15 November 2013

Putting the Invincibles to bed...

Ever since March 2013, Arsenal has been on a run of form that would see it finish atop the Premier League. In the 21 Prem matches since losing to Tottenham, the squad has take 50 points from 63, a rate of return that would, over the course of a full, 38-match season, see us claim 92 points—just a few ticks off of Chelsea's record-setting 95 points in 2004-05. Were it not for a shocking loss at home to Aston Villa to open the 2013-14 season, we might be talking off a campaign to rival the Invincibles season of 2003-04. The more-recent away-loss to Manchester United has further muted such talk, but comparisons inevitably, unfortunately, persist.

I say "unfortunately" because, almost by definition, an undefeated season is a once-in-a-lifetime event. After all, the only other time it's happened was way back in 1889 when Preston North End finished a 22-fixture season without a loss. Twice, then, in the history of British football, has a squad finished undefeated. However, ever since that legendary, mythical 2003-04 season, every Arsenal squad since then has had to face comparisons to a squad that included no less than four of the top-ten players listed among Arsenal's 50 greatest players of all time: Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira, Pirès. Take that in for a moment: in the club's 127-year history, four of its top ten have played in the last decade. By that standard, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the feats, if not the glory of such a squad. After all, more than one-third of the players who took to the pitch would have to equal or surpass the achievements of the club's legends. That's a bit much to ask.

 There is something epic about an undefeated season, regardless of how many games or matches are involved, so it's natural to venerate those squads that pull it off. Those salad days—at the risk of stretching or straining the metaphor—have made it all the more challenging to accept the sausages of recent seasons. It seems that each season since 2003-04 has left us wondering when, if ever, we'd see such dizzying heights of glory. By that standard, though, any squad will suffer in the comparison. Even if Arsène could find a way to assemble such a collection of players in the current, hypercharged, pre-FFP climate, there would be the naysayers and the critics: "yes, they finished undefeated, but they suffered 13 draws compared to the Invincibles' 12" or "the Invincibles beat Chelsea twice; this squad only managed a win and a draw" and so on.

 We've enjoyed some pretty heady days. Having done so makes it harder to enjoy anything else at face value, whether it's individual players or the squad as a whole. Will Theo ever be the next Henry? Will we ever find Vieira's heir? Is Özil the next Bergkamp? These questions, these comparisons, will repeat themselves ad nauseum until time consigns to the scrap-heap of history or some squad replaces them. No other club bears this burden—certainly not Preston North End, current denizens of League One. Would anyone mistake Manchester United's 2012-13 campaign as the stuff of legend? No. Arsenal has earned for itself a a unique status, and so it is understandable that the current XI and its recent run be held up for comparison.

 However, there will be no undefeated season this time 'round. Some among the Gooner faithful will grumble and grouse, and that is their lot in life. It's still early days, of course, and we could very well see a tumble from the top. Then again, we could also see something famous and memorable in its own right, and it would be a mistake to suggest that such a season suffers when set side-by-side with the Invincibles. Should the current squad achieve something, we know already that they won't replicate those days of caviar. In a way, they did themselves a favor by losing to Aston Villa on opening day: they set aside the possibility of an undefeated season so as to clear the table for a run at the top of it. Rather than insist that Ramsey, Wilshere, and the rest replace or imitate their forebears, is it not enough that they simply help us forget? We're seeing a familiar swagger, a panache, that we haven't seen in a while. Rather than say "yes, but...", let's enjoy the ride we're currently on. For those keeping track of such things, we're only four points off the pace that the Invincibles had set by this point in their season. Sure, we're likely to see a few more dropped points between now and May, but let's keep hold of the larger perspective: this is still a squad fully capable of putting to rest the comparisons—if not by going undefeated but by winning silverware.

 Should that day come, it would be more than a bit churlish to say "yes, but...". By the lofty standards of this club—standards that no other can claim, despite the frequency of their titles—anything short of an undefeated season might feel like a letdown. That's not altogether a bad position to be in. If nothing else, one can settle most arguments at the pub with that same "yes, but..." mentioned just a few sentences ago, as in "yes, but has _____ ever gone undefeated? Well, then..." In six months' time, we'll know more about where the current squad rates. For now, however, let's enjoy what it offers for its own sake. We already know that this squad won't match that one. Why not set the comparisons aside and just take it in, one fixture at a time?