In 1997, at the zenith of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, Nick Hornby published a wonderful dissection of the football fan’s psyche.
Normally, wrote Hornby, the fan has in his head either the football of the past or the football of the future but seldom the football of the present. The fan remembers his club’s great midfield of five years, 30 years or a lifetime ago, or he fantasises about the team they will have when the manager finds the last two players needed to complete the puzzle. Meanwhile the football of the present, the one actually being played each Saturday, assumes “the size of a pinhead”.
But Hornby went on to say that for the first time in his life, his team, Arsenal, were playing the football of the present. Thanks particularly to Dennis Bergkamp, they were brilliant.
Arsenal have played the football of the present for most of Wenger’s nine-year reign. They aren’t playing it now. Admittedly it was clever of them to score against Doncaster in the Carling Cup on Wednesday – their first goals in five games – and heroic to win on penalties, but this remains their worst spell under the Frenchman. It may be years before Arsenal play the “football of the present” again.
Hornby has made few pronouncements about Arsenal since his fan’s memoir, Fever Pitch, appeared in 1992. However, he did once say that whereas Manchester United won prizes because they were a giant club, Arsenal won them only because Wenger was their manager. When he arrived at Highbury in 1996, he brought with him certain competitive advantages. But these have since been eroded.
Before Wenger, Arsenal’s traditional pre-match meal of baked beans and Coca-Cola sent players burping on to the pitch. Wenger got his team eating properly. Today, however, all decent teams eat properly.
Wenger used statistics to monitor performance. Whenever Bergkamp complained to him about being substituted, Wenger would show him data: “Look, Dennis, after 70 minutes you began running less. And your speed decreased.” Today most decent teams use statistics.
But Wenger’s greatest, first-mover advantage was in scouting. In 1996, English managers seldom travelled abroad even on booze cruises. Wenger bought a kid called Patrick Vieira from Milan’s bench, and a midfielder from Monaco called Emmanuel Petit. A glance sufficed to establish that they were brilliant players: in Vieira’s case, most Arsenal fans saw it in his first 45 minutes on the Highbury pitch, a demolition of Sheffield Wednesday. All a manager needed to do was fetch them. But only Wenger did.
One Sunday in 1999 I watched an under-17s match between South Africa and Zimbabwe in Soweto. It was during one of the peaks of the South African homicide wave, and I was terrified. Yet in the stand at Orlando Stadium were five other foreign white men: all Arsenal youth coaches. Wenger had 35 scouts scouring the pitches of the earth. They may have seen you play. Today, however, all the best clubs scout worldwide.
Wenger retains his eye for a player. Last summer, spotting that the Brazilians Julio Baptista and Robinho were excellent, he bid for them. Both chose Real Madrid instead, because Arsenal have slid down football’s hierarchy. I first noticed this about a year ago, at a dinner involving two managers of leading European clubs, when I happened to mention that Arsenal were brilliant. The managers demurred. “If Wenger’s so clever,” said one, “why does he never buy a good goalkeeper, and why doesn’t he have a central defender who can pass?” His colleague agreed: “They’re a nice club to play against.”
The world’s best players now tend to choose among six clubs: Real, Barcelona, Juventus, Milan, Chelsea and Manchester United. Arsenal dropped off that list after selling Vieira. Their striker José Antonio Reyes has already revealed, in a spoof interview on Spanish radio, that he would rather be at Real. If Arsenal lose Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole this summer, the club will fall further in football’s hierarchy. Even with money to spend, Wenger can no longer lure the best players, which is why he is currently buying no one.
His new generation of young players includes no future Vieiras or Henrys. Perhaps the most gifted of the bunch, Robin van Persie, does not possess a giant intellect. Some footballers have surmounted this handicap, but it does make it harder.
Wenger hopes that Arsenal’s new stadium, with its capacity of 60,000, will help him lure the greats. But the stadium, which opens next year, has saddled the club with a debt of about £150m. In this sphere at least, Arsenal are supreme in Europe.
By the time they are a debt-free club playing in a big stadium, Wenger will probably have gone, and the football their supporters have in their heads may be that of 1997.