One Of Us Speaks: Formative Years
This boy is talking numbers. No, not the 0870 ones he tries to hide on the phone bills, the 0845s. Eh? That’s just me? Oh, Big Al’s on the 4-4-2s…
It’s Wednesday night, and with the next game three days away, and most of the squad not even back from international duty, I’m still negotiating football’s Interzone. I can’t believe there’s transfer news around already – it’s most unwelcome this early; a bit like Christmas decorations and music in shops before December. So I thought I’d like to have some fun with formations instead – who would go where if our squad were playing in different eras?
Not many people know this, but on the way back to London from the away game at Marseille in October, something strange happened to the squad; rerouted over CERN, the Arsenal jet disappeared from radar – radio contact was lost. Frantic air traffic control officials in France and England strove in vain to get a signal or response from the pilot for more than half an hour, only picking up the signal more than 1,000 miles off course, over Orkney.
Until now nobody has told the story of what happened during that flight, but today I can tell you that those thirty minutes of radio silence were like thirty days for the Arsenal staff. They embarked on a fantastic adventure through history, repeatedly inhabiting the bodies of various Arsenal teams and managers down the decades, solving their tactical and footballing dilemmas on the spot before moving on. In short, it bore no resemblance to that show, Quantum Leap.
For one night only, The Gunners were lost in time – this is their story:
16th September 1912
Arsenal blast into Plumstead on Monday afternoon. Back then this suburb was a grim, impoverished and crime-ridden corner of London, with a limited gene pool – nothing at all like today. As the modern team lands in its host bodies, manager George Morrell is putting the team through its pre-match warm-up – pints, fags and pork scratchings round the corner from the Manor Ground at the local public house, the aptly-named “Sportsman”. By the end of this season Arsenal would be in 20th place and relegated, only returning to the top league fair and square thanks to Sir Henry Norris’ totally legitimate business dealings after the First World War.
Going into the game Arsenal had been in dire form, and yet to win so far that season. Wenger realises something must be done, takes his first, and last, ever gulp of Courage bitter, and goes about assembling his 2-3-5 Pyramid.
Jack Wilshere was playing in that crucial central halfback role, operating as the pivot between defence and attack. Having never witnessed passing football before, the opponents, Aston Villa believe they’re playing against music hall illusionists and in their wariness are easily defeated. Luckily Arsenal went back to their old selves after this freak result and got relegated in front of dwindling crowds. Otherwise the club might still be in Woolwich today.
7th January 1933
The modern day Arsenal squad suddenly materialises at a frozen Highbury on a bitter Saturday afternoon. Laurent Koscielny tries to conceal the 20 packs of Wild Woodbines he’d bought at Plumstead High Street’s general store.
London’s in the midst of the great depression and there’s a dysfunctional coalition in power. Somehow, the Arsenal players feel right at home. Herbert Chapman’s team are two down at half time to Sunderland, and forced to field a team shorn temporarily of all its stars. It’s up to Arsène Wenger and his players to adapt to the famous WM formation and save the day. What was needed was a rugged three-man defence, and a tough tackling, two-man defensive midfield. Ahead of those you’ve got two creative inside forwards and a three-pronged attack.
While his charges perform complicated calisthenics with medicine balls, Wenger goes to the mirror, dusts down the lapels on his pin-stripe jacket and flattens his thinning hair back with extra pomade. He concocts this line-up:
Arsenal goes on to win the league title they would have won anyway, only more comprehensively.
30th November 1993
The squad is propelled through time almost 60 years to George Graham’s penultimate year at Arsenal. The manager is about to make a mistake that would blight his career and haunt him for the rest of his life. No, forget the bungs; they already happened. Worse than that, he was about to play Eddie McGoldrick as a sweeper. 2011 Arsenal arrive in the dressing room just in time – Culture Beat’s classic hit, Mr Vain is pumping out of the dressing room’s AIWA hi-fi and betting slips are strewn across the floor. The host bodies are bleary eyed and severely hung-over after three consecutive nights on the town celebrating their pre-Xmas party get-together. Mertesacker, wearing the number six shirt, is clutching a bucket to his chest, while number ten Robin van Persie’s behaviour is particularly alarming; he’s got bloodshot eyes, talks at a hundred miles an hour and is endlessly sniffing.
The formation is 5-3-2, and Arsène’s job is to find a suitable candidate to play as the sweeper. In the end he settles for Aaron Ramsey, sitting just behind the back two and collecting the ball from his centre-backs to start attacks. In the three-man midfield we need two box-to-box players and one creator, while up front we need a classic target man accompanied by a speedster.
Babbling Robin won’t get out of anyone’s face so he’s going to sit this one out.
Arsenal see off Aston Villa in the fourth round of the Coca Cola Cup, and go on to retain the trophy they’d won in the season before.
People say Arsenal have been looking more unified and more mature in recent weeks. They don’t know what this team has been through together. Except Laurent Koscielny now has the lungs of a 70-year-old chimney sweep, RvP now won’t travel anywhere unless he can get to his GA, NA and AA meeting and Lukas Fabianski now has child old enough to teach him the Lambeth Walk.