Friday, March 21, 2014

One Arsène Wenger, 1,000 Games -- Part II


With a name like Arsène, it seemed fitting that Arsène Wenger became the manager of Arsenal football club. Indeed, one of the books about his tenure in North London is titled Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, by Alex Fynn.

When he arrived in the marble halls of Highbury on September 30, 1996, Wenger and Arsenal needed each other. He needed to prove himself against the best competition imaginable, and they needed a manager who could lead them back to glory.

But there were doubters. More important than in the English media, including the Evening Standard, publisher of the infamous headline "Arsène Who?" were those within the club. As with on a hockey team, on a soccer team, the post of Captain is more important than it is in baseball, basketball, and American football. And the Arsenal Captain, centreback Tony Adams, later admitted, "At first, I thought: What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He's not going to be as good as George. Does he even speak English properly?"

Arsène Wenger did, of course, speak English properly. And, in the end, he did more with George Graham's players, including Adams, than Graham did.

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One reason is that he insisted on a change in lifestyle. Adams, right back Lee Dixon, and midfielders Perry Groves, Paul Merson and Ray Parlour had formed The Tuesday Club. Since Graham didn't hold training (as Allen Iverson would say, "We talkin' 'bout practice") on Wednesdays, the five of them went out on the last on Tuesday nights, and alcohol-fueled hijinks ensued, occasionally resulting in criminal activity. Graham overlooked it, because the players returned to training on Thursday and Friday, and got the job done on Saturday.

Wenger knew that this could not be sustained, especially since, upon his arrival, Dixon was 32, Adams was about to turn 30, and Merson was 28 -- Parlour was easily the youngest of that bunch, 23. It could not have escaped Wenger's attention that the other member, Groves, had already been out of football for 2 years and away from Arsenal for 4, his sloppy lifestyle ending his career before he turned 30.

He not only changed the way the players warmed up, including added stretching, but streamlined their training-day and game-day diets, introducing pasta and leaner cuts of meat than they'd been used to. And he insisted on reducing their alcohol intake.

Indeed, Adams would soon go into rehab to beat alcoholism, and upon his return insisted that the club go further than even Wenger's recommendations: He asked that alcoholic drinks be banned from the players' lounge. (He would write a memoir titled Addicted and found a rehab center.) The result was that Adams and Dixon were still playing for Wenger at Arsenal as late as 2002, Parlour until 2004.

But not all the players signed on to this healthier ideal. Merson, in particular, had already been to rehab once, for not just alcohol but cocaine addiction. He and Parlour also had gambling problems. Wenger sold Merson to North-East club Middlesbrough in the 1997 off-season, with 99 (not 100) goals to his Arsenal credit. Eventually, Merse would straighten out his life, and become a TV pundit for the game; but his career, for all intents and purposes, was in ruins.

In addition, Wenger saw a team that had, to use a word he likes to use, "quality," but also, as he put it, "a short shelf life." Centreback Steve Bould was almost 34 years old. Goalkeeper David Seaman, the starter for the England national team, was 33 (though it should be noted that, as in hockey, goalies tend to last longer than outfield players). So was forward Ian Wright, who was on his way to becoming the club's all-time leading scorer. Left back Nigel Winterburn was about to turn 33. Like Adams, midfielder David Platt and centreback Martin Keown were 30. Indeed, of the regulars, only Parlour and forward Dennis Bergkamp were under 30 (23 and 27, respectively).

So beyond changing the diet and the exercise, in order to extend the careers of these players, Wenger knew he had to find their replacements as soon as possible. The fact that Vice Chairman David Dein, the man who had recommended Wenger to the Arsenal board, had already brought in Dutch star Bergkamp a year before was a big help.

Before he was able to officially take charge, Wenger recommended to Dein and caretaker manager Pat Rice (who had played on Arsenal's 1971 Double team and captained their 1979 FA Cup winners) that they sign Patrick Vieira, a 20-year-old Senegal-born, France-raised midfielder at AC Milan, who had played for Cannes (although well after Wenger had moved on from that club). Wenger's first acquisition was every bit as important to the new era that was to begin as Bergkamp's vision and flair would be: "Paddy," as Arsenal fans soon called him, was a two-way dynamo, devastating in defense, and setting up and scoring plenty of goals. As more young players came into the club, he essentially became Adams' vice-captain for handling them, and set himself up perfectly to step into the Captain's role when Adams finally retired.

