There are few constants in the universe, even the ticking over of an atom, which we use to measure time as accurately as humanly possible, is off by one second every 300 million years. But the one thing that I can count on in this random universe is that Arsenal fans will demand that their team do something and then complain when the club does it.
Demand that Arsenal get a defensive midfielder, complain that the defensive midfielder can’t attack. Demand that Arsenal buy expensive super star players, complain when the super star player is “only” an assist master. Demand that Arsenal do better against top 6 clubs, complain that Arsenal only did better on goal difference. Demand that Arsene adds some fresh new playing styles to his tactics, complain when those styles don’t pan out every time. And demand that Arsenal buy Luis Suarez, and complain when we finally get a better, less bitey, less racist, version of him.
Alexis gets a lot of grief for losing the ball too much but I find it hard to fault him for that. In yesterday’s match he lost the ball 6 times in the first half alone and some Arsenal fans were livid. I knew this would happen, that people would complain about him losing the ball. If you remember, that was my main worry about bringing Suarez to Arsenal, that fans would quickly grow tired of his 35% dribbling and profligate shooting percentages. And this summer, when Alexis was essentially the only man on his Chile team in the World Cup, there were a few performances where he had 12 attempted dribbles and something like 10 turnovers. I publicly worried then that fans would turn on him the same way he turns the ball over.
But as much as it’s hip to complain about Alexis losing possession, against United you could see exactly why he turns the ball over so much at Arsenal: he’s attacking the opposition and just like in the World Cup, he’s often isolated by teammates.
The same people who complain about Alexis Sanchez giving the ball up are the ones who wanted Luis Suarez and said that Arsenal would win the League if we had him. Well, you have your Suarez, his name is Alexis. And Alexis in his first season is streets ahead of the uber profligate Suarez in his first season at Liverpool.
As you can see, Sanchez in his first season wins the head-to-head stats matchup against Suarez in his first (full) season. In fact, Suarez got a bit of a head start on Sanchez because he got half a season with Liverpool before his first full season so, he had more time to acclimate to the League. And Suarez also didn’t play in a World Cup that summer, and didn’t have tired legs from playing in the Champions League in his first season at Liverpool.
Alexis Sanchez has been magnificent for Arsenal in his first season. He’s not only Arsenal’s most potent direct attacking threat and a player with the individual skill to unlock packed in defenses, he also makes off-the-ball runs behind defenders and has the touch to control and score when Ozil makes that pass.
But even better than all that combined is the fact that Sanchez is the man who changed Arsenal’s playing style. His constant pressing high up the pitch led Arsene Wenger to make that a feature of Arsenal’s defense and his speed and counter-attacking threat mean that with him on the team, Arsenal can sit back and defend when they want.
There has been a lot of talk about perception this last week and whether Arsenal have perceptibly improved this season. The answer is yes, Arsenal have improved and a lot of it is thanks to Sanchez. The improvement is that with Sanchez in the team Arsenal have the freedom to try on many different styles of play. They can sit back and defend and hit teams on the counter like they did against a team like West Ham, serving up Sam Allardyce some of his own bitter medicine. They can play a foot forward style and harry their opposition into making mistakes as they did when they dismantled Liverpool, serving up Brendan Rodgers some of the same bitter medicine he served us last season. And next season, when Arsenal have a player in the deep lying midfield role who can control a game with his passing, like Arteta did for so many seasons before he finally wore down, then Arsenal will have yet another way to play. The old way that Arsenal used to play.
But it won’t just be the same old way, because Arsenal will have Alexis. A non-stop, attacking threat, who can break down opposition defenses with a deft dribble, who scores goals from direct free kicks, who harasses opposition defenders and wins the ball back in terrific positions high up the pitch, and who has an insatiable hunger to win.
So what if he turns the ball over too much for your liking? Get over it. The guy is a superhero.
I was asked to include both Suarez and Sanchez’ stats from when they both played for Barcelona. Amazingly, they are similar again. These two players are even more mirror image than I could have imagined when I first started this article this morning.
