Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Ronaldo And Mourinho: A Decade of Domination

"Once Upon A Time in Portugal..."

Outside of the eight World Cup winning nations, it could be argued that Portugal possesses the richest football history of all. This is the country that gave us the world-conquering Benfica sides of the 1960s, the country that gave us the great Eusebio, one of the very best of all time. This is also the country that gave us the golden generation of the late 90s/early 2000s. Led by Luis Figo, this was arguably one of the most talented groups of players never to win a major international trophy, coming so close in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

More recently however Portugal has given us two men who have dominated the landscape of European football for the past ten years. Two giants. Icons. Legends of the modern game. Both can stake a valid claim for being the best of all time at what they do. They are Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Mourinho first came into the public eye with his memorable sprint down the Old Trafford touchline to celebrate a late goal that send his Porto side into the Champions League quarter finals and knocked United out. Porto would go on to win the title that year, a massive achievement for a squad built on very little money. Jose himself would move onto a new challenge at Chelsea and bring several of his players with him. He took to English football management by storm, declaring himself ‘The Special One’ at his unveiling which made him an instant hit with the media and ensured the limelight would never stray from his presence.

Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Manchester United in the summer of 2003, immediately inheriting the iconic number seven shirt vacated that very summer by one David Beckham. A skinny, shy, long-haired 18 year old, his early performances at Old Trafford were certainly eye-catching but frustrating for the most part for fans. His game revolved around far too many failed tricks and stepovers, a far cry from the ruthlessly effective monster he would develop into in the years that followed. His first few seasons at Old Trafford were rather underwhelming given what was to come, the highlight being his FA Cup final goal in 2004.

Ronaldo joined a Manchester United team very much in transition, in a time in English football that would come to be dominated by Mourinho and Chelsea. Jose changed the face of English football from a tactical point of view. The 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation he used at Chelsea had been a rare sight in a league strictly devoted to 4-4-2 it seems. His use of Claude Makelele, a midfielder as a pure defensive outlet was alien to teams who found Chelsea impossible to break down and irresistible on the counter attack, spearheaded by the pace of Arjen Robben, the seemingly unlimited energy of Michael Essien, the power of Dider Drogba and the quality(?) (I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what he was good at, he seemed to score all the time and just generally play very well) of Frank Lampard. When it comes to any discussions about the greatest Premier League side of all time, anyone who can name a side better than the Chelsea outfit of 2004-2006 has pretty much nailed it.

"Growing up is a heavy leaf to turn"

Back to back titles came Mourinho's way in his first two seasons. But as all great champions rise, so must they fall. And Chelsea’s dethroning in the 2006/07 season was brought about in no small part by a 21 year-old kid from Maderia who had finally added the end product his game had been lacking in his first three years at Manchester United. It was in late 2006 that Cristiano Ronaldo shot to superstardom and became the Premier League’s finest footballer as his quest to wrest the title from his compatriot’s stranglehold gathered steam. Having returned to England that summer with pantomime-villain status following the World Cup, Ronaldo seemed to feed off the energy and he grew stronger and stronger both physically and mentally. The skinny boy seen crying by a worldwide audience after the Euro 2004 final was long gone. In his place was a heavily muscled yet lighting quick athlete, a man just saturated with self-belief to the point where it often blurs the line between confidence and arrogance. As the saying goes; “It’s not arrogance if you can back it up.”

And boy could Ronaldo back it up. Behind his efforts, United reclaimed the title from Chelsea in 2007 but he wasn’t done yet. Not satisfied with simply being England’s best player, Ronaldo went and became King of the World, both individually and collectively. He scored in United’s Champions League win over a now Mourinho-less Chelsea in 2008, wrapping up a 40+ goal season in which he had won both the Premier League and Champions League top scorer and best player awards. The big one came his way for the first time that winter as he was named the world’s best player for 2008, being awarded the prestigious Ballon d’Or.

