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From Gunners to Gonners – Tracing the Roots of Arsenal’s Soft Centre

The Gunners capitulation against Brentford last weekend was quite a nostalgic trip. Outfought, battered and bullied – all the hallmarks of the post-Invincibles era were present.

The red and white stripes, the chaos in the Arsenal box, Mads Bech Sørensen’s long throws. We couldn’t help but be reminded of Arsenal’s torrid trips to The Britannia stadium down through the years – of all those innumerable occasions when their opponents function triumphed over their form.

Gooners dissected the loss, coming to the consensus that their fragile exterior is a result of years of sub-standard recruitment. Arteta, Edu and the Kroenke’s were justifiably lambasted for their third-rate transfer policy, while others traced the rot back further – to Arsene Wenger, the dismantling of The Invincibles and the departure of club visionary David Dein.

While I agree with those assertions, history suggests that the genesis of Arsenal’s failed recruitment policy – and their subsequent loss in character – is rooted even deeper in their tempestuous past.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s vice-chairman, Dein and manager George Graham transformed the North London outfit from mid-table mainstays into two-time First Division champions. With the prudent Dein overseeing transfers and Graham instilling an unwavering team spirit, together the pair cultivated a fiercely competitive side.

Players were taught to revel in battle, to pride themselves on being a physical match for the opponent. The philosophy bore exemplary results, particularly during their 1990/91 title-winning campaign. Graham’s rigid defensive unit of David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn conceded just 18 goals that season.

A turbulent period followed that saw Graham sensationally sacked in 1994 (for accepting illegal transfer payments) and his replacement Bruce Rioch axed in 1996. Subsequently, Gunners chiefs – heeding Dein’s glowing recommendation – took a massive gamble on unknown quantity Arsene Wenger.

Like Rioch before him, Wenger wisely chose to retain the tried and tested defence that had brought Graham such success. The Frenchman proceeded to mould a host of flamboyant foreign talents around that English core, and in doing so preserved the combative ethos Graham had inculcated at the club.

Wenger remained true to Graham’s credo, recruiting a number of compatriots who possessed a suitably feverish competitive spirit. Ex-Monaco midfielder Emmanuel Petit and 21-year-old AC Milan flop Patrick Vieira formed a formidable partnership as Wenger’s new-look side took the Premier League by storm. The Gunners were the outstanding team in the country in 1997/98, clinching the league and FA Cup double for the first time since 1971.

Everything appeared peachy at Highbury, but a storm was brewing on the horizon.

Having outgrown their home of more than 80 years – and been denied permission to expand its capacity – the Arsenal board had been searching for a site for a new stadium since 1997. As the costs of the project were revealed, it became apparent that the club would have to raise substantial funding to finance the move.

Over the following seasons, a number of influential players were sold to part-fund the £100m development. Nicolas Anelka was snapped up by Real Madrid in 1999 for a hefty sum of £23.5m, while Petit (£7m) and Marc Overmars (£25m) were shipped off to Barcelona in the summer of 2000.

Despite the financial burdens, chairman Peter Hill-Wood continued to sanction the acquisition of players. When the Londoners fell just short in the league between 1998 and 2001 – finishing runners-up to Manchester United for three successive seasons – The Gunners reacted by dipping into the transfer market.

Having signed Giovanni Van Bronckhorst and controversial ex-Spurs defender Sol Campbell (amongst others), the splurge paid rich dividends. The Gunners returned to the summit of English football in 2001/02, sealing their second Premier League and FA Cup double in five years.

Now committed to their new stadium, by the time the development had received planning permission in December 2001 the project had become so elaborate that the cost had inflated to £250m. With the Arsenal board frantically exploring their fundraising options – including slashing the players wage bill – a shift in recruitment policy began.

At this point, cracks began to form in the foundations of the club.

Until now Wenger and Dein had achieved their best successes in the transfer market by identifying undervalued or untested players at big European sides and nourishing them. With the financial constraints of the stadium likely to hamstring the club in the near future, their new modus operandi was simply youth, youth and more youth.

The decision had a profound effect on Wenger and a lasting influence on the culture of the club – as was evidenced by the type of players The Gunners started to covet. The qualities of power and aggression that had underpinned a decade of significant domestic success were now deemed secondary. Technique was upheld above all else, with character a mere afterthought.

An influx of promising talent flooded into the club in 2003/04, with Cesc Fàbregas (15), Gaël Clichy (17), José Antonio Reyes (20), Robin Van Persie (20) and Mathieu Flamini (19) joining over the course of the season. Despite the lack of marquee signings, Gooners bought into the process of building for the future.

Of course, it’s easy to keep fans onside when your team performs as the Gunners did during their unbeaten 2003-2004 campaign. How serendipitous for the Arsenal hierarchy – mired in legal disputes and construction delays as they were – that the heroics of Wenger’s men at “The Battle of Old Trafford” were providing ample distraction.

In the summer of 2005 Gooners were dealt a hammer blow when, after nine prosperous years at the club, Vieira announced his intentions to leave. Speaking in 2016, the colossal midfielder claimed he didn’t feel trusted by Wenger anymore, saying:

“It’s difficult and I accept it. We had a young player called (Cesc) Fàbregas who was coming through the academy and he was doing really well. I could smell that the time for me at Arsenal was over.”

The news came as a bombshell, particularly with Gooners still mourning the loss of their old guard. Over the course of the previous five seasons, the ravages of time had claimed Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Keown, Bould and Adams – now the man who had carried their torch was gone too. The last trace of George Graham’s influence was no more.

For many Gooners Vieira’s exit and the departure of Dein in 2007 mark the end of an era at Arsenal. Everything that came thereafter was deemed a product of Wenger’s failed philosophy – a recruitment policy that was doomed to fail and a vision of free-flowing football that was never fully realised.

Fans will argue about who to condemn for the brittle nature of their current squad. For some it’s Arteta, for others it’s Emery, Wenger or the Kroenke’s. Heck, I’m sure you could find someone who blames Sol Campbell for the whole debacle.

As far as history is concerned, leaving Highbury is undoubtedly the first in a series of many dominoes that fell, resulting in the anaemic side we see today. The £390m Emirates stadium stands as a constant reminder of bad decisions made, rather than the beacon of hope it should have been.

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