In the early 90’s, George Graham’s Arsenal were in full flow – we had the best defence in the country, lead by Tony Adams, and were a tough side that would be hard to beat. Our defence consisted of Mr Arsenal, alongside Steve Bould (or Martin Keown), Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn.
When Arsene Wenger arrived in 1996, he inherited the famous back four and a squad that included Andy Linighan, Ray Parlour, John Hartson, Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp – all players who were warriors on the pitch and wouldn’t take any nonsense from anyone!
He then added Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, who were also players who had a presence and could fight on the pitch as well. We had success with these players, and more were added in the form of Marc Overmars, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Ashley Cole, Lauren, Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure, all of whom were supremely talented but also warriors on the pitch and leaders of it.
But then we started the move to The Emirates and that’s when things changed.
Instead of playing incisive and devastating football, we started emulating the Barcelona style of play. And instead of buying ready-made winners, we started buying players who were more technically gifted on the ball – players like Cesc Fabregas, Alexander Hleb, Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby, Samir Nasri and Santi Cazorla.
And I’m not complaining – with these types of players we played some really fantastic football which was a joy to watch. But the problem was Arsene was striving for beautiful, technical football in a league which just didn’t suit it.
We would win most of our games by running teams off the park with our excellent use of space, beautiful passing and lovely movement. We would score 3 or 4 goals a game most of the time, sweeping away the opposition – but this only worked against the lower teams in the league – and that is were the problem started.
Our style of play was based on a high level of technical ability, and against teams 5th and below it worked a treat. They didn’t know how to handle us and most of the time we would win. Our game relied on excellent offence and less emphasis on defence, which again is fine against most teams in the league, but not against the Top 4 sides.
Which is why we constantly finished 4th in the Premier League for a period of around 12 years. But the problem during those 12 years was that the teams below the Top 4, who had previously struggled to beat us, resorted to the only tactic that worked – being physical.
If you’re playing a team like Arsenal who move the ball so well and keep a high level of possession, then teams figured out that going toe-to-toe or even sitting back and hoping for the best just didn’t work. So teams started resorting to kicking us off the field, literally.
And the problem was, it worked.
And as more teams resorted to this “tactic”, the more the media portrayed Arsenal as a team of pansies, a team of players who didn’t “like it up them”. And this got worse and worse and worse, to the stage were it would be safe to say the treatment we received was close to assault.
The perception was that Arsenal players couldn’t handle the physical side of the game, and to get to them you just needed to “kick them off the park”. The ironic thing is this approach would probably work against any team, but for whatever reason, the media decided that Arsenal should be the team that deserved this focus, and once this narrative was set, it was hard to shake off.
In essence, Arsenal were effectively being punished for playing attractive football. We’ve had three players; Abou Diaby, Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo, who all suffered horrendous, career threatening injuries because of this false narrative. Abou Diaby and Eduardo were never the same again and their careers were ruined, and Aaron Ramsey took a long time to recover mentally from his ordeal.
And over the years, I remember horrific tackles on our players which were fortunate not to end in serious injury. In particular I remember really late challenges on Bacary Sagna, Theo Walcott, Ashley Cole, Edu, Jose Antonio Reyes and Robert Pires, and I’m sure there are many more.
Which other teams have suffered as many career threatening injuries like we have? I recall Liverpool having one when Djibril Cisse broke his leg against Blackburn, Luc Nilis suffering a broken leg while playing for Aston Villa, and Coventry City’s David Busst when they played Manchester United.
In terms of serious injuries caused by opponents, then we are well clear at the top of that table.
Read the following from Dave Kitson, about Tony Pulis who was the manager of Stoke when Aaron Ramsey suffered that horrific leg break:
‘Stoke manager Tony Pulis absolutely despised Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, hated the way he played.
‘All week I had never seen a manager so desperate to win a game of football, it was bordering on out of control.
‘I remember Pulis pacing up and down shouting random things — this bundle of nervous energy blurting random swear words, trying to burn off his own nervous energy.
‘And, of course, the upshot of all of that energy was that we went over the top and it cost Ramsey a year of his career.’
‘It seemed to me that was as a direct result of players reacting to their manager’s over enthusiasm and buying into that whole thing and carrying out his instructions and crossing the line.
‘But it just went too far. His desperation to beat Wenger and justify his way of playing football. It crossed the line and went too far.’
That is how teams approach games against Arsenal, and if you think that teams are just being “a little physical” then you’re wrong.
There is this perception, narrative, call it whatever you want, that it’s okay to give Arsenal players a little more of a kick, or a little more of a shove, now and then because “it’s just Arsenal” and they just whine and cry about being pushed around.
And that’s what lead to the inexcusable foul on Bernd Leno by Neal Muapay yesterday. If you push someone that is running on the ground, they’ll just fall over. Anyone with half a brain cell knows that if you push someone who is airborne, then they are going to struggle to land safely. Go on, try it yourself. Jump in the air, and get a friend to shove you. See how you land and see whether it’s a pleasant experience – because I can guarantee you it’s not.
And the worst thing about all of this is the victim blaming. Are you serious?!
When Aaron Ramsey had his leg smashed into 100 pieces, everyone was feeling sorry for Ryan Shawcross. And the same thing happened when Martin Taylor ended Eduardo’s career – it is an absolute farce!
And yesterday, people were feeling sorry for Muapay. The logic of the whole situation is completely ridiculous!
It’s like driving your car down the street, with your eyes closed, and then when you run over 4 or 5 people, claiming you “didn’t mean to hurt anyone”.
As a footballer, you know exactly what you’re doing at any given time. There is no excuse for reckless behaviour. The way people try and justify these things is completely unbelievable – Ryan Shawcross ran into Aaron Ramsey at full pelt with a 100% reckless and dangerous challenge. Martin Taylor’s foot was studs up, well off the ground. And yesterday, the ball wasn’t even available to win yet Neal Muapay thought it was appropriate to push an airborne goalkeeper.
Until the false narrative in the media ends, which won’t be any time soon, then Arsenal players will be suffering serious injuries at the hands of the opposition time and time again.
And one last thought, how many times have Arsenal players suffered really bad injuries against teams in Europe?