But on one side of the mirror you have a biter who commits racisms and on the other side you have a guy who loves dogs.
They are scrappers who rely on belligerence – we are the better team. – Sir Alex Ferguson after Arsenal won the double at Old Trafford, May 2002.
Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home. – Arsène Wenger, in response to Fergie’s bitter words , May 2002.
Thirteen years ago, May 8th 2002, Arsenal faced a tough-as-nails Manchester United, at Old Trafford, with an unsympathetic referee, and without legends Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. On that day, Arsenal weathered a barrage of boots and wicked tackles before capitalizing on a single mistake in midfield and grabbing the only goal of the game. And it was with that Wiltord goal that Arsenal won the League at Old Trafford.
That was thirteen years ago and the League was vastly different back then: Arsenal’s shirt sponsors were SEGA, the Arsenal crest was their original from 1949, and slide tackles from behind which wiped out a player were barely even considered a foul. See the video below for what I mean by how much times have changed. Half of the contact in this video would be a yellow card these days, the other half would be red.
That Arsenal side which beat Man U at Old Trafford, with just a few changes, went on to become the Invincibles, the team which went 49 games unbeaten and was the greatest Arsenal team the world had ever seen.
It seems like the result of this fixture between United and Arsenal has often been a catalyst for these teams. Sometimes the result sparks a buying spree, sometimes the result changes the way that one team plays, and even this season United’s loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup seemed to galvanize the Red Devils into a great run of form. With Rooney half-boasting:
I’ve always been quite vocal in the dressing room before games and I felt at the time it was right for me, after we’d lost to Arsenal in the cup, to put a few points across to the players which I thought might help the team. I’m not saying that’s why we won the games against Tottenham and Liverpool! [Laughs] But it certainly didn’t cause any harm doing it. It just felt like the right time for me to say something.
With Rooney’s Scouse accent ringing in their ears, you can bet that United will be up for this match. No matter that a Champions League place is secure for both, there is bad blood between these two teams and United will be looking to “set the record straight.”
That record, if you haven’t heard for the 1000th time this week, is that Arsenal have lost 9 of their last 11 matches at Old Trafford and haven’t beaten United in any League game in 7 tries, the last one thanks to an Aaron Ramsey strike in 2011.
And for Arsenal it’s more than just trying to get one over on an old rival or finishing in the top 3. Both of these teams are on track to challenge for the title next season and winning the so-called “mini-League” of top 6 teams is the exact kind of boost that a club needs.
Arsenal have been nearly perfect against the bottom 10 clubs for two years now. But they have tended to be bossed by the bigger clubs and last year Arsenal were dumped out of the title race in spectacular fashion when they were beaten handily by Chelsea and Liverpool. Arsenal need to send a message that they won’t be dominated by these big clubs any more.
The bad news is that in terms of points in the mini-League, Arsenal haven’t fared much better this season over last. This is the main reason why fans feel like there hasn’t been any progress at the club.
Last season, Arsenal won just 3 of the 10 matches and eared a horrible -10 goal difference. Along the way they handed United their only win of the mini-League thanks to a dreadful performance at Old Trafford.
Group of 6 big spenders compared — 2013/2014 season. (screen grab from statto.com)
This season, Arsenal have a much more respectable +1 goal difference owing to Arsene Wenger’s pragmatic approach to games. Wenger has been talking a lot about balance this season and has largely been getting it. Since January, Arsenal have the best defensive record in the League.
In the aftermath of the loss to Swansea on Monday, which ended Arsenal’s 10 match unbeaten run, Arsene Wenger even uttered a phrase that Arsenal fans haven’t heard since 2005: you must ensure first that you do not lose. And I suspect that was a glimpse into the changes that Wenger has been making in the team since last year.
