I got tired of seeing people claim that Arsène Wenger’s greatest achievement was keeping Arsenal in the top 4 for so long during the ‘difficult’ years after 2006, so I conducted a twitter poll to see how many thought – like me – that an unbeaten league season is a greater achievement. Here’s the result.
I think this is the biggest response I’ve ever had to a twitter poll. Now I’m well aware that in most areas of life twitter polls mean nothing, as twitter is dominated by those who shout loudest. Similarly, the fact that some people can be bothered to phone in to radio shows does not legitimise those people’s often extreme and bizarre opinions. However, all we’re talking about here is football, and even within football a subject that’s of very little importance as it has zero consequences and is based entirely on personal opinion. I’m also aware that results of twitter polls might be biased towards the same views as mine, given my followers see them, but against that in this case is the fact that twitter accounts who I know hold the opposite view to me on this retweeted it, and some of them have many more followers than I do. So I think it’s fairly representative of Arsenal fans (and what with this being the internet, no one is going to persuade me otherwise).
Most people who responded to this are Arsenal fans, and Arsenal fans, by the time I did this poll, were often split into ‘Wenger in’ and ‘Wenger out’ factions – also known as AKB and WOB.
I would bet that most of the 26% who voted for Top 4 as Arsène’s greatest achievement were ‘Wenger in’ – clearly fans who highly value the work of 2006-2017 years were more likely to want him to stay.
I’ve been on the internet long enough to know I’ll never convince most people to change their minds, but regardless, let’s look at the relative difficulty of the two achievements.
Invincible season first: the original Invincibles were Preston North End in the inaugural Football League season of 1888-89. Twelve teams in one division; 22 matches. Preston had enthusiastically embraced professionalism and imported players from Scotland, while some clubs were still a mixture of amateur and professional. There was a range of experience and ability in that first league season that no longer exists in a single division. And with only 22 matches, the chance of a slip-up was far less than in a modern 38-game season. Preston took full advantage, winning 18 and drawing four of their matches.
But soon the league expanded and more games had to be played. Rival teams all adopted similar tactics and training methods, levelling the proverbial playing field if not always the actual one. Talking of which, other reasons why Preston’s feat was not repeated for well over a century were: pitches were often in terrible condition; travel could be difficult and tiring; squads were generally smaller and injuries and illnesses that can easily be treated now could be career-ending; and most impactful of all there were no substitutes in domestic football until 1965. Teams often went down to 10 men or fewer through injuries, or had passengers (sometimes the goalkeeper) hobbling on the wing hoping the ball didn’t come near them. With all that to contend with it was little wonder that it seemed impossible for a team to remain undefeated in the league. And yet another aspect was financial – with a maximum wage in place and turnover of clubs being much lower, there was less difference between clubs and therefore less incentive for players to move for money.
Gradually over the decades, mostly since the 1960s, these factors have reduced, but teams in the same division are still close enough in ability, despite the vast wealth of some, to make it very difficult to not lose a single game. One goal from one attack and one shot is enough to win a football match, and the chances of not losing in 38 matches are very low – even if a team is head and shoulders above the rest. This explains the chances.
Liverpool dominated the 1970s and 1980s, and Man Utd dominated the 1990s and 2000s, taking their totals of league titles well ahead of Arsenal’s and completely out of sight of everyone else. Yet neither looked likely to go a whole season unbeaten, and indeed it was Arsenal in 1991 who came closest, with a solitary defeat. The fact is a team has to be at the top of their game for every match to have a chance. One slip and the record is gone. One missed tackle, one deflection, one failure to play offside properly, even one poor decision by a referee, and you can concede a goal, lose a match and it’s over. You need talent, skill, luck, hard work, focus, mental strength, fitness, teamwork and unwavering self-belief. Few squads have all that, and even if they have all the others the luck is likely to run out at some point. And even if their luck holds as far as winning the league unbeaten, if there are still games left (which there probably will be if they’re unbeaten) they’ll probably mentally relax and increase the chance of losing a meaningless game. So although there are bowling-green pitches, five star travel, superstar wages to bring in the top talent, and (probably most important of all) substitutes, the odds of an unbeaten season are still phenomenally high. A manager’s part in the achievement is to build a team greater than the sum of its parts and to maintain the mental aspects of the requirements. It’s a lot easier said than done, and Arsenal and Arsène are likely to remain unique in modern English football for many years.
