I remember a few years back when Arsenal put out those white kits and everyone freaked out about how yellow was the traditional color for Arsenal away kits. It was Tim Stillman who put that notion to rest and pointed out that white was actually one of the traditional Arsenal colors. Ever since then I’ve learned to listen to what Tim says when it comes to Arsenal’s traditions. And what Tim Stillman wrote about sleevegate when it was but a twinkle in its father’s eye, last week, is mandatory reading on this topic. Let me make it simple for you: Arsenal are kind of iconoclasts when it comes to traditions.
Arsenal v, Sheffield United was the first live radio broadcast of a football match, Arsenal were the first team to use squad numbers (though, at the time the numbers were 1-22 and that was later changed to 1-11 for each team), Arsenal were the first team to play in front of television cameras, George Eastham was the first player to sue for the right to be transferred after his contract ran out*, Arsenal did the unthinkable and moved, twice, on and on. Arsenal have a rich history of not being too damn traditional. So much so that there’s a book called Rebels for the Cause which details Arsenal’s tradition of being iconoclasts — if you get one Arsenal book for Christmas, it should be that book.
And what I can’t figure out is how John Cross at the Mirror is able to dictate the tone of the debate? Reading the Mirror in order to get a lecture on Arsenal’s traditions is like reading Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue in order to get a discourse on politics. STOP.READING.TABLOIDS. You become what you consume. If you want to be a screechy, reactionary supporter with little to no understanding of football, Arsenal, or traditions; then keep reading the screechy, reactionary writers of one-sentence paragraphs, who demonstrate their lack of football knowledge and traditions on an almost daily basis.
What I would rather that we talk about this week is how Arsenal were drawn in the “group of death” and are sitting at the top, having won 4 out of 5 matches by playing some of the most talked about football in Europe. And since this is my blog, that is what we are going to talk about.
No matter what happens to Arsenal from here on out, I will look back on this period of football between the Bayern match and the win over Marseille as a Belle Époque. A golden age of Arsenal marked by peace, optimism, and a revolution in the way that the club play football.
It’s kind of incredible when you think about it, how Arsene Wenger has transformed his style of football over the years to fit the personnel at his club. Unlike the hyper-traditional Man U, who will always play a 4-4-2 with wingers whipping in crosses, Arsene’s Arsenal have played at least three distinct styles and I think that this season’s team is his third style.
The first style that I remember was the Invincibles.** That was a team marked by the stalwart defense of Sol Campbell and Patrick Vieira, a bit of ill tempered play at times, and a swiftness up the pitch unmatched by any Arsenal side I’ve seen since.
The second style was the Cesc era. A period where Arsenal played Barcelona-lite. Tons of possession, weak on set plays, and some of the best passing I have ever seen at Arsenal.
This third style is unique. It seems like a blend of the two styles. When they need to be, they can be a defensive team, hitting the opposition with swift counters. Then when they need to pass their way around the midfield, they can do that as well.***
Jack’s first goal against Marseille exactly embodies this new style. Ramsey was dispossessed on the kickoff. Flaminisleeves wins the ball back and there’s a brief exchange of passes to settle the nerves. Then Giroud drops very deep and flicks a pass to Sagna, who releases Jack down the wings. Jack dribbles past his man in the six yard box, cuts back, and curls home the opener.
From then on, Arsenal sat back and forced Marseille into taking frustrated shots from distance — that is, when they even had a chance to get a shot. Pressing all over the pitch, there always seemed to be three Arsenal players around the ball in defense, and several players swiftly attacking on offense. It was a complete domination by Arsenal. So much so that the French side had just two shots from the 1st minute to the 70th with Arsenal keeping them to 0 shots from the 23rd to the 70th.
This new-found Arsenal style is based on the team that Wenger has at his disposal. With Ramsey, Rosicky, Wilshere, and Özil all able to play in any of four positions in midfield, Arsenal have a swarming and morphing midfield which simply leaves lesser sides chasing shadows of shadows.
Against Marseille, Ramsey played both wings almost equally; Rosicky played mostly left, but not entirely; Wilshere played mostly right, but not entirely; and Özil played all across the front line. The ability of this team to mix and match their midfielders, while still maintaining a defensive solidity is based on the play of Matthieu Flamini. He’s not a spectacular tackler but he’s hard when he needs to be and almost always plays the right pass at the right time. Flamini is and always has been one of my favorite iconoclasts of the Wenger era.
This Arsenal run of form is built on getting early leads and holding on to them through sheer force of will, through compact defending, and through crucial saves by Szczesny. As on cue, Szczesny added yet another great save to his growing list of key moments that are helping Arsenal win games.
But it’s not just the way the midfield seems to be rotating in games, they also seem to be sharing the burden across multiple matches. One day it’s Özil’s day (Napoli), the next it’s Ramsey (Dortmund and Marseille), and the next it’s Wilshere’s day (Marseille). When one player seems to be having an off day, one of the other payers steps up and fills the void. It’s quite remarkable.
And as if to illustrate how tough the task was to qualify through this group, Arsenal have just won four games in the Champions League, against Napoli, Dortmund, and Marseille but they still could yet be knocked out of the competition on the last day if they lose to Napoli by three goals. The last time Arsenal lost by a margin that big was the infamous AC Milan match, during Wenger’s season of transition after the breakup of Cesc’s Arsenal.
The likelihood of this team losing by three or more goals to Napoli has to be about the same as me taking history lessons from John Cross.
P.S. - Pat Rice is in hospital battling cancer. I just want to wish him and his family all of my best.
*You read that right. Until George Eastham won the right to a transfer, players could be and were retained by their clubs after their contracts ran out. Players were bound for life to the club they signed with. These contracts were considered “slavery contracts” by the players and Eastham sued and won the right for a transfer after the contracts ran out. It also should be noted that the Daily Mirror was apoplectic about the Eastham-Arsenal decision running with the headline “WHAT A WAY TO RUN A SPORT”. All of this is detailed in the excellent Rebels for the Cause by Jon Spurling.
**I didn’t actually get to watch many of the early Wenger matches with the George Graham back four so I’m not including them. Hey, at least I admit when I don’t know something.
***I’m not saying that the Invincibles couldn’t pass or that the Cesc era couldn’t hit on the counter. I’m saying that those teams had a style based on the personnel at the club, that’s all.