Group of 6 big spenders compared — 2014/2015 season. (screen grab from Statto.com)
Even if they lose this match, Manchester United are this season’s big winners in the mini-League and United’s Wayne Rooney gave away the secret for their form against big clubs:
I think we’ve been very well prepared going into those games. We put a lot of work and effort into making sure we’re in the right shape and set up in the right way to.
That preparation will no doubt include video of last week’s Arsenal match against Swansea where the Swans played defense first and hit Arsenal late with a header. Arsenal are susceptible to headers this season, 35% of their goals conceded in the League (12/34) have come off headers, and Rooney scored a headed goal in the 2-1 loss in the FA Cup and Swansea’s Gomis scored a header on Monday.
But Man U are also 2nd best in the League at scoring goals in the first 30 minutes, with 22 (Chelsea are first with 24 and Arsenal only have 14). This indicates a team that likes to take the game to the opposition early on. But Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals in the first half of games with just 13. So, it could be a case of furious action in the first 15 minutes leading to little or no reward for either team.
As the match goes on the good news is that Arsenal are 2nd best in the League at scoring late goals, they have 29. Man U only 19. And Man U have the third most defensive errors in the League 29, just one less than Newcastle. But tellingly, they have only allowed 3 goals off those errors. I suspect that’s de Gea saving them — though I can’t use stats to prove that and instead just have to rely on my faulty old perception.
And United also have a somewhat predictable approach to the end game scenario. Fellaini commits more fouls per game than any other player in the final 15 minutes of games. And is 6th in the league in aerial duels with 3 per game in the final 30 minutes of games. Fellaini only averages 4 aerial duels won per game, which shows you that if United need a goal late they will send the Belgian up to play faux center-forward and cause trouble in the Arsenal back line with elbows and afros. Who can forget the earlier match this season where United scored after Fellaini shoved Gibbs over in an aerial duel and United scored when a prone Gibbs kicked his clearance into how own goal?
This match is more than just history. It’s more than the 2002 title game or the ugly transfer of van Persie to a hated rival. This match is the future. Arsenal have turned their season around and have been the best team in the League since January. Arsenal will surely give them a game. And if Arsenal want to be considered title challengers next season they will have to show their mettle in exactly this kind of match.
Billy Wright was Arsenal’s manager from 1962-1966 and is often the forgotten man of Arsenal history. Predominantly, Billy Wright is remembered for his time at Wolverhampton Wanderers and England captain as a elegant centre half. For Wolves he would make 541 appearances between 1939-59, as well as a world record (at the time) of 105 caps (90 as captain) for England between 1946-59.
Billy Wright’s international career was maybe best remembered for being the captain in 1953 in the 6-3 home defeat to Hungary. Of their third goal it was said:-
Their third was a goal of rare beauty and mesmerising skill, the ‘Galloping Major’ Puskas expertly dragging the ball away from Billy Wright “with the art of a bullfighter”, according to Sewell, before crashing a shot high into the roof of the net. “Wright rushed into that tackle like a man racing to the wrong fire,” surmised Geoffrey Green in the Times the next day.
Billy Wright, prior to joining Arsenal had been working with the England youth and under 23 team (a precursor to the under 21’s side) and had been strongly tipped to take over the full international team in due course from Walter Winterbottom. Unfortunately, the manager from small, provincial, Ipswich Town had won the title in 1961-2; he was called Alf Ramsey and was making waves for the England job.
Walter Winterbottom resigned after the 1962 World Cup, and the papers had Alf Ramsey as favourite for the job, with Billy Wright second favourite. In the end, obviously, Alf took the job, but Billy Wright was certainly held in high esteem by both the press and the F.A. His near appointment would also underline that Billy Wright had more of an affinity with the young players at the time.
After the 1961-2 season, the Arsenal manager and ex-player George Swindin resigned from the post finishing a disappointing 10th in the league and losing in the 4th round of F.A Cup, away to Manchester United. Worse, in 1960-1 Spurs had won the double and followed it up in the season of 1961-2 winning the F.A Cup.
