While Arsenal’s bosses and Unai Emery are trying reboot a stuck-in-the-mud Arsenal team, for some long-term fans, it’s all far too late
“Then came a 7-4 win at home to Reading, setting a Premier League record for the number of goals scored in one game. I remember nothing about it. I refuse to. I have blanked it from my mind. I hate games like that.” Tony Adams, on his time at Portsmouth.
A confession: towards the end of the 2010-11 season I had to stop watching the team I’d supported for 25 years. As an attacking unit Arsenal were as exciting as any side in Europe, but that was the problem. They were only entertaining to neutrals and fans of rival teams, who knew that at some stage they were going to implode.
A defining moment was the 4-4 draw at St James Park, when “we” somehow squandered a 4-0 lead. This result bequeathed a host of conspiracy theories. In stoppage time Robin van Persie had what would have been a winner disallowed, but by then my nervous system was damaged beyond repair.
A couple of seasons later Arsenal would come from 4-0 down in a League Cup tie at Reading to win 7-5 but the reaction of Arsene Wenger at the final whistle was still that of a beaten man, someone for whom the joy had drained away.
I didn’t stop caring: I still check my phone for the result the moment I know the game’s over, and if “we” have won, I’ll watch the highlights. If “they” have lost I’ll try to forget it ever happened. It used to take me at least 24 hours to get over a bad result. Now I’m over the worst after about half an hour, significantly quicker than Arsene Wenger, who before the 2014 FA Cup Final, told ITV: “Every defeat is a scar for life.”
Which begged a question: if you hate losing that much, who do you send out teams so transparently vulnerable that they can lose 8-2 to Manchester United? Or 6-0 to Chelsea? Or 5-1 to Liverpool? The fabled Arsenal back four wasn’t impregnable, but they never capitulated. In the entire George Graham era they almost never lost by more than two goals, a freakish 6-3 surrender to Manchester United in the League Cup in 1990-91 the exception that proved the rule.
Adams recalls a conversation with Wenger during one of the latter’s final seasons at Arsenal, in which he pointed out he’d never win the league with full backs playing like wingers. “Yes I know,” came the reply.
“I asked him if he was going to do anything about it,” wrote Adams. “He simply smiled.”
Wondering if anything had changed under Unai Emery, I attempted to watch the Chelsea match. I saw full-backs line-up on the six-yard line for goal kicks. I saw Petr Cech, one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, reduced to the level of a pub league stopper, barely able to kick the ball out of his area.
Then I saw Hector Bellerin surge forwards. For five seconds he looked like Marc Overmars, right up until the moment Overmars would have rolled the ball back for Wright or Bergkamp to finish, or driven the ball past the keeper himself. He gave the ball away and with no one covering for him, Chelsea scored. At which point I turned off. We could have won 7-4 and I wouldn’t have cared.
When Adams or Bould were injured, O’Leary or Keown were available. Bould begat Campbell, Dixon begat Lauren, Winterburn begat Ashley Cole. And as hated as Cole would eventually become, who wouldn’t pick him ahead of Clichy, Traore, Gibbs or Santos?
The question now isn’t whether any of Arsenal’s current defenders would get into that starting XI, but whether they’d keep Igor Stepanovs and Gus Ceasar out of the reserves. It might be entertaining for the neutral, but like Tony Adams, I’m hating every second of it.