It was during this time that we saw Mourinho and Ronaldo interact directly in public for the first time. It got extremely personal at one stage towards the climax of the 2006/07 title race when the United-Chelsea rivalry was perhaps at its most heated. Mourinho, in anticipation of having to concede the title, claimed that Ronaldo and United had been on the end of some rather fortunate penalty decisions that season (not an unfair assessment). Ronaldo responded, accusing Mourinho of not being able to admit to his own failings (again, not an unfair assessment). Mourinho came out swinging as he usually does when his side are not on top in the pitch, branding Ronaldo a liar and blaming his ‘difficult childhood’ and ‘lack of education’ for his obviously mis-guided quotes. Ronaldo comes from a fairly poor background in Madeira. Mourinho himself came from a more privileged upbringing. His comments did lack class and reeked of a man attempting to divert scrutiny on his side’s shortcomings that season.

“No matter what you want, somebody else wants it just as bad”

Ronaldo’s 2008 Ballon d’Or success was to be his only triumph for the time being. His United side were trounced in the 2009 Champions League final by Barcelona, led by the man who would emerge as Ronaldo’s great rival in the years that followed, a diminutive Argentinian by the name of Lionel Messi. Losing to Messi, in that manner, on that stage, is no doubt something that spurred Ronaldo on to become even better. He now had a yardstick, a competitor who wanted everything he wanted. Cristiano Ronaldo would not be the player he is today without that night in Rome and without Lionel Messi.

That final turned out to be Ronaldo’s last appearance for United. That summer he finally sealed his dream move to Real Madrid for a world-record fee of £80m. Ronaldo picked up right where he left off at his new club. Despite a couple of injuries in his first season he averaged a goal a game. Madrid did however end the season trophyless under coach Manuel Pellegrini.

"And all of a sudden I'm leaving"

And Ronaldo wasn’t the only Portugese superstar in new surroundings. Mourinho’s reign at Chelsea was cut short in late 2007 following a long-standing feud with owner Roman Abramovich. Many things conspired, a lack of funding being made available in the summer of 2007, a failure to deliver a Champions League triumph despite investing a solid £500m over the first three summers and a poor start to the 2007/08 season but the end result was a parting of the ways.

He began the next season at Inter Milan and again charmed the press at his unveiling, speaking in fluent Italian he claimed to have learned in three weeks, taking a sly dig at his predecessor at Chelsea Claudio Ranieri, who took several years in England before having proficient enough levels of the language to be able to talk to the media. Nonetheless Mourinho took Italy by storm, winning titles in his only two seasons there and capturing the Champions League in 2010, defeating Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona along the way and creating another sub-plot to the explosive rivalry that was about to begin.

It is at this point in the story that the two main characters, opponents for the most part, become unlikely allies for the first time. Jose Mourinho announced immediately after the 2010 Champions League final in Madrid that the stadium would soon become his permanent home. It was here that the unlikely Ronaldo-Mourinho alliance was formed and two of the most driven men in football history were tasked with toppling the Messi-Guardiola axis at Barcelona, a side acclaimed as being the greatest of all time.

It took them two years together, a herculean effort,  a record number of La Liga goals and points but The Portuguese double act managed to beat Barcelona to the 2011/12 La Liga title. The defining moment of the season came at the Camp Nou in April, Ronaldo’s counter attack goal late on gave Real Madrid a crucial 2-1 win and a seven point lead they would not squander.  This was one of Ronaldo’s mind-blowing 60 in all competitions that season, a figure bested by Lionel Messi's 73 en route to his fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or award. This no-doubt irked Cristiano beyond belief. Team success does matter to him of course, but he comes first in his mind. The idea of there being someone better than him would make his blood boil. No doubt he ended 2013 happier than 2012 where he ended as Ballon d'Or winner and Messi as La Liga champion.

