Look To The Past In Hope For The Future
I’m on holiday for a few more days yet, here’s a missive to digest. By now, all of the transfer activity will have been completed, I’m sure. Hasn’t it…?
The situation it seems is as bad as it has ever been for Arsenal. The club is stuck in a cycle of finishing fourth or third, incapable of sustaining a challenge for the title. Silverware is elusive; the Carling Cup has been lost to a team that was relegated three months later.
But we have been here before. If Arsène seeks any solace from the situation, he need look no further than Arsenal in the mid-1980s.
Don Howe assembled a very promising squad following Terry Neill’s departure as manager but they flattered to deceive. Progress was made but not enough. Howe and assistant John Cartwright fell under the spell of Charles Hughes, Arsenal descended into a long-ball mire. It was a cycle repeated a decade later by George Graham. Howe resigned following the board approaching Terry Venables to take over as manager at the end of the 1985/6 season.
They turned to Graham instead. The statistics show an immediate impact with Arsenal breaking into the top four at the end of 1986/7. Defensively there was a marked improvement; the previous three seasons had seen an average of 53 goals conceded during the 42 games. Graham reduced that to 35 in his first full season in charge, delivering the Littlewoods Cup into the bargain.
1987/88 brought great expectations. Viv Anderson’s departure brought only temporary solutions with Michael Thomas and Nigel Winterburn filling in as an emergency right back until Lee Dixon joined.
There were still some players not living up to expectations. Rix was continuing his exit strategy of not being selected whilst Steve Williams and his manager were on a collision course, the midfielder’s abrasive character not sitting comfortably with the dictatorial approach of Graham.
The season was hugely disappointing. Arsenal were 19th as Portsmouth rolled into town on the August Bank Holiday weekend. A six goal rout signalled the start of a run of eleven wins in twelve games that took Arsenal to the summit. December and January were horrible, the team failed to win for two months, dropping to 5th place.
It got worse. Three consecutive derby wins in February / March threatened a revival but Arsenal would win only three of their final eleven games and finished sixth. The FA Cup promised silverware but Arsenal succumbed to Nottingham Forest, the second season a quarter-final was lost at home.
This left the Littlewoods Cup. Defending the trophy, Arsenal had a relatively straightforward route to the semi-finals. A tricky quarter-final was won thanks to a Nigel Winterburn goal at Hillsborough, Everton despatched comfortably with a 4-1 aggregate victory.
Luton took an early and deserved lead. They held it until the final twenty minutes when Martin Hayes and Alan Smith scored in quick succession. They won the cup when Winterburn missed a penalty, Danny Wilson equalising following Gus Caesar’s defensive error before a very late winner from Brian Stein. In the last minute.
It was a team apparently in decline, the steps forward during the season lost in a collapse at the end.
Fast forward twenty three seasons. Substitute different teams but the pattern was the same. So how did Graham change things? What made the difference? How did a team that looked shorn of confidence for three months turn sixth place into a title the following season?
Can history repeat itself? If you want to push this further, look at the double-winning side of 1971 (previous season finished 12th). On each occasion it was a tweak or two that moved the team to a different level. Crucially, it was a defensive improvement that sparked each title.
Graham tightened the defence. Like Wenger he had good full backs in place. Centrally he needed more cohesion, Adams and O’Leary was a good partnership; signing Steve Bould gave Arsenal an outstanding one.
Wenger has the opportunity to bring in a robust centre back, seems intent on doing so. Where the Scot had the advantage was in coaching them. Graham was an exceptional organiser; he had one on the pitch in Adams. The current defence lacks this quality and must do so. Perhaps it is time for the goalkeeper, be it Szczesny or Fabianski, to take on more responsibility for this?
It is this area which is the key to success. Arsenal have good attacking options; they need to ensure that the defensive frailties do not waste them.