On Sunday age old questions over the definition of footballing success resurfaced as Arsène Wenger’s current generation of Arsenal players failed in their bid to win a trophy of their own in the Carling Cup final against Birmingham, who prevailed to win their first silverware in forty eight years, against the side who have been waiting a mere six.
Is winning trophies the definition of a good side? Most football fans would agree that it proves something, but there are always those who judge sides on other merits. Indeed the cult of the glorious loser is one that only increases with age.
Say what you like about the Carling Cup, but it represents something tangible, a measure of mental strength, which Wenger’s current side, led by Cesc Fábregas have been accused of lacking time and again. There are those who claim arrogance on the part of Wenger’s charges in their adherence to a certain style of play, but it has to be said that in terms of basic quality the side does have the potential to win something.
Remember, they only remember the winners
They say history only remembers the winners and there is no doubt that winning titles is the definition of a successful side. But the best losers are not always forgotten, and the worst winners not always looked upon fondly.
In his interview with Sid Lowe, Xavi, that magician of Barcelona, made a good point when he said that only certain winners will be remembered. His jibes were mainly aimed at the treble winners of 2010, Inter Milan, who beat Barcelona without a hint of desire for the ball in Camp Nou under Mourinho. What is true though is that great sides that never were also retain some nostalgia, perhaps tainted with a slight bitterness for the potential never fulfilled, and therefore the greatness never fully recognised.
So in a rather roundabout way this brings us to the essence of the idea. In the most simplistic of methods we can make a comparison between different clubs, to look firstly at how successful they have been – their dominance at various times. Not only that but it allows us to view the so called ‘barren’ periods, where the records are blank, to resurrect the stories of the nearly men, and so provide an evaluation of the true worth of the historical records.
People hold up Barcelona as a shining example of a Wenger style of play delivering results, and indeed Xavi mentioned that teams such as Arsenal should evolve and change their methods, to attain the ultimate goal of winning. However, no-one mentions the fact that Barca went without a trophy from 1999 until 2005. Even then Barcelona were arguably a better side in 2009/10 than in 2008/09, and yet they were treble winners that year – is one trophy more meaningful than three, including that most coveted of large shiny vessels, ‘big ears’, the Champions League?
There is an even greater sense of nostalgia when it comes to World Cups, most probably due to the fact they occur only every four years, leaving few chances for great players to make their mark, over just a handful of games on the stage the whole world turns out to watch. Many have commented on the best sides who never made it, the Hungarians in 1954, the Dutch in 1974, or the Brazilians of 1982. At international level the brevity of the tournaments does mean that truly great sides only get a tiny sprinkling of minutes to condense their play into wins. This naturally increases the chances of the best sides not winning.
When it comes to judging success at club level there is one reason why trophies do physically represent a good side, in the fact that the duration of the season means only the team able to endure the most, and produce consistently can triumph in a large league, or pull off simultaneous cup wins.
In that light here is a brief comparison of a selection of several top English clubs: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham, as well as Arsenal, all of whom are currently inhabit the upper echelons of the Premier League table, and all of whom have league winning sides in their past.
Giants of the North West
At Manchester United the story is somewhat similar to Arsenal in terms of two managers dominating the club’s history. At United Busby and then Ferguson provided the two phases of real success, and like Wenger, Ferguson is also the current incumbent.
Apart from two titles and an FA Cup in the early years of the 20th Century, United were quiet on the trophy front until after World War Two, with their greatest exploits coming under Busby in the 1950s and 1960s. There is a hiatus in trophy winning after that fateful Munich disaster of 1958 which decimated the ‘Busby Babes’, there exists a team truly unable to fulfil its potential. United did experience a resurgence, winning two titles and the European Cup from 1965 to 1968. Indeed, Busby was the first to win the European Cup for an English club, beating Benfica 4-1 with the likes of George Best, ten years after the Munich air disaster
Those United sides of Matt Busby are the ones remembered fondly, and they did back their success up with title wins, albeit in nowhere near as great quantities as Sir Alex has amassed in his time at the club.