The big one eluded them however. Madrid lost at the Champions League semi-final stage in 2011, 2012 (on penalties) and 2013. La Decima, Madrid’s tenth European crown which the club had become obsessed with, dangled tantalisingly out of their reach. But things did not end well. Mourinho and Madrid went through a very ugly divorce in the summer of 2013. Fans were unhappy at the style of play he brought. Details of dressing room bust ups with senior players became public knowledge with club stalworth Iker Casillas being Mourinho’s prime enemy within. He and Ronaldo's relationship also was far from harmonious, with Mourinho claiming Ronaldo's biggest problem was his reluctance to listen to criticism. They've both since blamed each other publicly for their collective failure to win a Champions League together. 

Ronaldo’s relentless quest to outshine Messi and be king of the mountain again bore fruit in the spring of 2014. Having been crowned World Player of the Year again for his 2013 efforts, Ronaldo and co, in the first year of the post-Mourinho era, finally landed La Decima. What could have been the duos crowning glory, the final in Lisbon, turned out to be Ronaldo’s spotlight alone. Mourinho was sat at home, licking his wounds on the back of his second consecutive trophyless season, his Chelsea side having tumbled at the semi-final stage to Atletico.

Ronaldo has since gone from strength to strength and only now in early 2015 has the baton of the world’s greatest footballer appeared to pass back to Lionel Messi. Ronaldo has now just one World Player of the Year title less than Messi, and the same amount as Zidane and 'Fat Ronaldo', neither of whom shared an era with a player as utterly dominant as Messi.

"Even by yourself, you can carry with you anyone else"

He is a phenomenon. His dedication to improving on his game is simply remarkable. Sure he has the talent but without the insane drive and commitment he has shown, Ronaldo would be held in no higher regard than Ashley Young today. Messi's talent is god-given, you can tell he hasn't had to do half as much work on his game. He was born to be the best player in the world, Ronaldo decided he want to be and made it happen. He put United on his back in many ways during their European runs in 2008 and 2009, spearheading the team's charge, similar to what he did for Madrid in 2014. When he decides he wants to accomplish something, it will take a phenomenal effort to stop him. He's just turned 30 and shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down. Even with the much younger Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez in the side now, Ronaldo remains the top dog.

Mourinho meanwhile has also rediscovered his mojo as of late. His imminent return to Chelsea was common knowledge even before the ink was dry on his ‘mutual termination’ at Madrid. It’s taken a year but he’s built what looks a fairly handy side.  Albeit not quite a patch on his first juggernaut, they should easily capture a first Premier League title in five years this May. His status as the best manager in the world has only been enhanced by how he systematically improved the side from what he had been given. Matic, Fabregas and Costa. Three purchases Mourinho made within his first twelve months, exactly what Chelsea needed to turn them into a ruthless winning machine again.

"Even on your own, you are not alone"

Mourinho's speciality, that the media haven't or either choose not to cop on to yet, is the Cult of Personality. Mourinho even criticised the Chelsea fans earlier on in the season for their lack of atmosphere at the Bridge and yet they remain fiercely loyal to him.He can do no wrong, his status in their eyes is beyond God-like. It's the main reason he wanted to come back to 'where he feels loved'.

What he does, in his various press conferences and post-match interviews, is choose every single phrase carefully in order to create an 'Us Against The World' mentality. Football fans are extremely tribal, no more so when they feel it is them against everyone. Mourinho's comments, whether they be about referee's, opposition players or managers, are always constructed in order to paint his side's as the victims. The underdogs. It is brilliant. Like I said, I'm amazed he's not been pulled up on the act so far. Not for one second does Mourinho believe there's actually a campaign against Chelsea. It's all an act. And it works a treat.

The paths of these two colossal figures are bound to cross again at some point, most likely in the later stages of the Champions League in the not too distant future. I think it highly unlikely we shall ever see them on the same side of the trenches again however. Mourinho has stated his desire to coach his national team before he retires but I can’t see that happening for at least ten years. For the time being, he’ll stay at Chelsea. Ronaldo too, despite endless rumours of a return to England, will see out his playing career in Madrid, save perhaps a swansong year at Sporting Lisbon in his late 30s.

