Arsenal: Style, Substance, Reality And ExpectationsBy
What is good football? What makes a great team? Where in all this does Arsenal currently stand?
The increasing discontent surrounding Arsenal’s “trophy drought” has me pondering this question quite a bit lately.
It has proved a vexingly difficult question, and my personal view is that it boils down to why one was attracted to the game in the first place.
In this column, I share the reasons behind my affection for and beliefs regarding the game by documenting my own introduction to and involvement in football.
Are titles and trophies the sole measure of good football?
No. While honours are something we should aspire toward and strive for, football is far too rich to be evaluated on that basis alone. My own introduction to and interest in football (and it was love at first sight) doesn’t have to do with my local, or family favourite club or country winning honours.
It has to do with a set of foreigners provoking an irrepressible grin in an 8 year old, from a cricket obsessed country, watching football virtually for the first time. And no, they didn’t win that edition of the competition, though my affection for them remains an integral part of my love for the game.
Here are the culprits:
Given such an introduction to the game, it’s no surprise that I swear by quick, attacking, possession football. Some of the teams that epitomised this art in my school days were from the then communist Balkans; Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest being the most prominent.
At their best they combined technique and a free, even wild spirit that made for exhilarating viewing .
Often though, in a manner all too recognizable to Arsenal fans today, these brilliant teams would lose discipline in defence and succumb, frequently to canny Italian sides that parked the bus and then drove the stiletto in to the hilt at the first available opportunity.
One despaired if it were at all possible to create a team that balanced exuberant flair and pragmatism consistently.
Just when you were resigned to teams, perforce, erring one way or another in their approach, along came Arrigo Sacchi. His AC Milan side epitomised a yet to be bettered blend of power, pragmatism, tactical discipline and style.
Few teams before or since, have inspired such awe in me. With Franco Baresi marshalling the defence, and Frank Rijkaard commanding the middle of the park, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten were let loose on the road kill du jour.
Then, in 1994, came the one game that decisively influenced my view of what makes a great team: The champions’ League final featuring Fabio Capello’s AC Milan & Johann Cryuff’s Barcelona.
Milan’s circumstances in the run up were scarcely propitious. Hell, they could justifiably be regarded as awful: Marco Van Basten was injured; their first choice CB pairing, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, were both suspended; and Jean-Pierre Papin and Brian Laudrup had to be dropped to fulfil UEFA restrictions on foreign players.
This, added to the fact that they were up against a supposedly more attacking Barcelona side – numbering Romario de Souza, Hristo Stoichkov, Pep Guardiola, & Ron Koeman, among others – in their pomp, compelled many to write AC Milan off.
Fabio Capello and his side then displayed the one trait, over and above the aforementioned attributes, that I have since regarded as the true hallmark of a great side; Resilience.
It boils down to a simple question; Can you tailor your resources and approach to circumstance and then master it?
This makeshift, and supposedly more defence-minded bunch from AC Milan took the game to Barcelona and tore them to shreds, the game finishing 4-0.
Never has the truism about it not being over till the fat lady sings been better illustrated.
Given that background, where in my view, does the current Arsenal squad stand?
They pass the first hurdle with a bias to attacking football.
With a quality goal keeper, and better, younger understudies to Gallas & Vermaelen, we will be well balanced too. (But for injuries that never allow players to find form, we are richly endowed in the attacking department).
Versatility, though, is something we must develop quite a bit of, and quickly. Perhaps it will come with experience, but till we become a side that can consistently adapt to and prevail over circumstances, we may not be a great side.
As for my hopes for this team – I want them to emulate Louis Van Gaal’s Ajax, young and home grown like our own, that, all the while playing champagne football, won the Champions’ League in 1995 (beating Capello’s Milan). They also finished runners-up, on penalties, to Juventas the following year.
Van Gaal’s Ajax team also thrice topped the domestic league.
Not since that Ajax side, boasting a young Patrick Kluivert, Jari Litmanen, Kanu, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Edwin Van der Saar, Marc Overmars and the De Boer brothers, have I seen such a fine collection of young exciting talent maturing together at a club as they currently are at The Arsenal.
I truly hope Arsenal go on to emulate, and then supersede, the achievements of that fine young Ajax side.
The following two video clips features highlights of the entire 1995 Champions’ League campaign of this Ajax team. They provide unfamiliar readers with a better taste of the kind of football Van Gaal’s side served up.
Here’s to similar from This Arsenal side.