Whisper it, but Arsenal haven’t been playing the most beautiful football.
For years, we were recognised as the best footballing side in the country, if not the world, but in recent seasons even the most ardent of Gunners fans would struggle to argue that’s still the case.
It’s an uncomfortable reality we have been facing up to for a while now.
We’ve had it all, of course.
Everyone dreams of being both attractive and successful, and football clubs are no different.
When Arsene first arrived, we were like the Emma Watson/Hermione Granger of the footballing world, inspiring global envy for our beauty and our success. But as time went by and we had to tighten our belts, we remained beautiful, but lost some of our success; think Katherine Heigl in 27 dresses – always the bridesmaid and never the bride.
Yet in the most recent years, a modicum of success has returned. But at a cost. Our football has become functional at its best, downright boring at its worst.
What it boils down to in the end, is that football is in the entertainment industry, as the boss is so fond of saying. Success is good, necessary at some clubs even, but it is not the be all and end all.
Sometimes, success is the differentiator, but entertainment is the hygiene factor.
It’s why Jose Mourinho parted company with Chelsea the first time (not so much the second – that was success related!) Roman Abramovich was prepared to accept trophies without entertainment to start with – after all, it represented some measure of return on his investment – but over time, winning ceased to be enough; it lost its gilt.
It’s also why Manchester United have a revolving door of managers, as each successor since Ferguson has tried, and failed, to replicate success without losing that attractive football. Louis van Gaal was sacked within two days of winning the FA Cup and many column inches are given over to the importance of a manager who understands and follows the “Fergie Way”. Not for nothing did Old Trafford season ticket holders regularly chant “Attack, attack, attack!” last season.
And it’s also why we as a fanbase indulged Arsene Wenger’s sides from certainly 2006 to 2008ish, and even beyond that in periods leading up to the departures of Fabregas and Nasri, despite the trophies drying up. Crucially, the football remained attractive and exciting.
In that period, even though our seasons ultimately ended fruitlessly, we got close on many an occasion. The Champions League final of ’06 could so easily have gone differently, the league in 07/08 and 10/11 without the key injuries, and the League Cup final in ’11 without that terrible mix up. Even in defeat, we were entertained.
How many other sets of fans are treated to games like the Liverpool 4-4 (less so the Newcastle one), two 5-2s against their local rivals, or a 5-3 in a London derby? Even our kids were up to it in that 7-5 game against Reading. How many sets of fans enjoy games where they thrash opposition teams enough to put seven goals past them?
We couldn’t defend, but we couldn’t be defended either, and that meant on our day we could beat anyone. It just wasn’t our day enough.
Latterly though, the football has become turgid and stale, with sideways passing and camping outside opposition penalty areas replacing the dynamic counterattacking and breathtaking one-touch football of the early years.
The manner of our two FA Cup wins hardly helped, with as much of the focus on the meal we made of Wigan in the 2014 semi-final and Hull in the final and Reading in the 2015 semi-final. We finally won some silverware, but the manner of it was far from convincing, not to mention highly stressful.
So how pleasing it is then, this season to see us returning to some of the spellbinding play which we haven’t seen for years.
There was some debate this week at Cannon Towers over whether Ozil or Walcott’s goal deserved the greatest plaudits, and while the German’s effort included some delightful interplay, there was a clear winner.
Theo’s goal combined the very best of Wengerball, with fast one-touch passing around the box to engineer space, a quick switch from one side to the other and some fabulous off-the-ball movement to leave Chelsea’s defence a complete shambles. Sharp, precise, clinical.
There was even some discussion of whether that Walcott strike was on a par with, or even greater than, the two fantastic team goals of the 13-14 season, scored by Wilshere and Rosicky against Norwich and Sunderland respectively. Those goals showed formidable skill and teamwork, but were very much more instinctive, where Theo’s effort was engineered to perfection, with each touch timed and placed perfectly to dissect the Chelsea defence. There were proponents of both sides.
So a great performance, and a great result, but you couldn’t help but wonder if this would be yet another false dawn for this Arsenal side after similarly dominant performances against other top sides in years gone by.
After all, hadn’t we lauded our team in exactly the same way after the Manchester United game last season?
And then Wednesday arrived, with two more fantastic goals and another seriously impressive team display. At times, the North Bank was rocking with cries of “no way” and “stop it!”, as we revelled in the best display of attacking football in a long time,and possibly even since we moved to the Emirates.
Xhaka and Cazorla popped passes around for fun, Ozil and Iwobi interchanged with such fluidity that defenders didn’t know whether they were coming or going, and Alexis led the attack with pace and movement which clearly befuddled the opposition.
And then there was Theo.
Whatever they’ve done with 2014-15 Walcott, I hope this version is here to stay.
He combined pace and power with unmatched workrate and the supreme confidence born of an extended and successful run in the team. He has five goals in seven starts and more tackles already this season than the previous two combined. And he is now involved in general play as well as getting on the end of things.
He’s gone from being predictably erratic to unplayably brilliant, and when you throw him into a mixer that includes a great relationship with the best right back in the league, comfortably the best playmaker in the league and the youngster who would be his understudy but for his own brilliance forcing him into the team alongside, two complementary deep-lying creators, and a forward who is both persistent and brilliant? You have a recipe for awesome football. For Wengerball.
In the last few weeks, we have seen this Arsenal team grow into a side which can break down packed defences with sharp intricate passes, which can speed from their own box to the back of the opposition net in mere seconds, and which is brimming with the levels of confidence which breeds success.
It’s all come together into football which can only be described in one word – beautiful.
Happy anniversary, Arsene.
Long may it continue.