Interaction between the pair may be limited in years to come as their careers take different paths but these two giants of twenty-first century football will forever be remembered as men who changed the game. Mourinho with his scientific methodological approach to management and Ronaldo with his insane physical conditioning and unyielding levels of drive. Portugal has given the sport two of it’s biggest icons of all.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Shapeshifters, Long-Balls and Diamonds: Van Gaal's United

There can be no questioning Louis van Gaal’s reputation or what he’s achieved in the game. League and cup doubles with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, a Champions League win with Ajax in 1995, a Dutch league title with relative minnows AZ in 2009 and most recently a run to 3rd place at the World Cup with Holland, missing out on a final spot in a penalty shoot-out to Argentina. The man is a winner in the same way that David Moyes was simply an achiever, a man capable of delivering results on a budget but not exactly the man to lead a title-winning charge.

Thus far, the Dutchman's career at the helm of Manchester United has not exactly reached dizzying heights or even threatened to do so. United are worse off in terms of points than this stage last year under Moyes and only boast a higher league position due to the significant drop off in performance from both Merseyside clubs. Van Gaal brought with him to Manchester the 3-5-2 formation that had carried Holland to moderate success in Brazil during the summer. The formation has never brought about much success in Premier League history, champions and just about every successful teams down the years have always played four defenders. The popularity of the formation at the 2014 World Cup led to several English clubs beginning the season with it. Along with Manchester United, Hull City and QPR both began the season playing formation with Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool embracing it mid-season, by which stage QPR and United had ditched it in favour of the more traditional four at the back.

3-5-2 didn’t work at United because they neither had the players to suit the system and the players they did use looked generally confused as to their roles, particularly the back three. On the opening day at home to Swansea, United played Jesse Lingard, a central attacking midfielder, at right wing back and Ashley Young, not normally renowned for his defensive abilities at left wing back. Added to that, the players looked uncomfortable in the system, unsure of exactly what their roles, particularly among the back three, and Swansea ran out deserved winners at Old Trafford.

Six months later and United have just lost to Swansea again. Van Gaal looks nowhere nearer to having a title winning team. Results have been average, performances have been poor and unrest amongst the fans is beginning to grow, not just with the toiling efforts against the likes of West Ham and QPR week after week but with the style of footballing they are seeing and particularly the new prehistoric tactic of launching the ball at Marouane Fellaini and hoping something good comes of it.

The Diamond

Having gone winless in the opening three games (Swansea, Sunderland and Burnley) and with a wealth of fresh talent at his disposal, Van Gaal abandoned his 3-5-2 formation in favour of a diamond in midfield. The diamond is an interesting and one I’m a fan of when used correctly. There are two such cases in recent Premier League history of successful diamond midfields. Chelsea in 2009/10 and Liverpool last season. Chelsea’s quadrant of Mikel, Ballack, Lampard and Deco/Malouda/Joe Cole was employed to great effect, particularly in the first half of the season. Last season  Liverpool’s diamond structure of Henderson, Gerrard, Coutinho and Sterling helped them on the march to an impressive second place finish.

The common theme to both these successful diamonds is that both quartet’s consisted of three central midfielders and a number 10, aided by attacking full backs. United’s recent diamonds have consisted of Daley Blind (played left back for Holland at the World Cup but defensive midfield suits him just fine) two wingers in Di Maria and Januzaj and a striker in Wayne Rooney. The key in a diamond formation is that the width is supplied by the full backs. The guys in the diamond should run the show from the middle of the park. Trying to employ wingers will leave you over-run in there. Even asking Di Maria and/or Januzaj to play a more central role is ill-advised as both are natural pacey wingers and do have a tendency to drift wide and try run at players. Neither are particularly disciplined defensively either. United don’t exactly have a wealth of central midfielders at the moment. If Van Gaal does want to persist with the diamond, the best option would be to employ:
  1. An anchor man – Blind or Carrick could do this.
  2. Two box-to-box central midfielders – Herrera is the best United have at this, Blind probably the other but Di Maria did play on the left side of a diamond for Madrid last season but that was against teams so preoccupied with stopping Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema up front that the attention the Argentinian received was almost minimal. Spanish football is different to English and that role doesn't suit Di Maria here.
  3. An attacking point – Mata or Rooney. Probably Mata with Rooney up front.

