So I was talking about Extremists. (If you didn’t read the last post, you might want to catch up. I can’t guarantee this one will make sense otherwise. Actually I’m not guaranteeing it anyway, so you do what you like.) Well, I started off talking about Extremists last night and got sidetracked off into the IFFHS, a self-elected and self-important body who dish out odd awards such as ‘World’s Most Popular Player’ to players I’ve never heard of. The IFFHS is based in Germany, but according to Wikipedia (I know, I know) Germany’s largest news agency refuses to report anything they say or do, on the basis that it’s somewhat out of step with the rest of the world.
Anyway, this august body famously voted Arsène Wenger as Coach of the Decade for the first ten years of this millennium, despite the fact he won nothing in the second half of the decade. This brings me back to extremists. You see, the point I was trying to get to in my self-indulgent way was this: some of those who love Arsène Wenger simply won’t hear any criticism of him whatsoever. But they don’t think their view is extreme – they think I’m the idiot because I dare to criticise him. My main crimes include:
· believing Herbert Chapman to be Arsenal’s greatest ever manager (in fact I believe Herb to be the greatest football manager ever when you look at his innovations and what he did for two clubs in the 1920s and 1930s)
· believing that perhaps Alex Ferguson is a greater manager than Arsène Wenger
Let me make one thing plain: I am an Arsenal supporter and always have been – though some think that I can’t really be, as I never seem happy with what’s going on at the club; in their eyes I’m not really ‘supporting’ if I’m complaining. Well, each to his own; if you’re happy being served gruel there’s no real incentive for anyone to serve you caviar, is there?
Incidentally, some of the comments after yesterday were on the lines of ‘you say the worst extremists are those who don’t recognise they are extremists – how do you know that you’re not one then?’ Simple: Arsène lovers hate me criticising him, and Arsène haters (of which there are also many) also hate me because I say he’s still a very good (if not as great as he was) manager, and certainly does not deserve to be sacked. Thus I’m in the middle of the spectrum and clearly my views on this matter are not extreme. QED.
I’m not going to bang on about Herbert Chapman again, I’ll just say this: Paddy Barclay has a book coming out soon about HC, and I’m sure he will give you far more reasons than I can as to why he was so great. Get the book, read it and then come back to me.
As for Alex Ferguson, well I don’t like him as a person particularly; in fact I’m pretty sure Arsène Wenger is all round a nicer bloke. No doubt Alex Ferguson has not had the same revolutionary impact on English football that Arsène Wenger had either. But what he has done is been a one-man dynasty at arguably the biggest football club in the world (top three definitely), rebuilding successful teams time after time and winning a trophy haul far in excess of anyone else in the game. Yes he’s had quite a lot of money to do it with, but that level of success for that long is phenomenal. He has single-handedly outdone the period of dominance that Liverpool had with three or four managers in the previous two decades. Let’s not forget that before Man Utd (where he admittedly had a slow start), he broke the old firm dominance in Scotland with Aberdeen; that was some achievement too.
But it’s not permissible to some for me to think that Fergie is the equal or better of Arsène – oh no, because Fergie has had it easy with all that money. He hasn’t SINGLE-HANDEDLY BUILT A STADIUM and MADE PROFITS EVERY YEAR and REVOLUTIONISED ENGLISH FOOTBALL, all while buying players for tuppence and turning them into superstars.
These are things Arsène Wenger has done, and Arsène must not be criticised as a result.
I don’t go along with the ‘single-handedly built a stadium’ nonsense, or even ‘Arsène made Arsenal’ – that puts down the achievements of everyone at Arsenal before 1996. Obviously Arsène’s achievements helped towards funding a stadium, no one in their right mind would deny that. In fact his achievements are really all linked together: he revolutionised English football by bringing in relatively unknown or underused players, some of whom helped win trophies and make profits, some of whom didn’t want to stick around or were deemed past their best and were sold for big profits.
His ‘revolution’ was in a few parts: he managed to get the best out of what had appeared to be a rapidly ageing group of players for several more years, particularly the famous defence, by changing eating habits, fitness regimes and so on. He introduced ideas that weren’t all new, but were new to England. In effect he forced notoriously insular English clubs to catch up with what the rest of Europe was doing.
Then he used his vast knowledge of the European and world game to find players he could mould into a great team at relatively little expense – again, beating other more insular English clubs who did not have the same vision or knowledge.
As a result of these two advantages Arsenal stormed ahead and went from the kind of level Spurs are at now to Champions and perennial Champions League participants (it’s a stretch too far to say perennial CL challengers). Only Man Utd could keep up, and in fact maintain a higher trophy count, by virtue of two things: more money and an equally good (in his own way) manager, who was willing to learn and adapt.
That served Arsenal well for several years, culminating in the one in 100 chance of an unbeaten season in 2004. (And I won’t take any crap about finishing third or fourth with the current squad being Arsène’s greatest achievement – an unbeaten league season is by far his greatest achievement, that should be unquestionable.)
But after that peak, things changed. Several things. Firstly Abramovich had arrived in 2003. Chelsea had won a few cups in previous seasons and sustained title challenges until early spring, but suddenly they were catapulted to being real contenders. The two horse race became a three horse race. More recently, Man City have made it a four horse race.
Secondly Arsenal had made the bold decision to move stadiums, and after 2004 they were gearing up for that move. That meant some restrictions on spending, because sponsors money was diverted to stadium funding.
Thirdly, the Man Utd marketing machine moved from being merely very good to being staggeringly good. Their deal with Nike from 2002 has earned them about as much on average per year as Arsenal will be getting from Puma (allegedly) starting next year. So they went from being a bit richer than Arsenal to a lot richer (luckily for them, as the owners have taken quite a bit out).
If you ask the Arsène Extremists, that’s where the story ends: what more do you need? The World’s Greatest Manager™ was hamstrung by the triple whammy of Man Utd’s money, the Oilies money and the cost of a new stadium. If it wasn’t for those things, Arsenal would still be partying like it was 1998.
Let me make this very clear: I AGREE ALL THOSE THINGS HAD AN EFFECT.
But there’s another factor. By 2005, the innovations Arsène brought English football weren’t innovations any more. Every two-bob Premier League no-hoper club had scouts all over the world by now; no chance of Arsène consistently finding new seams of gold in places where no one else was looking, because everyone was looking everywhere.
And everyone was now eating like athletes, training like athletes and being treated like athletes. There are so many foreigners in the English league we’ll be lucky to find 11 natives to make up an England team soon. But there’s the other advantage gone: with one or two exceptions, English football has dispensed with the teams of cloggers that used to largely make up the top division.
So Arsène is left with his ability to mould a team, which he does a lot better than nearly every other manager, but has lost all the other advantages he enjoyed in his early years. I think the Arsène Extremists have only noticed the first three external changes I mentioned. They’ve overlooked the other reasons for recent (relative) lack of success.
I personally think it would have been difficult for another manager to finish in the top four every season in Arsène’s position – but another manager might have had one or two great seasons and won some silverware. It’s personal preference which you think is better, but clearly a lack of silverware leads to criticism from some quarters.
Whatever you think of the level of restrictions Arsenal have had on spending since we last saw a trophy, there’s no doubt we will soon have much more money and start to pull away from most of the clubs below. The Arsène Extremists see this as the new golden age about to dawn: when the money is back on a more equal footing, Arsène will be back at the top. Maybe he will – if the loss of his other advantages is not too great. We shall see. But if you’re talking to an Arsène Extremist, just nod and agree – they really get annoyed otherwise.