Arsenal finished 3rd in 1997, their best finish in 6 years, since Graham's last title. With a proper summer transfer window to work with, Wenger went to work, continuing his "French Revolution" by signing teenaged forward Nicolas Anelka from Paris Saint-Germain and his former Monaco defensive midfielder Emmanuel Petit. He also reasoned that Bergkamp might work well with Dutch winger Marc Overmars; they had played together at the mighty Ajax Amsterdam.

It worked beautifully: Trailing Manchester United by 13 points in the winter, Arsenal stormed back, beating Man U away on a late Overmars goal, took 48 out of a possible 54 points, and clinched the title for the 11th time -- but the first time under the Premier League name -- in a home game at Old Trafford, beating Liverpool-based Everton 4-0, the last goal memorably coming the old Arsenal way, as the centerback pair of Bould and Adams did the business, Bould providing a nice through-ball for the Captain, who slammed it home, and raised his arms in a pose that would be the template for his statue that now stands outside the Emirates Stadium. Finally having won a League title -- the closest he had previously come was 3rd place with his former club Crystal Palace -- Wright jumped on Adams' back, the happiest man inside Highbury. Arsenal then beat Newcastle United to take the FA Cup, on goals by Overmars and Anelka (2 of the brand-new acquisitions, remember).

Arsène had made his point: Although Scottish, Welsh and Irish managers had done well in the English game, he proved that a "foreign" manager could succeed. And that the League Champions should be a team capable of playing "beautiful football." Muhammad Ali, who defended the Heavyweight Championship of the World against Henry Cooper at Highbury in 1966, and frequently said of a challenger, "He's too ugly to be the world's champ! The world's champ should be pretty, like me!" would have understood, had he been aware of it at the time. (Indeed, Arsenal fans have long mocked Liverpool, the team that dominated the 1970s and '80s, with the song, "Liverpool, hoof the ball!"

It should also be noted that the Double was a rare thing in England. To that point, it had only been done 7 times, with some notorious close calls, including Arsenal finishing 2nd in the League and losing the FA Cup Final in 1932. Here are the times it's been done, through the 2012-13 season:

1. 1888-89 Preston North End (the first season of the League)
2. 1896-97 Aston Villa (Birmingham)
3. 1960-61 Tottenham Hotspur (Arsenal's nearby rivals)
4. 1970-71 Arsenal
5. 1985-86 Liverpool
6. 1993-94 Manchester United
7. 1995-96 Manchester United
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8. 1997-98 Arsenal
9. 1998-99 Manchester United
10. 2001-02 Arsenal
11. 2009-10 Chelsea (West London)

That's 11 occurrences, 9 since 1960, and 6 have been by Arsenal and Man U. Liverpool and Chelsea, for all their success, have done it just once each. (Arsenal's shocking League title win at Anfield in 1989 was the best-known denial of a Liverpool Double.)

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After the 1998 Double, Wenger began the process of replacing the Graham team. He sold Wright and Platt, moved Anelka into Wright's role on a regular basis, and brought in Freddie Ljungberg to replace Platt. It almost worked wonders, but Arsenal missed the League title by 1 point, and fell to Man United in the FA Cup Semifinals, as United then went on to shock Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final, winning what remains England's only European Treble.

Wenger then encountered his first sign of trouble, as Anelka, named Young Player of the Year in England, thought he deserved more money. For the first time, Wenger had turned a kid with promise into a great player, and had gotten ingratitude in return. Having bought Anelka's contract for £500,000, Wenger now sold it to Spanish giants Real Madrid for £22.3 million. If Anelka thought his point was proven, he was wrong: He has now played for 11 clubs in 18 seasons, and aside from 4 years at Chelsea he has never been with the same club for more than 2 years running. He has also caused trouble with the France national team, and has earned the nickname "Le Sulk."

Wenger sold Bould, and promoted Keown to starter. He also brought in a player he'd managed at Monaco, Thierry Henry, a winger from France of Caribbean descent, whose last club was Turin, Italy superclub Juventus. Wenger turned Henry into a center forward, and he went on to surpass Wright as the club's all-time leading scorer. He then signed another of Bergkamp's former Ajax teammates, the Nigerian Nightmare, Nwankwo Kanu. Particularly in the club's run to the 2000 UEFA Cup Final, Kanu was a force, and his presence in the Arsenal lineup, and that of the Senegal native Vieira, along with the massive growth in satellite-TV coverage of the Premier League all over the world, made Arsenal the most popular football club not just in those men's native countries, but on the entire continent of Africa.