From the 1960s the club experienced relatively sparse years in terms of trophies, with three FA Cups until Sir Alex joined the club in 1986. Fergie famously took several years to develop the team, and struggled initially, but given time he pushed the club into the role of winners, taking the FA Cup in 1990 against Crystal Palace. That was arguably the title that saved his job.
Meanwhile the maturation of a generation of Ferguson youth players fortuitously coincided with the breakaway of the top English clubs into the Premier League in 1992, from which point the disparity of wealth and trophy accumulation in English football became greater. United were poised perfectly to exploit this gap, but not only that, they have managed to maintain success across several different sides from the early Irwin or Cantona, then Keane and Beckham to Ronaldo and Rooney, with veterans such as Giggs and Scholes providing the winning link across the generations.
The Champions League win in 1999 was the culmination of that most successful of United sides, at a time when competition between Arsenal and United was intensifying in a two horse race in the Premier League. Indeed, there is a blip with the arrival of Arsène Wenger at Arsenal from 1998 until 2003 when Arsenal and United were the two almost uncontested contenders for the title.
Ferguson has won 35 trophies at United, presiding over their most successful period, and he makes an important distinction in his terming of success:
“I judge my success by trophies… We know we have to perform to make sure we are always up there.”
“But what is success? You could have a team who finishes in the top three or four every season and get to the final of a cup competition but don’t go on and win it. I don’t think that is failure. That is relative success.”
“You have kept your team in a competitive situation throughout the season. You are in Europe and contesting the Champions League.”
Ferguson managed United to success in trophies, but also relative success too, consistently maintaining competitiveness, and only going two or three years without a trophy, including in the transition years from 2004 until 2007. United undoubtedly replaced Liverpool as the dominant club in England based on the trophy record. However, in perspective, United’s current wealth of trophies came after a prolonged period with few successes, and thirty five years without a league title.
Liverpool are a case in point, the most successful side in England is without a league trophy in twenty years, since 1990, although they have come close on several occasions. Kenny Dalglish is back in charge at Liverpool, and in fact he was the last manager to lift a league title with the club, though they have had some success in cup competitions.
It is Liverpool’s sides of the 1970s and 80s who came to dominate English football, and this persisted until the reign of one Grahame Souness, upon whose appointment Liverpool promptly blew millions on flops and slid rapidly down the table.
Liverpool waited six years for a trophy between 1995 and 2001, but already by that point the side had not won a league title for eleven years. Some claim Liverpool were a side of title winning potential under Roy Evans from 1994-1997, though he is never given credit, and in fact they never won the trophies to back that claim up, a sole League Cup triumph in 1995 is generally disregarded.
Under Houiller and Benitez they experienced somewhat of a resurgence, but never recovered to win that elusive 19th League title. In 2009 though with an in form combination of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard the side looked likely to take the league, even recording a resounding 4-1 win at Old Trafford, only to fall at the final hurdle and give Manchester United the record equalling 18th title. The efforts of that side were never recognised by the sound of chisel on metal, and they have to make to with the achievement of a slightly earlier Benitez side, that which won the Champions League in 2005, and the FA Cup in 2006.
The London Clubs
The record of Chelsea and Tottenham is one which shows the relative paucity of titles in London excepting Arsenal’s thirteen. Tottenham were the first club to win the double in 1961, a feat only seconded in 1971 by Arsenal and Charlie George. Arsenal’s trophy record is the third strongest in the country, though the gap since 2005 is clear.
Spurs’ longevity in English football is exemplified by their 1901 and 1921 FA Cup win, but with just two league titles to their name they cannot claim to be a side with long term success in England. Bill Nicholson presided over the most successful period in their history, beginning with the 1961 double and ending with the 1972 UEFA Cup, and 1973 League Cup wins. The starting for these graphics differ slightly, so Spurs’ is actually stretched over twenty years longer to accommodate their early FA Cup wins.