United's best diamond using the current squad
Of course this means £56m man Angel Di Maria is confined to the sidelines, begging the question as to why his transfer was approved by Van Gaal during the summer if he had this formation in mind. Toni Kroos and Cesc Fabregas, both ideal fits for the central roles were both vetoed by LVG.


Van Gaal has always prided himself on being a ‘4-3-3’ coach but that formation has not seen much action at United this season. He did employ it during Rooney’s suspension in October and persisted with it for the big games against Chelsea and Man City, neither of which times United disgraced themselves.

4-3-3 would probably involve playing Rooney out wide or in midfield. The alternative is dropping Robin van Persie which is not an unthinkable option right now given his recent form. Rooney is a brilliant number 9, something he often doesn’t get credit for. I would like to see him lead the line a bit more. This formation would allow United to operate with wingers, as the club traditionally has. Di Maria on the right and Young on the left as inverted wingers would be an option. The much-maligned Young has come in for his share of criticism in the past but has been very impressive this season, particularly considering he’s often been played out of position as a LWB. Alternatively Januzaj could be used here as he was during the brief tenure of this formation in the late Autumn.

4-3-3 is a popular formation but I don't think United have the options in central midfield to quite pull this off. Fellaini is not mobile enough to be anything other than a giant battering ram or target man up front. Rooney could do a solid job in a central midfield role but this leaves the shockingly out-of-form van Persie up front on his own. His diminishing speed and dynamism makes him not quite the menace to centre halves he was a few years ago. I don't know if he can play up front on his own anymore. Falcao? No. Just no.

Van Gaal’s System

It’s somewhat of a buzzword the manager has mentioned over and over again this year, referencing his ‘system’ and how players must buy into it in order for it to work. Thus far this season United have used three different formations and not demonstrated a particular style of play. On occasions they’ve spent games trying to pass the ball through, other games attacking down the flanks and lately employing the tactic of playing long balls and hoping the attackers feed of Fellaini’s knock downs.

Sam Allardyce’s labelling of United as a ‘long-ball team’ after the 1-1 draw at Upton Park, whilst hypocritical and very tongue-in-cheek, was on the money. United have played more long passes than anyone this season. The only teams with similar statistics are Burnley and QPR, two newly promoted teams. So little is the confidence in the midfield’s creativity than the preferred option is often just to bypass them entirely and launch the ball straight to the forwards.

For all the talk of a system, their does not seem to be one. United seem to be mixing it up from one game to the next and switching between formations like it’s nobody’s business. United haven't played with a particular style or any sort of flair. I've seen fans comment that they preferred watching the team "lose with style" under Ferguson than labour to wins under Van Gaal. This reflects poorly on a manager who has spent almost £100m on attacking talent in the summer. The defense has stopped leaking goals, the 5-3 collapse against Leicester in September has not since been repeated so that's one thing he's accomplished. Van Gaal's team lately have been hard to break down but find it equally hard to break other teams down, the result are a series of rather dull matches. That's his next challenge. Make them team as irresistible going forward as they were under Sir Alex.