But success wasn't coming at the rate Wenger had hoped. Arsenal lost that 2000 UEFA Cup Final to Istanbul, Turkey-based Galatasaray, finished 2nd to Man United again, and did not do well in the FA Cup. He then sold Overmars and Petit to Spanish giants Barcelona, after that club had already made legally questionable overtures to them -- the first time Barca were guilty of "tapping up" Arsenal players, but by no means the last. He brought in winger Robert Pires from French club Metz -- Spanish mother, Portuguese father, French-trained, and in some ways the ideal Wenger player, hard-working but with beautiful skills. Brazilian star Sylvinho hadn't worked out as Winterburn's replacement at left back, but Ashley Cole was more than ready to come up from the youth team. Arsenal finished 2nd again in 2001, but lost the FA Cup Final to Liverpool, and again qualified for the UEFA Champions League, but did not do well in it.

Changes needed to be made. Wenger found Dixon's replacement in Spanish club RCD Mallorca's Lauren Etame Mayer -- like a Brazilian, the Cameroon native used only his first name professionally. And then came the biggest transfer coup in Arsenal history: Sol Campbell, centreback and Captain of arch-rival Tottenham Hotspur, wanted out of that eternally-dysfunctional club, played out his contract, and came to Arsenal on a free transfer. He would be Adams' replacement.

And in the 2001-02 season, Arsenal played better than ever in the history of the club. They became the first team ever to score in every game of a League season. They didn't lose an away game all season long. Campbell was sensational at the back, Henry equally so up front, Cole came of age, Pires had the season of his life before an injury kept him out of the run-in (a little bit the foreshadowing of later Arsenal teams?), Ljungberg picked up the slack with a great run of goals after Pires' injury, Seaman made unbelievable saves to show he was ready to lead England into that summer's World Cup (though glory was not to be for the Three Lions), and Bergkamp scored one of the most amazing goals ever seen away to Newcastle.

That Arsenal team may have been even better than the one that went unbeaten 2 years later. It should have won the Treble. Alas, it went out in the Second Group Stage of the Champions League. In their home match against German club Bayer Leverkusen, they scored 2 goals in the first 7 minutes en route to a 4-1 win, but only managed a 1-1 draw in the away match; had any of those 4 home-tie goals been scored, instead, in the away tie, or had the last-minute equalizer by Bayer's Ulf Kirsten been stopped, Arsenal would have advanced to the knockout stage -- and it's worth noting that Bayer got all the way to the Final before being beaten by the "Galaticos" of Real Madrid.

But Arsenal did win the Double, and faster than anyone else had, taking the 2nd half just 4 days after the 1st. (In contrast, they had nearly a month to do that in 1998, and just 5 days in 1971.) Parlour and Ljungberg scored in the 2nd half to beat Chelsea in the Cup Final, and then a 2nd-half goal by forward Sylvain Wiltord, playing only because both Henry and Bergkamp were injured, beat United at Old Trafford for the League clincher with a game to spare.

After this, despite the retirements of Adams and Dixon, Wenger got ambitious. He said he wanted "to win everything." He said he wanted to go an entire League season unbeaten. That didn't happen in 2003, and a late loss to Leeds United cost the Gunners the title, as Man United won again. But they did win the FA Cup, defeating Southampton in the Final on a goal by Pires -- who always seemed to score against Southampton and, much more to Arsenal fans' delight, against Tottenham. (That season also featured a long-distance solo goal by Henry against Tottenham, and his long-distance run back to do a kneeslide in front of the visiting Spurs fans, a pose now recreated in his statue at the Emirates.)

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But Wenger still thought about going unbeaten all through a season. With German madman Jens Lehmann replacing Seaman, and Ivory Coast native Kolo Toure settling in Keown's former place at the back, Arsenal went for it all in 2003-04.

It didn't work out -- they lost to United in the FA Cup Semifinal and to Chelsea in the Champions League Quarterfinal within a span of 3 days. But in the League? They were unbeaten. Henry, in particular, was on fire, scoring 30 goals in League play alone, including a 4-goal performance against Leeds, the last of which would have been a penalty because he was tripped up in the box, and yet he scored anyway.

