The last time Arsenal started a season without European football was in 1995. That was almost 22 years ago, and times were very different. After sacking George Graham – who won eight trophies in six seasons with the club – Arsenal embarked on a disappointing campaign with Bruce Rioch as manager, but even then they qualified for Europe.
They finished fifth that season, gaining a spot in the next season’s UEFA Cup, but Rioch wouldn’t accompany them there. Instead, he was sacked five days before the start of the season as David Dein and the Arsenal board lined up the former Monaco boss Arsene Wenger as his replacement. He finally took charge in September once the Japanese season had finished, but defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach saw Arsenal knocked out in the first round of European competition. The revolution was just around the corner, though.
After just days in the club, Wenger had already laid the groundwork for a sea change that would be felt much further afield than Highbury: he changed the face of English football.
A team meeting was held, and some of the greater excesses of the players were curtailed: in addition to cutting out alcohol, the virtues of broccoli were extolled to the players, and Mars bars were banned. It may have led to jokey chants of ‘we want our Mars bars back’ on the team bus during away trips, but team prospered soon enough.
Others would copy Wenger’s approach, and although you can’t credit the Frenchman with discovering the benefits of fruit and vegetables or cutting out smoking, drinking and junk food, he did insist on a higher standard of professionalism: something we now take completely for granted.
Wenger’s Arsenal were inimitable in the first decade or so of his reign, though.
It wasn’t just the trophies, but the speed at which they played and the style of football they did it in is arguably so widely feted that Wenger is still dining out on its successes to this day.
But perhaps one of the reasons Wenger’s early period at Arsenal is such a watershed moment in the history of English football is because on top of the fact they played such spectacular football, they did it so soon after the Graham and Rioch years, where ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’ wasn’t so much a winning scoreline as a way of life.
The Gunners had begun to play more like their north London rivals Tottenham than any previous incarnation of Arsenal. They were everything Spurs were supposed to be – only they were successful, too.
The transformation from the Graham years to the Wenger Arsenal probably reached its peak of visible change in 2006, when the Gunners moved from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium. Located just a few miles from the old ground, the new one at Ashburton Grove couldn’t really be more different. It is a stunning stadium, iconic and modern. And it was supposed to be the scene of even greater conquests.
That hasn’t happened yet.
When Greaves said that Arsenal stole Tottenham’s clothes he was talking about what Wenger brought to the club in 1996. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that 2006 was the real moment they robed themselves in Tottenham’s finery.
Since then, keeping up the repayments for building their new stadium stopped the Gunners from really challenging the elite, even if their bank balance suggested they could. But there seems to be an element of institutionalisation of the failures at the football club. Arsenal are now known as a team with a certain philosophy, while some will say that is down to the style of their manager rather than the club. The truth is, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two anymore.
Arsenal have, over the last decade, sought to replace the likes of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva with various other central midfielders, none of whom have had the bite of their predecessors. They’ve also found it difficult to replace Tony Adams or Martin Keown – old school defenders in their own ways, but leaders on the pitch, too.
As a result, we think of Arsenal as an over-sophisticated team with a soft spine, the kind of club very few would object to keeping an eye on as a second-side, a team for whom you have a soft spot. It’s not because there’s anything special about the club, it’s just that over the last decade they’ve become less and less of a threat.
Indeed, fpr all intents and purposes, Arsenal have become a bit of a cup team. Capable of a total capitulation in February, the Gunners have found themselves out of contention early-on, having to rebuild their season in the FA Cup. They seem to peak at a crunch time every year, it’s just that they’ve already blown it before then.
That’s always been how Spurs have been perceived. A classy-passy cup team who play beautiful football, but never a team you’d never bet on to win the league; they just never had the grit. Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne, Jurgen Klinsmann, Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles are just some of the players who made sure that Tottenham were one of the best technical sides in England, and who were one of the most outward-looking teams in the country, too, but who lacked the killer edge to win a title.
They could always beat you in the cup, though.
Yet if any team so gloriously encapsulates what many people think when they hear the words ‘Tottenham Hotspur’, it is probably this Arsenal side. If Roy Keane were 10 years older, the phrase could easily have been, ‘lads, it’s Arsenal’. That soft underbelly is the kind of thing Keane would relish.
What’s ironic, though, that if Arsenal were a turbo-charged Tottenham in the early years of Wenger’s time in England, the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino at White Hart Lane could well be painted as a similar sort of revolution to the one that Wenger started across the north of the city.
Perhaps, in Pochettino, you can see a fresh-faced, 1990s Wenger taking the Premier League by storm and changing the culture. A team full of technically brilliant young players who are currently thriving on their manager’s trust, they finished second last year and are poised to repeat the feat once again. More importantly, though, their brand of football is a thoroughly modern one: it marries a high pressing ethos with tactical astuteness and a cutting edge, it comprises of neat attacking patterns and the fact that every last detail seems so planned out and executed.
It isn’t inexorably reminiscent of Wenger’s Arsenal, they are not the same, and this is by no means a second coming, but Pochettino arrived at Spurs and revolutionised the way things were done. He brought modern methods, outward-looking ideas and trusted youth. He took a team who had been typecast as beautiful losers and turned them into a modern machine with grit and determination, and he did it all in just a few short years.
Maybe Greaves is right about Arsenal. Maybe they did steal Tottenham’s clothes. And yet in fashion, they say trends are cyclical. As Spurs are thriving under a manager who has brought new ideas, he looks more and more like a man rediscovering Arsene Wenger’s old style. And 20 years later, it is Arsenal who look more and more out of fashion.
If Arsenal really did steal Tottenham’s clothes, it’s unlikely Spurs will ever want them back.