Now what about maintaining a position in the top 4? Is that unique? Well no, because Alex Ferguson never finished outside the top 3 in the 21 seasons leading up to his retirement. Before that, from 1973 Liverpool finished in the top 2 – the top 2! – for 18 years out of 19, with a solitary lapse to fifth in the middle. In the time before a Sky and Champions League-funded ‘Big four’ that is surely a more remarkable achievement. However, they did have that one lapse in 1981, so strictly speaking didn’t match Arsène’s complete record, and eventually the Boot Room dynasty fell apart a couple of years short of Arsène’s longevity anyway. Personally I’d value being in the top 2 for 18 years out of 19, winning 11 titles in that period, and ‘suffering’ one fifth place, over 20 solid years of top 4 and a paltry three titles, but maybe that’s just me.
Fergie’s Man Utd more than matched Arsenal’s run, but I know what you’re going to say: they had more money to spend. Yes they did, but it’s not quite that simple. While Arsenal went from second richest to fourth, Man U went from first to third, but Fergie still not only stayed in the top 3, he continued to win titles. But, you may be thinking, he didn’t have the debt of a new stadium to contend with. Man Utd actually have more debt than Arsenal, thanks to the Glazers (who have taken far more out of Man Utd since 2006 than Arsenal’s stadium cost), but they make more money too. But were Arsenal really so financially poor, and was it such a miracle they stayed in the top 4? No and no.
I realise that some people will never be persuaded of this. They believe that Arsenal suffered ‘financial restrictions’ from about 2006 to about 2014 (they’re never completely clear on the exact dates, or on what ‘financial restrictions’ actually means). They believe Arsène always tells the absolute truth, and he’s often mentioned the £20m a year Arsenal need to earn to make the stadium repayments, conveniently forgetting to mention that the extra ticket income has been close to £50m a year since the stadium opened – making a net figure of, let me see now… ah yes, £30m better off. They believe Arsène was forced (by the Board, presumably) to sell all our best players, overlooking that the best players wanted to leave because they were fed up of waiting for a squad worthy of them. They believe that if any of the best players did want to leave it was only because Arsenal were too poor to pay them the going rate, overlooking that the total wage bill has always been much, much closer to Man Utd, Chelsea and (since 2009) Man City than to any other club in the Premier League. They overlook that the wage bill was enormous because of players like Almunia, players who became literally unsellable due to their wages being several grades higher than their talent. As at 2021, Spurs have finished above Arsenal three years in a row with a lower wage bill.
Consistency is great, and well done Arsène for avoiding any really poor season, but from 2006 until after Arsène left Arsenal were the third or fourth richest club and until Arsène’s last couple of years came third or fourth. In 2016 second, due to the bizarre sight of everyone but Leicester imploding, then fifth in his last season. I simply can’t see how a decade of par or par +1 finishes and second in 2016 is equal to the feat of an unbeaten season, something that hadn’t been done for 115 years, and that no one has come close to since.
It suited Arsène and Ivan Gazidis to oversell the ‘financial restrictions’ angle, because it took the pressure off them for a decade of broken promises and no silverware. Granted Arsène himself set the bar high with 1998-2006 and had an awful lot to live up to, but what better excuse than ‘we had no money’ followed by ‘we did our best, we could do no more; it hurts us as much as it hurts you’. As I say, I know there are people who won’t accept this. Okay, that’s fine; it’s not a big deal (he says, irony meter in the red zone after writing 1,800 words on it). Maybe I’ll persuade one person – if it’s you, do let me know.