Everyone spoke well of him. Not the least of the recommendations was that he was still an idol of the football-minded lads had all over the country and the Arsenal board believed he would attract young talent to Highbury.
Billy Wright started the pre-season by trying to improve the forward line, signing an ‘English’ striker from Italy (Spurs had done it the previous year with Jimmy Greaves). This would be the legendary Joe Baker, who was bought from Torino for £70,000. Joe Baker was a diminutive striker from Scotland, but born in Liverpool, becoming the first Scottish based player to play for England.
Jon Spurling in his excellent chapter on Billy Wright in Red Letter Day said:-
The Gunners began the 1962/63 campaign well, winning matches against Leyton Orient and Birmingham. Before game three, a Highbury contest with Manchester United, Wright walked down the tunnel, saw the expectant 62,308 crowd and returned to the dressing room, barely able to contain his excitement. Baker recalled, ‘Billy told us, “This is what Arsenal is about. Packed crowds, sunshine, playing teams like Manchester United, and (he leant over and rubbed my sleeve between his forefingers) these lovely red and white shirts. Beautiful. Now go and win boys.”’ His team went down 3-1, and didn’t win again for six matches.
The first season under Billy Wright would end with Arsenal finishing a commendable 7th in the league. They would lose in the fourth round of the F.A cup to Liverpool, at home. In many ways it was actually a fairly impressive first season with Arsenal getting into Europe for the first time in their history.
Going forward Arsenal looked impressive, scoring 86 goals. Unfortunately, at the back, Arsenal conceded 77 goals. Joe Baker would score an impressive 31 league and cup goals, scoring a hat trick in the final home game against Fulham. Baker had formed an impressive partnership with Geoff Strong, who had scored 21 league and cup goals. Although Wright had done ok in his first season, Spurs had won the European Cup Winners Cup.
Arsenal, were nothing if not interesting during Billy Wright’s first season: at White Hart Lane, Arsenal played out a 4-4 draw, they also beat Wolves 5-4, and drew with Blackburn 5-5. Wright felt Arsenal needed a new defensive pair and captain the following season. So Billy Wright infamously went out and bought a new centre half. Ian Ure for a fee of £62,500 from from Dundee. At the time it seemed a great signing, as Dundee in the season of 1961-2 had won the Scottish title, and the following year made the Semi-final of the European Cup. Unfortunately, he wasn’t that good on the ground. Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch, famously called Jeff Blockley ‘”an incompetent to rival Ian Ure”.
Billy Wright had made me club captain at the age of twenty the year before, and though I was honoured to be given the job, I knew I was too young and inexperienced. I think Billy Wright saw me as a reincarnation of himself, a centre-half who was destined to lead the side from an early age. With senior players like Joe Baker, George Eastham [who took over the captaincy in 1963-4] and Geoff Strong around, I did not find it easy.’
The following season, Arsenal had qualified for Europe for the first time. If anything can underline Billy Wright’s time at Arsenal, it could perhaps be the European expedition. Why? Well, it was short, the results showed a team that yo-yo’d, and was also a money loser (though that was hardly Wright’s fault).
In the first round of the European Fairs Cup, Arsenal faced Danish team Stævnet. Hardly a big tie. Arsenal went to Denmark and won 7-1, with Baker and Strong both scoring hat-tricks. In the next leg, Arsenal’s first tie at Highbury, it would attract just 13,569 fans. Arsenal 3-2 to Stævnet.
In the next round we faced RFC Liège. Hardly the biggest tie in the world. Arsenal then drew 1-1 at Highbury (an attendance of 22,003) but in the next tie, Arsenal would lose 3-1. The European expedition was turning financially disastrous, with Bob Wall stating:-
In January 1968, Mr.Denis Hill-Wood, our chairman, stated that, if Arsenal qualified for the Inter-Cities Fairs cup, he and his colleagues would have to think seriously whether to accept an invitation to play in Europe.
