Sport

Soccer: From ‘Arsene who?’ to ‘Arsene – who else?’

By Antoinette Muller 2 October 2013

Arsenal beat Napoli 2-0 at the Emirates on Tuesday night. The win was their tenth on the trot and happened on the 17th anniversary of Arsene Wenger walking through the marble halls at Highbury. Sure, he’s made mistakes, but he has managed to engineer a rather remarkable turnaround from that defeat against Aston Villa on the opening day of the season. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Just a few meters away from the Emirates stadium, there is a small merchandise shop which sells all kinds of Arsenal paraphernalia. Since Mesut Özil joined the team, a giant mask cut-out of his head (with the eyes blanked out for good measure) has been pasted on the sign outside. The sign reads: Keep calm, I’m a Gooner.

Calm is not something Arsenal has known in recent years. Tuesday night marked Arsene Wenger’s 17th anniversary at the club. When he first came to North London, nobody really knew who he was. The Frenchman had been successful in his homeland and in Japan, but he was not very well known in England. He was somewhat peculiar; eccentric, even, and he didn’t really represent a football manager. This image wasn’t helped by his approach to the footballer’s diet and his training methods. He banned chocolate within his first few days at Highbury. He was the sun rising on a new dawn in English football, dismantling the assumption that it was only English coaches who can win championships. It had been four years since the introduction of the Premier League and Wenger thought Arsenal was crazy to give a foreigner the job.

“They were crazy in the sense that I had no name, I was foreign, there was no history. They needed to be, maybe not crazy, but brave. I can show some articles where people tried to prove that the foreign managers can never win an English championship,” he said.

How things have changed since then. Many might say that Arsenal is still crazy to have kept Wenger on for so long despite delivering trophies, but that is obtuse thinking. Success on the pitch doesn’t always translate into trophies, although the draught has been long and perhaps unbearable for some – and befuddling, maybe, considering how pretty the balance sheets are looking.

When Özil signed up to Arsenal, it was likened to a “Bergkamp moment”. The kind of signing that could have a ripple effect. The two transfers have a few things in common. Both players were out of sorts at their current clubs: Bergkamp at Internazionale and Özil at Real Madrid. Both shattered the club transfer fee record and both were big names who strolled into the halls of the North London club being the “A-lister”.

At the time of his signing, Özil’s transfer seemed like buying a painting for the bathroom while the lounge was falling apart, but it is often forgotten that redecorating is easier when starting with the room that just needs that something extra. Part of that redecorating was the surprise return of Mathieu Flamini. At the time, it seemed absurd. But a few games in, life at the Emirates seemed inconceivable without him. His impact has been tremendous and while it might have been a gamble on Wenger’s part when he initially made that decision, it’s paid off.

But the big fish, the superstar signing of Özil, has proven to be the magic touch. The addition of one player can make the world of difference. Just like Bergkamp went to on to revolutionise the beautiful game Arsenal had become known for, their image also bumped up a notch when the Dutchman joined. In the Highbury era, Bergkamp was the first brick in the wall of transforming Arsenal from being average to being a side with real clout.

It’s too early to judge Özil’s impact just yet, but early signs are already there. Things have changed. Suddenly, Arsenal is scoring from set pieces. Arsenal no longer looks like it’s on the verge of being gutted after establishing a lead. There is no fear that a late equaliser might spoil everything. The midfield is magical and the side looks like it is playing as a team. While Arsenal has always been the “passing team” trying to walk the ball into the back of the net, that passing game has taken on a new face. It’s fast, it’s furious and it’s relentless, and it will destroy anyone who is even caught half napping. By half-time against Napoli, Arsenal had completed 379 passes with an 88% accuracy compared to Napoli’s 168 and an accuracy of 82%. Their performance was velvet.

The midfield has woven such a perfect and volatile chemistry. Their win over Napoli makes it ten wins on the trot, and the victory puts them in a strong position to qualify for the next round in the Champions League. It was the perfect anniversary gift for the Arsenal boss. The Gunners finished with 58% possession, 79% successful tackles and 88% pass accuracy. Mikel Arteta said it was the best football he had seen Arsenal play since arriving at the club almost two years ago. Arsenal has seemingly found its calm, and if they can harness just a third of Tuesday night’s performance and their mainstays manage to stay fit in future, they could challenge for any title they want.

That Wenger has made his mistakes in the past, there is no doubt. However, it says something about his character that he has been persisted for so long. Seventeen years ago, the headline asked: “Arsene who?” The answer is now, simply: “Arsene, who else?” DM

Photo: Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger attends a news conference before a training session in Marseille September 17, 2013. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

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