Returning columnist Paul Fennessy looks at the recent Sam Allardyce/Arsene Wenger spat amongst other sporting issues.
Arsene Wenger is indisputably one of the greatest managers to ever grace the Premier League in the competition’s brief history. Yet for all his team’s persistently masterful exhibitions of vim and vigour, his tendency to display unreasonable dogmatism in post-match interviews infuriates all but the most ardent Arsenal supporters.
Wenger’s latest outburst makes him sound akin to a stuck record. The Frenchman bemoaned the supposed leniency dealt towards goalkeeper Adam Bogdan after he injured Abou Diaby in Arsenal’s recent 4-1 defeat of Bolton.
The Arsenal manger went on to bemoan the perceived tolerance for overly aggressive behaviour in the Premier League. He concluded by remarking that the “English game becomes dangerous when the players go to hurt each other”.
Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce, in response to Wenger’s complaints, justifiably accused the Arsenal manager of hypocrisy. “I have to remind Arsene about his team, which used to win the league, that was the dirtiest team in the league.”
Indeed Wenger’s early Arsenal sides were equally breathtaking to watch, but far less disciplined than their modern counterparts. In addition to the elegance exhibited by players such as Nicolas Anelka and Emanuel Petit, the side also incorporated an abundance of staunch physicality – Patrick Viera and Martin Keown being amongst the serial aggressors.
The venerated 2001/2002 double-winning side picked up a, dare I say it, Blackburn-esque 95 disciplinary points, comfortably finishing bottom of the relevant charts in the process. In addition, the fact that Wenger’s teams picked up an unprecedented 73 red cards between 1996 and 2008 makes his burgeoning persecution complex ring especially hollow.
Yet a curious trend has become apparent of late. In conjunction with Wenger’s Arsenal teams assuaging their chronic ill-discipline, their levels of footballing success has concurrently diminished.
Do these enlightening facts prove that foul play is a mandatory means towards eventual triumph? No, is the short answer. Last season’s Premiership winners, Chelsea, finished a respectable eleventh in the equivalent Fair Play standings, while the league runners-up, Manchester United, came as high as sixth.
However, there remains reason to suspect a correlation between Arsenal’s improved on-field behaviour and their increasingly fruitless quest for success. The early incarnations of Wenger’s Arsenal were captained by Tony Adams – a player who struck fear into the hearts of many an opponent. The majestic presence of Adams was perfectly complimented by his equally able central defensive partner, Martin Keown.
Although they have enjoyed some minor successes since the respective departures of Adams and Keown, Arsenal have never fully recovered from their absence. They were the requisite beasts which allowed the beauty, purveyed by their foreign imports, to flourish.
The likes of Cesc Fabregas must long for similar characters, as their influence would be invaluable not only on the pitch, but particularly in the dressing room. Moreover, Arsenal conceded forty-two goals last season – nine less than Chelsea, thirteen less than Manchester United and incredibly, six less than seventh-placed Liverpool.
They will generally be adept at disposing of lacklustre opposition of the Blackpool variety. Yet a defensive fragility has pervaded their ranks in key fixtures, most notably following the departure from the club of Patrick Viera.
Furthermore, while Allardyce was right to criticise Wenger’s obstinacy, he was wrong in another respect. Allardyce indicated that Wenger’s comments were influencing referees unduly and thus, by extension, significantly aiding Arsenal’s progress.
On the contrary, the Frenchman’s consistent protestations of his team’s meek helplessness exacerbated their ineptitude. As last season progressed, the more Wenger demonstrated his dismay in interviews, the more his team exhibited their stark fallibilities. By the campaign’s culmination, Arsenal were dead mentally, as evinced by their careless concession of three late goals in their end-of-season loss to Wigan.
Therefore, by constantly inferring that his players are victimised, Wenger unwittingly provides Arsenal with a cop-out clause. When they are being hammered by a side of real men, such as Manchester United or Chelsea, there is bound to be a collective misguided belief permeating the team: namely, that the primary reason for such culpability is footballing injustice as opposed to psychological flimsiness.
Recent stories surrounding Wayne Rooney and Ricky Hatton have further threatened to irrevocably damage the already waning credibility of their respective sports. Assuming the allegations are true, they represent further evidence that these overly cosseted so-called “stars” have completely lost touch with reality.
According to some reports, Rooney has been denied the chance of becoming the next Manchester United captain as a result of his actions, while Hatton’s reputation as a sporting legend loved-by-all is in tatters thanks to his indiscretion.
The popularity of boxing has already suffered greatly owing to numerous fight-fixing controversies sparked by a minority of unseemly individuals. Football is in danger of suffering a similar long-term fate unless it undergoes a swift image overall.
Following the acquisition of his ninth grand slam, the unstoppable Rafael Nadal pinpointed his “intensity on the court” as the underlying secret to his success. Yet the most telling assertion was provided by his uncle and long-time trainer, Toni Nadal.
Toni downplayed the media speculation over the extent of Nadal’s greatness which accompanied news of this triumph. He calmly declared that “it’s important [for Nadal] to win now, but for nothing else”. Such sentiments emphasise the importance of keeping sports stars (no matter how great) grounded. It also provided a pertinent reminder that the ability of any sport to truly transcend its status as a mere game relies not only on the skills of its great athletes, but also on their perennial dignity.