Obviously, new signings are needed to do this, the right signings for the team rather than throwing money at expensive players that are simply available (Di Maria, Mata). The key is to identify exactly what type of players United need and go after them. Obviously not everyone will be available for purchase but there will always be options if the net is cast wide enough. There isn't a need to throw massive amounts of money at players. Who and what do United need?
  • A dominating centre back is a priority. United have been incredibly lightweight at the back this season. Smalling and Jones are qualified flops. The defence has shored up a bit lately  but it needs more of a dominating presence about it. Think a Nemanja Vidic esque figure. Rojo is a suitable deputy, but not quite the leader they need.
  • A right back. Dani Alves is going on a free so I’d be shocked if there isn’t at least an attempt to bring him in. Van Gaal is clearly not a fan of Rafael who himself is injury prone and erratic. Antonio Valencia is not a natural full-back.
  • Similarly lightweight is the central midfield area. Here United need a destroyer. Nigel de Jong has been strongly linked. However I don’t think he’s of sufficient calibre to be the marquee central midfield signing United need. Sami Khedira would be ideal but looks set for Bayern Munich. Kevin Strootman has been injured for the best part of a year now, the club should learn from the Falcao chapter.
  • Another striker. Falcao will not be made permanent. Van Persie’s recent decline may be permanent and he’s entering the final year of his contract. James Wilson is probably not ready to be a 20+ goal a season striker, the time might be right to splash out on a big name. Karim Benzema may be available. Madrid haven’t moved for a striker in a while so may bring in a big name and ship him out this year. That’s what they tend to do.
It's not been an easy start for van Gaal and things have not progressed as much as United fans had hoped. The team have been solid and haven't lost as many silly games as they did last season (West Brom, Stoke, Newcastle) but are struggling to break teams down. Draws away to Aston Villa, West Brom and West Ham are testament to that. 

For this season, United have to finish in the top four. Failure to do so is unthinkable. The club will struggle to attract big names during the summer whilst facing the prospect of a second consecutive season of no Champions League football. The concept is very real now. Liverpool have looked impressive since Daniel Sturridge returned and Arsenal look a lot better going forward than United. Even Spurs look in better shape than United at the moment, as do Southampton who won at Old Trafford six weeks ago. The FA Cup is still a possibility but right now I don't see United getting past Arsenal in the last eight. Priority though, should be a Champions League spot. The squad once again needs massive investment in the summer and the calibre of players they would be able to attract would be much higher were they playing in Madrid on Wednesday nights rather than Giurgiu on Thursdays.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

How Arsenal Have Never Recovered from 49 And Out: 10 Years On

October 24th 2004 proved to be quite the watershed day for Arsenal. The Gunners, boasting perhaps the most dominant Premier League side of all time, came to Old Trafford, the home of their biggest rivals at the time, on an incredible 49-game unbeaten run in the Premier League.

 For the defending champions, coming off an unprecedented unbeaten season, this would be their crowning glory, a chance to really rub United's nose in it. Clinching the title at Old Trafford two years ago was one thing, but this would really be a chance to assert their superiority over their fierce rivals. United were a team in transition. Ferguson's once dominant gladiators were on their knees, ready to fall. This was Arsenal's moment.

It's the last few minutes of the game and Arsenal chasing a late equaliser to keep the game alive. Alan Smith breaks down the left and squares it across the Arsenal box. Wayne Rooney, on his 19th birthday, is there to tap in, put United 2-0 up and send the Old Trafford crowd into raptures. The Invincibles had fallen. 49 and out. 

van Nistelrooy and Rooney break the streak

The brawl in the tunnel that followed, known since as pizza-gate, and Arsenal's reaction to the defeat showed just what bad losers this side had become. And I mean that as a massive compliment. No great team should take a defeat well. And this was a great team. One with heart, passion and, crucially, balls.

What is curious is that now, just over 10 years on from that infamous day, Arsenal have never been the same since.

Immediately after the defeat, Arsenal went into a tailspin in the league. One win from the next five including another defeat, this time at Anfield. They lost again to United at Highbury later on in the season in another ill-tempered encounter, memorable for another tunnel clash, this time pre-game between Vieira and Keane. They lost further games at Bolton and Birmingham and ended up 2nd in the table, 12 points adrift of runaway champions Chelsea

They did end that season with a rather fortunate FA Cup win, Patrick Vieira scoring the winning penalty with what proved to be his last kick for the football club. The following season they were completely unrecognisable from the all-conquering team of 03/04. Two years removed from an unbeaten season, Arsenal had lost six times in the league before Christmas. They lost eleven overall that season and finished the season 4th in the league, scraping by Spurs on the final day, thanks in no small part to some dodgy lasagne. Wenger's worst season by far. Having blown the competition away in 2004 to win the Premier League title, 2006 saw Wenger's Arsenal only win the 'North-London title' on the final day.

