Monaco, the Evening Standard replied “Arsene Who?” He showed them who and in his very first full season, this man whom no one knew lead the Arsenal to their first double since 1971.
In that season Arsenal fell on dark days. Losing 3-1 to Blackburn and falling behind Man U by 12 points. The press again said that the deficit was too much to make up and claimed that Arsenal’s title chances were done.
There were reports of dressing room discord and Wenger’s troubled older player, one Ian Wright, had been interviewed by police over allegations of abusing fans. Wenger also reportedly struggled with a “malaise” in the dressing room, underlined by the loss to Blackburn.
But Arsene and Arsenal defied the critics. They blew the doors off the statistics and after an immaculate run of form finished the season double champs.
It took Arsene another four years to repeat the double feat. In the interim the club sold off their star pupil Anelka and lost various other players to bigger clubs with Overmars and Petit leaving. And there were heartbreaking defeats to Galatassary and Liverpool in two cup finals.
People started to question the Arsenal. Were we a selling club? Did Wenger just build off the back line of Graham? What did this nerdy looking manager truly add to the team?
Again, Wenger showed the critics. He brought in Sol Campbel, Ljungberg, Henry, and Pires to pair with an already powerful midfielder in Vieira and a back line which featured Keown and Lauren. This would be his most dominant team of his career.
Ljungberg helped win the FA Cup with his goal over Chelsea. Shucking John Terry to the side in the process. Four days later, Arsenal won the League at Old Trafford, overcoming a cynical performance by Man U who clearly had no interest in playing football and simply went about kicking Arsenal all over the pitch.
The next season looked promising and they were in the midst of a 29 game unbeaten run when Wenger famously declared that his team could go an entire season unbeaten. So many people scoffed at the notion that scoffing became the norm for months on end.
It would eventually be Wayne Rooney who ended that unbeaten run, playing for Everton. And the the team would miss out on the League title late in the season after a loss to Leeds United. Viduka scored Leeds’ late winner and ever since then I hated Mark Viduka.
Little did we all know at the time, but that loss would spark one of the greatest achievements in Arsenal history. The consolation is that Ljungberg backed up his FA Cup winner from the previous season with another goal and gave Wenger his third FA Cup.
After that loss to Leeds, Arsenal would prove the doubters wrong. They went 49 games unbeaten* and fulfilled Wenger’s prediction that his team could go an entire season unbeaten. Such was the achievement that they built Arsenal a gold plated Premier League Trophy.
I say all this not to relive history for history’s sake but rather to point out that for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, nothing is impossible. Yes, they lost 4-0 in Milan. A terrible night, which all but knocks Arsenal out of the Champions League. But once you get over the fact that Arsenal have nothing to lose then “going for it” makes sense. Which is why Arsenal are going to go for the five goal win and why Wenger is starting Robin van Persie tonight.
Just to underline the magnitude of the task: Arsenal need a 4-0 win to get to extra time and possibly penalties, a 5-1 win for Arsenal means that Milan go through on away goals, which means that if Milan score just a single goal Arsenal need to win 6-1 or better.This is why a 4-0 deficit has never been overcome in the Champions League.
Possibly the most contentious decision that the boss can make today is starting Robin van Persie. Best case scenario; Arsenal start him, he scores a hat trick and Arsenal go through on a 6-1 or 5-0 win. If Wenger starts Robin and Arsenal don’t go through then any injury to the player between now and 10 years from now will probably be blamed on his playing tonight.
Robin has scored 25 of Arsenal’s 55 goals. Robin is a player with a long history of injury and a team who are in the midst of a battle for fourth place which Wenger has said is also crucial for the team to achieve. There will be those who will say “if Robin gets hurt” then he will never play for Arsenal again because Arsenal won’t finish fourth and because Champions League football is that important.
As someone who has watched a lot of Serie A, I can confirm that Milan will target Robin van Persie with fascist precision. Van Bommel will kick van Persie tirelessly but watch also for the other midfielders to drop deep and deny the Arsenal captain any space. And by “deny space” I mean “kick ruthlessly”
Arsenal are also missing quite a number of central midfielders with just Song confirmed as 100% fit. I would expect then a change of shape for this Arsenal side.
One way to beat an Italian diamond midfield is… (dramatic pause, because I know how much some of you are going to be excited to hear this) is with a four-four-two. And Arsenal actually have the personnel to play a four-four-two!
With only two fit central mids, that’s exactly what I expect they will do. The defense is set, no tinkering there. But, in midfield you have options: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing and Gervinho on the left. That’s two tricky dribblers who attack well down the wings. In the striker role again you have options: Chamakh could play the number 9 with Robin right behind him in the 10 role. This would serve several purposes but mainly Chamakh would just be there to hold the ball up (taking kicks from the Milan midfield) with Robin the main play maker. Theo could also start on the right or be brought on late to help wear them down.
Stuart MacFarlane put a photo of the boss talking tactics to his team during training this week and that makes me think that the old dog has a trick up his sleeve. That and the fact that Wenger said that he could play “six strikers” today.
I guess in the end you could day that when Wenger says he’s going for it, he goes for it and I have no reason to not have faith. After all, this is the guy who once said that the impossible was possible and took a team to 49 games unbeaten.
Just like the apocryphal Babe Ruth pointing to right field, there’s Wenger up to bat, saying one last time. “It’s ok, I got this one.”
I’m just hoping for a cracking game. Anything more will be a dream of dreams.
*Until Wayne Rooney dived and Mike Riley awarded the dubious penalty