Tuesday, August 24, 2004
All hail the invincibles
There have been a handful of sporting greats who have built up an aura of invincibility over the years.
Arsenal's players huddle up after equalling Nottingham Forest's 42-game record. (MikeEgerton/Empics)
When Mike Tyson ruled the boxing world in the 1980s, he seemed to be an immovable force that would never be stopped. The same was true of Tiger Woods as he conquered the game of golf like few before him just a few years ago. Michael Schumacher's vice-like grip on Formula 1 seems equally unshakable and when you establish such dominance, your opponents tend to be half beaten before they take you on.
Arsene Wenger's Arsenal are reaping the benefit of a similarly imposing intimidating presence in the Premiership just now. Like a Tyson hook, a 40 yard Tiger putt or a flying Schumacher lap, it doesn't take long for the sporting legends to stamp their class and the manner in which the Premiership champions broke another record last Sunday thrilled all who were fortunate enough to witness it.
Let me pin my colours to the mast. I have been raised as a Tottenham fan and still get a shiver down the spine when I pay a visit to White Hart Lane, but even the most ardent of Spurs followers is getting to the point where belittling the achievements of Wenger's side is a pointless exercise.
Crazy as this may sound, had the not-so sadly departed Alan Sugar opted to appoint Wenger instead of Christian Gross as a replacement for Gerry Francis in the mid-1990s, the fortunes of the two clubs could easily have been reversed as both have spent similar amounts in the transfer market. However, such observations only serve to inspire a bout of depression.
Sitting in the press box at the front of Highbury's East Stand for the game against Middlesbrough on Sunday rammed home that the 'Tottenham style' has shifted a single stop down the Victoria Line to Finsbury Park.
It was the day when Nottingham Forest's record of 42 league games without defeat between 1977 and 1978 was to be matched and the manner in which the Arsenal set about their work provided conclusive proof as to why they are the finest domestic side we have seen for some time.
Many a team have come from 3-1 down to win games over the years, but few have managed to achieve the feat with the admirable self belief displayed by this Arsenal side. 'The quality of our football and the potential of our team is incredible,' confirms Jose Antonio Reyes, the scorer of Arsenal's fourth goal last Sunday.
'Arsenal can be the very best, better than Real Madrid and anyone else who comes to us. We have a confidence and belief that is very hard to shake and it won't change. I heard so many things about this team before I came here, but they are all true and even better.
'When I first came to English football, I was amazing by the pace of everything. It's so much quicker than the game in Spain and this is why it is so hard to play a passing game at a high level. From what I have seen in this league, Arsenal do this better than anyone else and it is a great team to be a part of.'
Buying from a position of strength always used to be Alex Ferguson's method at Manchester United, but the capture of Reyes last January was proof that Wenger has now moved into his shoes. And while his players are doing all the work on the pitch, the importance of the Arsenal manager to this story is more significant than any other participant.
The quality of our football and the potential of our team is incredible
— Jose Antonio Reyes
Should Roman Abramovich lose interest in his Chelsea project, their house of lavish cards will tumble in a hurry and Wenger holds a similar power at Arsenal. The man is a class act in all he does and the weekly press briefings he grants are as polished as the immaculate suits he always sports.
While Jose Mourinho has opted to attack and threaten the English media in his first month in charge at Stamford Bridge, Wenger takes a different approach. His patience in dealing with a host of media requirements every Friday is impressive, yet he moves from TV to radio to daily newspapers and, finally, Sunday newspapers with remarkable charm.
Ferguson couldn't begin to give the press such a warm welcome at his Carrington base every week and while Wenger must have better things to do, he sits down with each arm of the media, offers a smile and never fails to deliver some fascinating words of wisdom. 'What shall we talk about then, let's do this,' was his opening gambit last Friday.
In a spanking new press room at their London Colney training ground, he went on to talk honestly about his own contract negotiations with the club, Sol Campbell's future and a host of other topics. Articulate and polite, he has a talent for saying much without giving away too many secrets, but he sums up his side's drive like this.
'After winning the Double in 2002, we got complacent,' he reflected. 'You look at the game against Everton when Wayne Rooney scored the last minute winner at Goodison Park. It was an example of a day when we became complacent.
'We threw points away at the start of the season and in the end, the nerves kicked in. The sign of a great team is to learn from your mistakes and we have come back with a more determined attitude. We had to be more professional and clinical and needed to add a killer instinct. This has happened.
Arsene Wenger: A difficult week. (PhilCole/GettyImages)
'My players remember 2003, how they felt when they finished second in the championship and the motivation is pushing them on now. It's not arrogance and we focus on every game and respect every opponent. What we have lost if the fear of losing and the pressure of winning. This is the key to our success.'
Patrick Vieira's decision to stay at Highbury further strengthened his hand, but Wenger doesn't need any additional power at a club where he truly rules the roost. With a new stadium on the way and the promise of increased finance in the future as a result, The Arsenal boss knows he has all the aces in his pack.
At this early stage of the season, the Premiership is his to lose and as Arsenal look to rewrite the record books once again by avoiding defeat against Blackburn on Wednesday night, their aura of invincibility shows no sign of being shaken. If anything, it looks set to be strengthened.