A Bould New World
“We play football the Arsenal way…” has been a constant source of pride for us Gooners throughout the years, no doubt. Fast paced, attacking, free flowing, possession footy was Arsene Wenger’s gift, not only to AFC but to the entire EPL. For a century prior to the Frenchman’s arrival on the shores of Ol’ Blighty, possession was commonly defined by hoof, cross, head tactics in English football. I fondly remember sitting in my season ticket seats circa 1983 and cheering as the likes of Pat Jennings, Tony Adams, Kenny Sansom, Danny O’Shea, Tony Woodcock and Stewart Robson trotted on to the tiny Highbury pitch. And yes, aside from a diminutive but fleet footed recent acquisition, the Scottish sprite Charlie Nicholas, we hoofed, crossed and headed our way to our then usual 6th place finish under the stewardship of Terry Burton. Aside from a few thrashings we dished out, such as a 6-1 mauling of Villa and an oh so glorious 4-2 dispatching of the arch scum, we pretty much earned our moniker of boring, 1-0 to the Arsenal. The early 80’s could be considered the pinnacle of Arsenal mediocrity, living in the shadow of a dominant scouser squad and we were OK with it. Diminished expectations leads to contentment with average in many cases.
Fast forward to 1996. The club announced a new manager, a Frenchman for Pete’s sake! Last gig, Nogoya Grampus Eight in Japan! Most of us Gunners collectively thought, WTF? The skepticism was soon dispelled and by 1998 and had given way to the army of “In Arsene We Trust” loyalists. For the subsequent 6 seasons, we constantly battled Man United for top honors as the Ali- Frazier of the EPL. It all came to a historic peak with the Invincibles in 2003. There’s no need for me to recant that beautiful season, however I must make one point. Even though we went undefeated that year, the retirement of Martin Keown and introduction of a striker as a CB in Kolo Toure saw our back line suddenly adapting more of a midfield positioning. Our once stalwart defensive line had become exposed albeit disguised by the sheer brilliance of our attack. And then of course there was the duo of Vieira and the quiet wall, Gilberto Silva that would disrupt the most potent attacks before they ever reached our back line. Matches were rarely played in our half so the high line was never really tested.
One year after Vieira’s sending off at Ol’ Trafford that signaled the end of our 49 game run, our hero departed. His teenaged replacement was equally brilliant but, as we all know, purely an offensive weapon. Grit gave way to technique and we suffered for it. If Vieira’s departure wasn’t bad enough, Sol also left along with A. (H)Cole, Lauren, Gilberto and our wall had crumbled, yet we still adhered to the now maddeningly high line. Only once in a lifetime do the stars align and a crew that possesses the strength, speed, grit and brains of the above mentioned defensive A team converge. Replacing the machine with lesser parts would obviously merit a rewind in defensive strategy. Yes our offense also dissipated with Super Bob, Ljundberg and of course Thierry’s moves away from the club but we still scored goals. Our problem for the next 7 years was that, no matter how many times we hit the back of the net, the danger of our foe equalling or bettering our efforts was always at the fore. I ask, has anyone felt secure with a lead in the last 7 years? Or better yet, remember Newcastle anyone? Let’s face it, our defense was a shapeless mess and I for one, was getting almost excited by a good tackle as I was by a goal.
Arsene Wenger is known for his stubbornness as much as his transfer and football philosophy prowess but the start of last season seemed to have finally sparked a paradigm shift in the Prof’s thinking. The Man U debacle and I refuse to make any 8-2 jokes, I believe was the proverbial straw and one could see the resolve to change in Arsene’s now lined and drawn complexion during that embarrassment. The change would dive deeper than the obvious and what the run-of-the-mill supporter was crying for, signings. Wenger didn’t put up much of fight to de-sway RVP’s turncoat actions in comparison to the summer before’s Cesc and Na$ri’s ship jumping, which in my mind means he has come to grips with the reality that loyalty is a one way street with footballers. Song’s release was barely a blip on the radar. Our 3 early attacking arrivals supports this theory but for me at least, the acceptance of Pat Rice’s retirement and the appointing of defensive strategist Steve Bould as his number 1 is as, if not more, important than any moves made this summer.
Not to detract from Rice’s decades of loyalty to the club but the collective failure to plug our leaks over the past 7 years has weighed heavily on all of us loyal on lookers. We could see it, why couldn’t they? 3 matches into the season and we’ve conceded zero goals as opposed to ten against this time last year. I’m positive Bould’s influence is already bearing fruit and I’m also convinced he had more than a small part in naming Thomas Vermaelen as captain. The back line is still operating a bit high up the pitch for my liking but there is definite shape. Our captain is vocal and all over the pitch and more importantly, in the right place at the right time as we saw in the Liverpool match. All our defender, even young Jenkinson (except for the first 15 minutes), are playing with furled brows and snarls on there mugs. The goals will come with Cazorla and Arteta pulling the strings like good Spaniards. Perhaps not as many as with RVP in the ranks but come they will. The difference is now we can feel secure with a lead knowing that the wall, under Bouldy’s guidance, seems to have been rebuilt. Could it be as a supporter, I’ve witnessed the club come full circle over the last 3 decades and we are now sitting ringside for the return of 1-nil to the Arsenal? If so, it will be anything but boring with the pace and technical ambience of today’s EPL versus the sluggish hoofball First Division of old. Santi, Poldi and hopefully Oli will provide the flair and barring injury, Diaby does in fact look like the new Vieira. Bouldy’s new defensive strategy has me feeling very good about our chances. Its a Bould new world for us and if that means winning by 1-nil to the Arsenal, I’ll take it and won’t 8-2 admit it. (Had to do it.)