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Arsène Wenger is usually among the most decorous of men, but it seemed something of a faux pas when he spoke of having to be “realistic” after Arsenal’s 7-0 win over Slavia Prague in the Champions League this week.
He, of all people, must realise that Wednesday’s performance, and the way Arsenal have played in winning 12 consecutive matches, has little to do with reality. The rapid interchanges of passes, the youthful zest, the invention and imagination: these are a purist’s fantasy.
This is the football of 50 years ago played at the pace of today, and it is quite breathtaking.
The only question is whether they can maintain such a standard against the best sides, and that will be tested at Liverpool on Sunday, and then again against Manchester United next weekend.
The fixture list has thus far been kind, with even Arsenal’s two games against over-performing sides – Portsmouth and Manchester City – falling at the Emirates
Wenger was criticised for his limited summer spending, with many suggesting his team might struggle to make the top four, and a couple of poor results early on could have placed his side under pressure.
As it is, they have been able to develop a momentum that even two games in succession against serious title contenders might not check. The biggest threat to Arsenal so far this season came against Sunderland when, 2-0 up after 14 minutes, they switched off and conceded twice before rallying to win by a 3-2 scoreline that flattered their opponents.
Football at present seems to be relishing the counter-intuitive. Buy stars, as Chelsea did before the start of last season or Liverpool did this summer, and they either unbalance a winning side or present a manager with too many choices. Sell them,
and lesser players come out of their shells to take responsibility.
A fire sale of marquee signings, of course, is improbable, but having seen off the galácticos era at Real Madrid, football seems to be delighting in demonstrating that the team is more important than any individual.
Wenger has proved in the past that he is adept at selling players at the right moment – his economics degree, perhaps, enabling him to value players accurately as assets without the intrusion of sentiment. Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira all left for large fees and struggled to hit the same heights elsewhere.
The sale of Thierry Henry to Barcelona last summer, though, now appears to have been his masterstroke. Even Henry has admitted that he probably held the team back, his personality dominating the side so that team-mates felt every move had to centre on him – something only encouraged by the petulant gesticulating that followed each pass that did not.
Cesc Fabregas, who at 20, has replaced Henry as the, far less demanding, focal point of the side has said that he felt “intimidated” by the France forward. That is not to deny Henry’s greatness, merely to acknowledge that such greatness can be inhibiting.
In Spain it is noticeable that Villarreal, who for a variety of reasons have ostracised the Argentina playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, have undergone a similar resurgence in the absence of their star.
“Modern football?” Jose Alberto Cortez, a professor of coaching at the University of São Paulo, said this week. “It’s not about individuals any more. That is why Kaka is the greatest player in the world. Because...his skills are all for the team.”
Perhaps fortune is smiling on Arsenal, too, in letting them face Liverpool at a time when manager Rafael Benitez is under greater pressure than ever before. Rotation has tended to get the blame for their stutter after an impressive start, but the problem may be just the same that Arsenal faced before off-loading Henry: are they over-reliant on Steven Gerrard?
He is a very different player to either Henry or Riquelme, but he sets the tempo and dominates the mood of the side no less surely. Now that he is suffering a downturn in form, so too are Liverpool.
This is the paradox of modern football: for all it is supposed to be about squads these days, it is more than ever about the team.