Ominous echoes of 1994-95 at Arsenal for Wenger

COMMENT
By Graham Lister

As the mumbles of concern grow into grumblings of frustration among increasingly disillusioned Arsenal fans, and the notion of a managerial change shifts perceptibly from preposterous to possible, many older supporters will recognise in the negativity surrounding the club shades of the 1994-95 season. In some respects, the parallels are striking.

That unhappy campaign - Arsenal's worst for the best part of two decades, as the team finished an ignominious 12th - proved to be George Graham's last as manager. Notwithstanding the financial scandal that prompted his eventual dismissal on 21 February 1995, Graham's tenure had already begun to look tactically bankrupt.

Indeed, before the issue of unsolicited gifts put a different complexion on things, he had asked to leave Highbury with a couple years still to run on his contract, acknowledging that the team had gone stale and he could no longer motivate them. Peter Hill-Wood, chairman then as now, had agreed that he could leave Highbury at the end of the season - his ninth at the helm.

The manager who only the previous May had embellished his reputation when Tony Adams hoisted aloft the European Cup Winners' Cup to make it six major trophies in eight years, seemed suddenly to have lost his touch and passed his sell-by date. In truth though, fans had been restless for some time about the fact that their team - League champions in 1989 and 1991 - had morphed into a decent cup side (three finals; three triumphs in the previous two seasons) but become mid-table and mediocre in the more important pursuit of points.

Graham's legendary defence was still as mean and magnificent as ever; but the arrival of Ian Wright and sale of David Rocastle had spawned a 'just get it to Wrighty' approach that effectively by-passed a midfield that was anyway short of creativity. As a Gooner wag said, a little unkindly, of that midfield: "Selley, Jensen and Hillier - can you think of anything sillier?" Graham had started to sound like a broken record, insisting that he was in the market for a top midfield playmaker, but that there were none available.

Meanwhile, Paul Merson's public admission of multiple addictions and the team's increasingly turgid performances were contributing to a curmudgeonly if not corrosive atmosphere in the stands. Even the long-standing joke of John Jensen's inability to score had worn decidedly thin, and when he at last broke his two-and-a-half-year duck - spectacularly, but in a dreadful 3-1 home defeat by QPR on New Year's Eve - there was clearly a need for something more positive to focus on.

All this may sound eerily familiar to those who resolutely back Arsene Wenger at the moment. Graham's team had begun his last season unpromisingly - they scored in only one of their opening five matches - and drifted inexorably out of title contention early on. Wenger's team are currently 10th - their lowest position after the first 15 games since he arrived in 1996.

The crowd at home games is turning hostile, too. Supporters are losing patience with naive defending, misplaced passing and blunt attacking. They are asking for their Arsenal back; some are even asking if Le Boss knows what he is doing. It's heresy to some, but it is happening.

But then Graham - a Double-winner as an Arsenal player in 1970-71 - won more silverware as Arsenal manager than even the iconic Herbert Chapman, but had to endure the groans of disapproval in his last few seasons, as his increasingly cautious and defensive mindset stifled the team's imaginative instincts. Fans may have elevated the 'Boring, boring Arsenal' and '1-0 to the Arsenal' chants to a virtuous yell of defiance, but what they really wanted was attractive, attacking, winning football.

"Graham did not have the monkey of 'seven years without a trophy' on his back. He'd gone less than a year without silverware when he parted ways."

That's exactly what they got when Wenger took over, after one season of Bruce Rioch's management had provided the bridge from the Graham era. The Frenchman surpassed Graham as the Gunners' most successful boss, and is by far the club's longest-serving manager. But questions are now being asked as never before about his management, and matches at the Emirates Stadium are no longer a comfortable experience for the man who has effectively built the modern Arsenal. Saturday’s game at home to upwardly mobile West Bromwich Albion looms ominously for his injury-hit squad.

How will he respond? The consensus seems to be that he will be proactive and positive in the transfer market in January. The team certainly looks in need of an infusion of new ideas, new blood, new leadership. But here too there is a cautionary tale from 1994-95. For in his final weeks in charge (in the days before transfer windows had been imposed), Graham splashed the cash on three new signings - designed, he hoped, to reinvigorate his jaded squad.

In came John Hartson, Chris Kiwomya and Dutchman Glenn Helder. Yet between them they made fewer than 100 starts for the club (21 goals) before being quietly offloaded by Wenger over the next two years. Arsene must surely hope any shopping he does next month yields better results.    

In one respect, of course, Wenger's difficulties are very different from Graham's. 'Stroller' did not have to contend with his best players leaving every summer in search of more lucrative contracts and more chances of silverware. Adams was the best defender in the land for most of the '90s, but both he and Arsenal resisted all overtures to move, including to Manchester United.

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Times change, and another captain, Robin van Persie, had little hesitation in heading to Old Trafford when the offer came. Like Cesc Fabregas before him, not to mention Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Alex Song, Emmanuel Adebayor, he found the pay and the prospects at Ashburton Grove eminently resistible. Graham did not have that problem.

Then again Graham did not have the monkey of 'seven years without a trophy' on his back. He'd gone less than a year without silverware when he parted ways. Whether Wenger will, or should, be replaced soon is a matter of fierce debate. The more pertinent question is always, 'Who could take his place and do a better job?' and the candidates are decidedly thin on the ground.

Pep Guardiola would be the popular choice, not least because he and Wenger agree on the way the game should be played. A more realistic, if less exhilarating option might be David Moyes, though the Gunners' brief experiment with Rioch, from a similar mould, was not an unqualified success.

Graham himself was unambiguous in his support for Wenger this week, insisting that his successor is not, and should not be, under pressure, suggesting that this is a downswing in the cycle that will soon pass. Certainly many fans still think the board rather than Wenger should be targeted - and that if the directors do make money available, it is only right that Wenger be the manager to spend it. After all, he is largely responsible for the excellent financial position they find themselves in. But it is their position in the table that may ultimately decide his fate.

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