What Would Patrick Do?

The win at Anfield was a very good one, but we need to toughen up. We need to let teams know that we are up for it. We need to let them know that we will give as good as we get and more.

Arsene’s second successful side contained many of the most skillful players to ever play in the Premiership. It contained men who played hard and fought hard – men who would go to Burnley tonight and do the business. It contained men like Patrick Vieira.

Circa 2003, the league clamped down on what was perceived to be a “dirty” Arsenal side. Patrick was the poster boy for that so-called dirty side. I heard someone say the other day that perception is the progenitor of reality. If you don’t change perception, reality will not change. For me, it was more of a perception than anything that we were dirty.

When Wenger could choose players like Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Edu, and Kanu, it was a luxury not many EPL managers have ever had. They were among the most technically sound to ever wear an Arsenal shirt. At the same time, he could also choose men like Ray Parlour or Lauren (and Gilles Grimandi, and Oleg Luzhny before them) as enforcers to protect the more creative types.

Patrick was the main cog in everything we did. Such were his abilities that he added a chapter in the evolution of the central midfielder. If Claude Makelele meant destroyer, protector, and foundation, then Patrick defined the box-to-box player who’s role was all of the above plus starting (while often finishing) attacks. When Patrick was at his best, Arsenal were almost untouchable. When Patrick was at his best, he struck fear in our opponents.

And then things changed. The cry to curb Arsenal’s aggressiveness was made repeatedly and loudly. We were put under a microscope. We were accused of being overly physical. Multiple red cards and a “poor disciplinary record” became part of our profile. Even when we finished top of the Fair Play chart, we were still seen as cheaters, whingers, or that French team with an arrogant manager who had to be stopped.

Soon enough, perception became reality.

Our teeth were dulled by what was clearly an anti-Arsenal agenda. We could no longer rely on the hard men in our squad to keep the balance right. Previously, when Thierry was kicked he knew Lauren had his back. If Dennis was punched off the ball, he would either address it himself or Ray Parlour would sort it. The closest thing we’ve seen to that recently was in Sagna’s first North London derby when he let fat boy Tom Huddlestone know what’s what.

Our attacking flair was limited. Our thrust was halted. Patrick’s game was compromised.

Look at how Sam Allardyce’s Bolton, Mark Hughes’s Blackburn, and even Manchester United kicked our players all over the park match after match, season after season. In fairness, United could play football with any team but let’s be clear, when Ferguson felt we had an advantage in football terms, he unleashed the hounds.

Those teams were rarely punished. In fact, a large portion English football fans welcomed their actions. They felt that we needed to accept the treatment as part of the game. If you think that I sound like a deluded Arsenal fan, your memory is short. Announcers and pundits would state with no reservation that you had to “get in amongst them” if you wanted to compete with Arsenal.

Getting in amongst them is another way of saying if you can’t keep up with their pace, if you can’t win the ball back from them, if you can’t match their ability, you have to kick them, push them, punch, elbow them. Essentially, they were not only condoning but promoting the same thing we’d been accused of – being overly aggressive. The difference is that those teams’ approach (United notwithstanding) left no room for football. It was tactical and premeditated. Forget the pretty stuff. Beat them up. The ref will allow it.

How much more cynical could you get?

As I type, I can visualize the blood dripping out of Robin’s mouth from a Ryan Nelsen blow in an FA Cup tie. I can see Paul Scholes and the Neville boys abusing Jose Reyes. I remember clearly in Match No. 50 how Horseface attempted to snap Ashley Cole’s leg in two.

Whether those actions were punished or not – and I seem to remember only Ryan Nelsen receiving a ban – we didn’t retaliate. Worse, we were perceived as a side that you could beat up and get away with. At worst, a few yellows would be the consequence. The FA were complicit. Why were those widely judged to be the best footballing side, the most pleasing for the neutral to watch, being trampled on instead of protected? We were disarmed and our opponents were allowed to push matters as far as the ref would allow. Opponents who embraced an often violent approach were pardoned.

I say all of this to call for stronger, firmer displays from this current Arsenal side as we go forward. Cesc said this week that size doesn’t factor in a team’s success as much as it has been portrayed to do. I agree but we have to change the perception that we can be a soft touch.

We will get no help in our quest to raise the EPL title. Instead we will find it increasingly difficult as the likelihood increases. And I believe that likelihood will increase if we address key areas – goalkeeper and centre forward. We also have to stay free of any more long-term injuries. And I stress again that we must firm up physically.

Burnley will be a good test of our ability to continue our title challenge. Denilson, Diaby, Theo, Almunia, Nasri just to name a few must be reminded that this is as good an opportunity as they might get to be a winner with this club.

Stand up for yourselves. Stand up for Arsene Wenger. Stand up for Arsenal Football Club.

Somewhere in Northern Italy, Patrick is watching. Make him proud.

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