There are many reasons for Arsenal’s recent slump: naïve tactics, players in terrible form, a manager who can’t seem to get through to his squad anymore but has an over-arching factor in Arsenal’s 13-year decline from Invincibles to Invisibles been a lack of the past?
Around Europe, lots of clubs have or have had a links to the past within their setups, both former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola and current Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane were former players and former youth team coaches of their respective clubs, the same for current Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique who replaced Guardiola at Barcelona B.
Ajax boast former players Dennis Bergkamp, Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars in either coaching or board positions. Up until 2009 former player and coach Franz Beckenbauer was the president of Bayern Munich and after then was a key figure at the club.
Arsenal used to be no different.
It perhaps all starts with the legendary Don Howe and a very poignant message he sent back in the 1970s.
Howe was a former Arsenal player, signed by Billy Wright in 1964, he only played at Highbury for two years before a broken leg would lead to his subsequent retirement, it was there that he moved into coaching, firstly with the reserve team.
When assistant Dave Sexton left the Gunners to become Chelsea manager in 1967, Howe was promoted to be Wright’s replacement Bertie Mee’s number two.
By 1967, Arsenal were a shadow of the Herbert Chapman team of the 1930s or the Tom Whittaker team of the late 40s-early 50s.
How Howe laid the foundations for success
Pictures of the all-conquering teams adorned the walls of Highbury and the late Howe tells a story in the 'Arsenal: the Official History' about how people wanted those pictures taken down because it put off the current crop of players, instead Howe insisted they remained as inspiration, that the current crop of players were tasked with replacing those photographs so that the next group of players would feel inspired to replace those.
In 1971, Arsenal became only the second team in the twentieth century to win the league & FA Cup double, a year after winning the club’s first European trophy, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the Fairs Cup being their first trophy in 17 years.
Howe left after the double season but returned on and off for the rest of his career, being assistant to Mee’s successor former player Terry Neill in 1977, succeeding Neill himself in 1983 to become manager and then later being Youth Team Coach for six years in 1997, winning the FA Youth Cup in 2001.
Martin Keown also touched on Howe in BBC’s Match of the 90s in 1999, saying that Howe would always be badgering the current players about the 1971 double team and how they were all winners, desperate to win and how it was something that the current players had to try and follow.
When Arsène Wenger arrived in 1996, the players of yesteryear were in place. 1971 double winner Pat Rice was surprisingly named as Wenger’s assistant when some believed he would appoint a foreign coach, a position he held until his retirement in 2012, another double winner, Bob Wilson remained goalkeeping coach until 2003 having spent nearly three decades in the role.
Fan favourite and 1979 FA Cup winner Liam Brady served as Head of Youth Development between 1996 and 2013, Howe was a Youth coach between 1997 and 2003 and in the boardroom sat David Dein, a boyhood fan who had been involved since 1983, Ken Friar who had been with the club since he was 12-years-old in the 1940s and Peter Hill-Wood, a third generation chairman, whose grandfather and father successively had been chairmen of the club since the Chapman days in the 1930s.
Wenger may have been walking in to new surroundings, to a new league but the foundations of the club’s history was very much around him.
Maybe it’s a laboured point in 2017, when managers and backroom staff are ever-changing, however, over the last 21 years, is it a wild coincidence that the fewer and fewer call backs to the days of success, the less successful Arsenal have become?
In a way, what Howe said about the old pictures has rung true, they have been taken down, there are still small bastions of the good ol’ days left in the forms of Wenger himself and Steve Bould as assistant who won three league titles with the Gunners but having those reminders, those former players geeing you on, inspiring, sometimes even to the point of irritation that it only pushes you further, having them around the club up and down is long gone.
Gunners lacking former figures
When you look where former winners are now, they’re far afield, Bergkamp and Overmars are in Amsterdam, Tony Adams is the new manager of Granada, Thierry Henry is Roberto Martinez’s assistant with Belgium and Patrick Vieira is the head coach of New York City FC.
Before Bould, the last time a former league winner was part of the set-up was Keown who helped a makeshift back four set the UEFA Champions League record for consecutive clean sheets over 2005-06.
Those who aren't in coaching are usually in punditry, as for the boardroom, although Sir Chips Keswick is a friend of Hill-Wood, there is a distinct lack of Gooners so to speak.
Dein has been exiled since 2007, his replacement Ivan Gazidis grew up as a Manchester City fan from most accounts and is rarely a key figure in scouting or transfers like Dein was.
The owner Stan Kroenke is famed for his silence and has gone on record saying he’s not at Arsenal to win trophies he and his son Josh (who is also an executive) are rarely seen at games.
In a time where modern super clubs are losing their identities day by day, it is no more evident than at Arsenal because if Arsène Wenger leaves in 2017, it wont be like the day he walked in in 1996.
The finances are better, the stadium is bigger, the training ground is more modern but the spirit, the traditions and the legacy within the club will be purged.
There will be no modern day Don Howe constantly reminding players on how great the 2002 double side was and how they have to emulate that, there’ll be no crop of players from the last title winning season that know how to get it done and there’ll be no Pat Rice linking the last double winners to the next.
“Remember who you are, what you are and what you represent” said the late David Rocastle to boyhood friend Ian Wright when he joined from Crystal Palace. How the class of 2017 need to be reminded the club they represent.