When Arsene Wenger talks about 4th place in the Premier League being like a trophy, many of us agree. As a revenue stream via television rights, advertising and tickets, one cannot doubt its importance. But back in the 1960’s things were different. There were no cheap flights or many travelling fans then. Bob Wall explained that the first time Arsenal had played in Europe in 1963 they had played Staevnet of Denmark and lost to R.F.C Liege, writing ‘when we came to work out all our expenses and income, we discovered we had lost money’.
Over the next 3 season, Arsenal would go into steady decline. In his last season of 1965-6, Arsenal would end a disappointing 14th and be knocked out the F.A Cup in the third round, 3-0 to Blackburn (who would finish bottom of the 1st division by the end of the season). Billy Wright struggled at Arsenal.
I remember the Wright must go season. It was bad enough going to Blackburn and losing 3-0 in the Cup. Then the friday I read in the paper : Baker and Eastham can go. I cried. They were my heroes, you know. Putting them on the transfer list! With Billy Wright, even though I was only 14 or whatever, I knew we wouldn’t win anything with him. I mean, 105 caps, he was a good player and a decent man. But we have to have him out: Wright must go. Saying that though, there was this incredible mixture. There was an intense loyalty that 65-66 season as well.. There was a big game against Liverpool and the chant stated: The Arsenal! The Arsenal! It was actually written about in the papers. We were having a terrible time. We lost 1-0. But I remember the crowd keeping the chant going. I mean, as supporters we don’t have the chance to say : Look we know you’re a decent bloke and we don’t want to do this to you. But we can see this team is crap and it’s getting worse. Our lives are at stake here. So Wright must go.
The season would conclude with the infamous game against Leeds United in may 1966, when Arsenal would lose 3-0 in front of a crowd of 4,554.
Some of those present in the North Bank danced around a bonfire at the front of the terrace, and in the East Stand one bugle-carrying supporter played the ‘Last Post’.
Ironically, ten weeks later England won the World Cup and Billy Wright was sacked by Arsenal. One wonders, if Wright had been manager, would England have won the World Cup?
So where did it go wrong for Billy Wright? For many, it was that Wright was never ‘an Arsenal man’. In other words, he had never been a player at the club and aware of the club. It was said that Wright would come into Arsenal and see the Herbert Chapman bust and shake his fist at it. Ironically, the rumour with George Graham was that he wanted his own bust (and why has he not?) next to Herbert Chapman. Two different characters, two different approaches.
Billy was also not helped by the players at times with Ian Ure saying of his tenure as manager:-
Billy wasn’t a good manager. He wasn’t hard enough and he didn’t have the willpower to get the players to work together. Forwards played as forwards, and midfielders purely as midfielders. The groups didn’t help each other out. Some players simply played for themselves.
Peter Storey also says in his biography that Billy Wright struggled with the pressure and was often found passed out in the changing room and often sided with the more senior players (read Joe Baker and George Eastham), although he gave the youngsters opportunities to get experience.
To me, the reason for the Larkin quote at the top of the page, is (and it is only an opinion), I feel he was a man from a different era. Billy was a 1940’s and 1950’s man. A period when players were deferential to their peers, but by the 1960’s society plus football was changing. George Eastham, in pushing through his transfer to Arsenal from Newcastle in 1960 had seen that, when it came to wages, there was no glass ceiling. Players were now assets and not slave labour as previously. Also, football and management had become more ‘professional’ and certainly more aggressive. Don Revie’s team at Leeds a case in point. Ian Ure pointed out in the 1968 League Cup final, under Bertie Mee, Arsenal took exception to Leeds dirty tactics and hit back. Something Wright would not have done.
Wright’s biographer Norman Giller claims that the former manager’s ‘fingerprints were all over Arsenal’s 1971 Double team’. Radford and Sammels both recount Wright’s decency and kindness to them personally as they began to make their way in the game. But it takes far more than the occasional kind word in a footballer’s ear to make a great manager.