It almost seems a lifetime ago now. It all resembles a hazy dream. You’re sure it happened, but the football landscape has changed so dramatically in such a short space of time, that everything now feels so… different. From time to time your mind will throw up random images of pizzas, of captains squaring off, of unbeaten runs, of missed penalties, of Martin Keown’s snarling face. You stop, bemused for a second, before shaking your head and carrying on your day. Can’t be. Didn’t happen.
Yet it can.
And it did.
There was a time, not so many moons ago, when the country was permanently bathed in a shade of red. When Middlesbrough were better than Manchester City. When Newcastle and Leeds would challenge for Europe. When Michael Owen was the next big thing.
There was a time when Arsenal vs Manchester United was the biggest game of the season, and Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson the most bitter of enemies. And although that time is no more, there is reason to believe that the relationship isn’t completely dead. For while the Devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he didn’t exist, perhaps Wenger’s was convincing Ferguson that he’d given up the fight.
BROTHERS AT WAR
Now flash forward to last season. Arsenal’s captain and best player has just left the club and headed north to join Manchester United, once such a hated rival. What, in the past, would have seemed unimaginable now appears rather ordinary. Arsenal, no longer viewed as challengers by the rest of the elite, have fallen down a rung on the Premier League ladder. No longer good enough.
The season itself unfolds in rather mundane fashion. United, with their new talisman in tow, storm to the title, eleven points clear of their city rivals. Arsenal, as had become the norm, win a nerve-wracking battle for fourth spot. Ferguson had, in every single way, beaten Wenger.
It was the classic older brother/younger brother metaphor. In the past they would fight, because boys like to fight. In most cases the older brother would win, but sometimes the younger brother would land a beautiful uppercut – possibly when the older brother was distracted by the ladies. However, as the years went by and the boys matured, nature took its course. The older boy took on the dominant role, the younger realising he could no longer compete with his larger, stronger sibling. He’d put up a good fight while it lasted, but knew when to call it a day. There began a sort of mutual respect. A realisation that they weren’t fighting for the same thing anymore. Both agreed to let bygones be bygones.
But then the older brother made a huge mistake.
Wenger, without his oppressive older brother clamouring for attention, could finally breathe. Instead of being just another manager, now he was the manager. He’d been there, seen it all, done it all. Heading into his 18th year as Arsenal manager, Wenger was now the Granddaddy of English football. Where once he stood in his older brother’s shadow, now he gazed down on these young whippersnappers daring to call themselves football managers. What did they know that he didn’t? What had they experienced that he hadn’t? Even his chirpy former rival Mourinho, ever the fan of playground bickering, cut a rather more sour figure than before, as if he’d had the joy squeezed out of him like a tube of toothpaste on its last legs. So maybe this is what drives Wenger now. Maybe this is the real story behind Arsenal’s performances so far?
Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?
- Neither squad changed much between the end of the 2012/13 season and the start of the 13/14 campaign. One major signing (Özil and Fellaini) was all that either team allowed itself. Neither team had much reason to splash the cash. United strolled to the title, and were banking on another impressive year from van Persie; Arsenal would have settled for an improvement to third place.
- Both clubs have suffered substantial injuries to important first team players through the first half of the season. In truth, Arsenal have been hit slightly worse.
- Both squads are weak in certain areas. Manchester United’s poor midfield is easy to spot while Arsenal lack cover up front and at centre back.
So, in the grand scale of things, there aren’t many reasons why one team should be playing so well, and the other so poorly. Obviously a new manager arriving at a club can bring about a period of transition, but for such a dominant side to completely lose its drive and determination seemingly overnight is incredible, and it can only be harsh to pin all the blame on David Moyes. His Everton sides never looked like they lacked motivation or direction.
Yet while Moyes’s arrival is given by many as the sole factor behind United’s sudden demise, theories about Arsenal’s upsurge haven’t been as forthcoming. Perhaps because Arsenal fans are too afraid to discuss it, lest it jinx this whole season. After 20 games, we can feel it, it’s there, within our grasp. And we know that this season is different. There’s something in the air at the Emirates. There’s something in the atmosphere. And it’s all down to the man with a spring in his step.
A NEW LEASE OF LIFE
Positive energy breeds positive energy. Good things happen to those who are open to them. Football is all about morale and momentum. So this is my theory: Ferguson’s departure is the true reason Arsenal have performed so much better this season.
When you think about it, it’s relatively simple. Ferguson, whether you liked him or loathed him, was a huge character. Ferguson had been at United for 26 years. Ferguson was United manager the same amount of time that my older brother has been alive on this planet. That’s insane.
Naturally, when he finally did go, a part of English football went with him. A red-faced, obnoxious, hypocritical, gum-crunching part of it, but a part all the same. Wenger, like a student turning up at Uni on their first day, realised that he could now be whoever he wanted to be. ‘Screw fourth place, if we don’t go for it now we never will’. New managers at all three rival clubs meant they’d be playing catch up. Wenger knew his squad, knew what they could do, and actually, for once in a long time, believed that they had a chance. And when your manager truly believes, it doesn’t take much for this to be transmitted to the players. And when you play believing you will win, most of the time, you do.
Just as with most people in life, when someone does the same job for a long period of time they start to lose that spark, that joy that they used to have in the beginning. It becomes just another thing you do. You don’t necessarily start to do it badly, but you lack enthusiasm. During the last few years, that lack of enthusiasm has been evident on Wenger’s face. Now? Now he’s like a child trying something new for the first time: energetic, passionate, excited.
And for that we have Alex Ferguson to thank.