| Ruud van Nistelrooy played a key role in Manchester United’s League triumph
Time to own up. When Arsenal were dismembering Charlton, Leeds and Sunderland in the weeks before Bonfire Night, some of us wondered whether Arsene Wenger had assembled the finest collection of attacking talent ever seen in these isles. Best, Law and Charlton were hauled into the debate.
The great Liverpool teams of Souness, Dalglish, Rush, Lawrenson and Hansen were held up to the light. Parlour games can makes idiots of us. Still fresh in the memory at that time was Arsenal’s astonishing coup d’etat at Old Trafford in April, when United were bullied all round their own pitch by less wealthy opponents who were en route to an authoritative League and FA Cup Double. We talked about power shifts and Wenger’s French revolution and a diminution in United’s famous trophy-devouring intensity.
An Arsenal season ticket was described in this space as the hottest ticket in sport. What’s happened in the 12 months since that Anglo-French conquest of Old Trafford should be carved on every so-called expert’s front door. Never again will they leap to premature conclusions before the Christmas turkey has felt the pull of the knife. How different the world looks now.
The two decisive elements were surely Wenger’s strategic failure to provide his team with sufficient defensive cover and the wilting of Sylvain Wiltord and Co. at precisely the moment when United’s most illustrious attacking players were hitting all the highest notes. Compare the late season form of Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Wiltord with that of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. United have won 17 Premiership games since the defeat at Middlesbrough on Boxing Day and have drawn the other two.
Now look at Arsenal’s record: the leads tossed away, the hastily-rebuilt defences, the frayed nerves, Pires declaring, preposterously, that he would consider his Highbury future in the light of Wenger’s success in the summer transfer market. Well, the news for Monsieur Pires is that it was Arsenal who made him a star. The club’s purchasing policy is none of his business. Even Wenger’s usual equanimity was shaken by this outbreak of self-absorption.
Another sign that Arsenal were buckling under the strain. While Wenger was boiling to the point where his tie was ripped off at Bolton, Ferguson was achieving a psychological miracle inside his own ranks. Once United’s momentum developed, he managed to convince his players that the eight-point deficit they faced was a mere scribble on a page. The performance was all that counted. And so United began smashing down the flimsy obstacles thrown up by the League’s middle-class, as Van Nistelrooy surged to 43 goals for the season and Scholes weighed in by rising to an extraordinary 20 from midfield.
March 15 will go down as the day Arsenal commenced their fall to earth. The 2-0 defeat at Blackburn preceded their exit from the Champions League, which came four days later in Spain. In that match, too, Wenger had been forced into defensive improvisations — fielding the midfielder Kolo Toure out of position at left-back.
Sunday he tried him at right-back, and deployed another No 2, Oleg Luzhny, in the centre of defence. No wonder the Leeds forward pairing of Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell fancied their chances. Once Toure went off and Kanu came on, Arsenal’s basic formation was shattered.
In Lancashire and Valencia from March 15-19, it was apparent that something had died inside this Arsenal side. Wenger said as much last week, when he was casting around for explanations. His thesis was that the team’s early departure from Europe had damaged their self-esteem. But this is just one of his lines of self-defence. There was a claim that some teams set out to kick Arsenal off the park and plenty of moans about suspensions, fixture lists and referees.
Finally, in the hours before the Great Entertainers were broken, Wenger began his programme notes for the Leeds game thus: “I’ve had a week to reflect on last Saturday’s [2-2] draw at Bolton and I think that those three enforced substitutions in a short period of time played a big part in the result. None of the players who came on had any time to prepare and were rushed straight into a difficult match.”
This is a new one. You lose to a team facing relegation because the subs are not given enough time to play themselves in. This is not to hold Wenger up to ridicule. The point is that his fallibilities have been laid out for inspection. He is mortal, after all.
So far, Arsenal’s quieter seasons have not reflected adversely on the manager. The back-five aside, he has applied exemplary taste in the worldwide transfer market. This time he will take a greater share of the responsibility for his side’s recent implosion. Let’s say it again: eight points clear on March 3, eight points behind on May 3. “If that was one of my teams,” Kevin Keegan must be muttering, “they’d be calling me the cack-handed cavalier.”
The coldest stat of them all is that the defending champions have won only two of their last seven Premiership games. April was the cruellest month. Patrick Vieira’s knee finally gave out. Sol Campbell’s suspension for swinging an arm at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sapped morale in an already depleted defence.You could see these Arsenal players panicking, ceasing to believe the myth that had been embroidered round their early-season form. Amid the athleticism, the purring engine of Thierry Henry, it was Viduka, the least honed, least agile player on display who applied the finish that sent the Premiership title back up north.