05/06. A different jersey and a very different Arsenal

2006/07 they moved to the Emirates but on this pitch, Arsenal's fortunes remained much the same. Pires had left after falling off badly the previous year, Ljungberg was on his last legs and would be shown the door soon. Bergkamp had retired. Wiltord had left. Campbell left. This would be the final season of Thierry Henry's great Arsenal career. A new team was taking shape but this year can most definitely be chalked up to 'transition'. 

In place of the departing big names came the likes of 19 year-old Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor. Promising, if not quite the finished articles just yet. It was bound to be a year of transition and so it proved. The following year, 2007/08 was their best season since the title winning campaign of 03/04. Arsenal led the way for most of the year, only a meltdown in spring kept them from the title. It was these meltdowns that have become typical Arsenal over the years. United always seemed to get better as the season went on, their hunger for the title driving them on. Arsenal have never shown any such drive or determination. 

2008/09 saw a match, again with United, that came to define what Arsenal have been all about the past ten years. The Champions League semi-final second leg. At home to Man United, trailing 0-1 from the away leg, a wonderful opportunity. The game was over in ten minutes. Two quickfire United goals and they dominated the game. Patrice Evra summed up the game exceptionally well: men against boys. United had a team stacked with winners. Van der Sar, Ferdinand, Vidic, Rooney, Ronaldo. A solid foundation, complemented brilliantly by proven match-winners. Arsenal had nothing. No more Vieira, Henry, Pires et al. Like a once mighty lion who'd had his claws removed and was now no more dangerous and fearful than a common house cat.

Reliance on young talent has cost Arsenal in the big games

The years have gone by and Arsenal have failed to rediscover the swagger they showed during the Henry/Vieira era. It's been setback after setback, highlighted by key players leaving the club seemingly every summer. Adebayor and Toure jumped ship to Man City in 2009. Samir Nasri, at the time their best player, decided to chase the dollar in 2011. Fabregas chased his boyhood dream and finally went back to Barcelona that same summer. Alex Song also went to Barcelona in 2012. Robin van Persie left for Manchester United, 'to win trophies' the same year on the back of winning the PFA Player of the Year award. Can you imagine Henry, the division's best striker, jumping ship to join Ferguson's side in 2004?

Look at the Arsenal of today and they look as soft as they have done for the best part of ten years now. Eight months ago they suffered humiliating defeats at Liverpool and Chelsea within weeks of each other. In 2001, Arsenal collapsed at Old Trafford and lost 6-1 in a fairly meaningless game, the title already virtually decided. They responded by coming out the following season and blowing United out of the water, clinching the title at Old Trafford for good measure. Last year's Arsenal side, on the back of a tonking from a title rival, played the exact same way a couple of weeks later and got a similar result. Madness. This was a team supposedly on the cusp of a title win who had led the league for most of the season, falling to pieces when it was put up to them by a rival.

As the years go by it's the same old Arsenal. No fight about them.

This past week they were at it again. Squandering a 3-0 lead in the second half against Anderlecht. Reminiscent of the 4-0 lead they famously managed to throw away at St James Park a couple of season's ago. Alexis Sanchez has been a brilliant addition to the side and he will win many games on his own for them this season, but they need more that that if they want to seriously compete for honours. Players like Sanchez and Ozil are excellent for games against the likes of Burnley when the defence is not likely to be tested to much and they just need match-winners to do what they do. When they do come up against good sides, they need to, for want of a less simple description, stand their ground and fight for their cause. For this they don't have the players willing or able to do it. Where is their enforcer? Their Nemanja Matic? The Patrick Vieira type figure of old who you could always rely on in a fight. A player who didn't mind getting his hands dirty.

Wenger is one manager who refuses to compromise his beliefs about the way that football should be played and he deserves respect for that. But it's not going to win Arsenal trophies. Strong teams win trophies and Arsenal, a good team, are not a particularly strong one. The recent defeat to Chelsea highlighted that there is quite a gulf between the two sides, one that Wenger won't be able to bridge through sheer footballing talent, Arsenal need some balls.