There were some draws that shouldn't have happened, but there were also some amazing comebacks against Liverpool both home and away, and home to Tottenham. They didn't beat United, but came away with draws in both games, including the September game at Old Trafford, where United's players hacked away at Arsenal players' legs and dove in the penalty area, finally winning a bogus penalty in stoppage time -- which Ruud van Nistelrooy clanked off the crossbar, leading to Keown's famous taunting of the horse-faced diving Dutchman.

A 2-2 draw, with Vieira and Pires scoring, was enough for Arsenal to clinch the title at, of all places, White Hart Lane, home ground of Tottenham -- just as Arsenal clinched the old Football League away to Spurs in 1971. Arsenal had now won the League at White Hart Lane as many times as Tottenham had -- as many times as Tottenham had won the League anywhere: 2. They closed the job on May 15, 2004, with a comeback from 1-0 down to beat Leicester City 2-1. As one of the broadcasters said, "Played 38, won 26, drawn 12, lost exactly none." Preston North End had gone unbeaten in the League in its first season, 1888-89, but that was just 22 games; this was 38, and Arsenal earned the same nickname that early Preston team got: The Invincibles. Wenger had achieved a unique feat in English football history, and he had done it not just in a longer season than Preston, but against far tougher competition. Indeed, it was against the toughest competition the world had yet seen. After all, when Wenger arrived in 1996, there weren't many Continental players in the Premier League; when Arsenal won the 1971 Double, you were considered "foreign" if you were from the British Isles but not from England.

Arsenal's unbeaten streak, which began late in the 2002-03 season after the loss to Leeds, extended to 49 straight games, a new English record, before they went to Old Trafford. This time, United's cheating worked, as 20-year-old (but already balding) Scouse bastard Wayne Rooney performed a perfect dive in the box on Campbell, a penalty was called, and converted.  United won, and Arsenal went on to finish 2nd in the League, to Chelsea. Arsenal got their revenge, though, beating United in the FA Cup Final.

The unbeaten string is Wenger's greatest achievement. It is the greatest achievement of any manager in the history of British football.

Building a new stadium -- which also began in the Invincibles season -- isn’t impossible. Chelsea and Liverpool, for all their assets, are finding it tough going, but that’s due to politics as much as anything else. If Chelsea's Russian oligarch owner Roman Abramovich, or the Fenway Sports Group boys who used their Boston Red Sox gains to buy Liverpool, really wanted to, they could bribe the necessary people and get it done. (It’s not like bribery has never worked in Moscow or Boston before.)

But 49 straight games unbeaten in the League? Brian Clough managed 42 at Nottingham Forest. Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, 40 — oddly enough, starting his on October 23, 2004, the day before ours ended. Don Revie did 34 at Leeds United. Alex Ferguson managed 29 at Manchester United. So did Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish. Tottenham’s longest? 20, under Bill Nicholson in 1967-68.

But 49? In a 38-game season, that’s over a year and a quarter, and it was against good teams and bad teams. It was against legendary players from all over the world, and against plonkers whose only skill is injuring others. It was against managers who were considered brilliant, and against those who were determined to frustrate and play for a draw while hoping for a lucky break (or both in some cases).

It was done at home and away, in front of crowds as large as the 70,000 muppets (and 5,000 traveling Gooners) at Old Trashdump, and as small as the 18,000 shoehorned into Loftus Road (West London home ground of Queens Park Rangers, where Southwest London club Fulham were playing while Craven Cottage was being renovated).

It was in spite of injuries, bad weather, opposition cheating, and officiating that was either incompetent or corrupt (the latter two factors finally ending it). For every one of those 49 games, there may have been at least half a dozen reasons why the opposition could have emerged victorious. But until Rooney dove on Sol, none did.

I don’t know what the odds are on a Premier League team going 49 straight League games without a loss, but they must be astronomical, even now, 10 years after it was proven possible. And it wasn’t lucky. As Jimmy Fallon said in the noticeably inferior U.S. version of Fever Pitch, you can have a lucky game, but you can’t have a lucky career. But it took 50 games for bad luck to triumph over Arsene’s brilliance and the players’ work and style. Show me another manager who can do that, in the toughest league in the world. Bayern has now done 50 in Germany, and Milan and Juventus have done 49 in Italy (Milan making it all the way to 58 in 1993) — but those teams don’t face Stokies, Mackems and Brummies. And neither Real Madrid or Barcelona have done it, with any manager, for all their resources.

When we say there’s only one Arsene Wenger, above all other reasons, it’s because of this unique achievement.

Part III will follow.

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