The wait for a league title over forty years has been tempered by the addition of five FA Cups and European triumphs, but since the 1991 FA Cup, where a Gascoigne powered Tottenham beat Arsenal and then Nottingham Forest at Wembley, the club has had to make do with two League Cup titles. It is only now after years of sustained investment that Harry Redknapp has been able to build a Spurs side capable of qualifying for Europe.
Chelsea were another side with mid Twentieth century success. Their first and sole title pre-Abramovich came in 1955, after which they suffered several periods of rise and fall, this culminated in increased investment under Ken Bates and his team, including the development of Stamford Bridge, one factor which encouraged Roman Abramovich to buy the club.
The arrival of Abramovich is probably the defining event of modern English football, and the model is now replicated at the likes of Manchester City under the sheiks. Abramovich’s investment after purchasing the club for £140 million in 2003 was the enabler for Chelsea’s sustained push which saw them gain two league titles under Mourinho in 2005 and 2006, and a third four years later under Ancelotti in 2010, as well as three FA Cups.
Previously Chelsea suffered a fifty year gap in league title wins, though they now hold four to their name. The sides of the 1990s and early 2000s did challenge for honours, and with the likes of Zola and Vialli at the helm won the FA Cup and Cup Winners Cup at the turn of the millennium, but never looked like consistent title winners.
What is clear from the Chelsea parable is that instability in managerial regimes wins you nothing. The philosophy of the Mourinho years built a unit of players which struggled to adapt to his alienation and departure, resulting in a gap which Manchester United exploited to full potential to take home three trophies.
The future of English football may lie in the new money, that of Manchester City, and out of interest their titles are included below. Indeed, their record is rather like that of Chelsea pre-Abramovich, though that will most likely change.
At Arsenal the record compares favourably with that of Chelsea and Spurs, but lags behind the giants of Liverpool and Manchester United, both on 18 titles. The patterns of the current era shows how times change, although Liverpool have a weight of history behind them, their current league position shows they are not the side they were under Benitez, whilst Chelsea are not even playing like the same side which won the double last year.
The ideology of winning is something built, but which needs to be maintained. Liverpool lost the connection after 1990, Arsenal have not faltered to the same extent in terms of league position, but the generation gap between the current crop and the likes of Henry, Vieira and Adams is growing.
“I think Arsène has said that winning trophies is compulsory at Arsenal. It is always compulsory”
“We judge ourselves on the pride we create for our fanbase. That pride is created through all kinds of different things. One of them clearly is trophies. That is critical for a club of Arsenal’s size but there are other things that drive pride, including the style of football we play and the values that we represent.”
In that quote Gazidis has hit the nail on the head, and in a way Ferguson also made the same point with his comments about ‘relative success’ – an achievement based on principle, within a constrained budget, and remain competitive is a feat, that is as much as Wenger is achieving at the moment. This ties in with the economic view of footballing success, increasingly relevant in the modern game, an argument which could vindicate Wenger’s transfer and youth policies.
In the long term perspective the record of Wenger is that of the most successful manager the club has ever seen, in the same way that Ferguson is for United, Mourinho at Chelsea or Paisley at Liverpool. What is most interesting in the latter two cases are the individuals who came before.
At Liverpool it is universally accepted that Shankly built the famous ‘boot room’ and laid the foundations for the greater success of his successor, whilst in a much more short term move Ranieri undoubtedly built a core of defensive stability at Chelsea which Mourinho moulded into a successful side.
If these graphics show anything it is that in English football success is impermanent. Dynasties can be built, but no team lasts forever, and eventually it falls to another to take the crown. The Premier League is more competitive than ever today, and the myriad of tournaments clubs feature in play out in different manners, affecting teams in different ways.
A six year hiatus is nothing compared with the long stretch of eighteen years, and in that respect the understanding of what Wenger is building is tolerated. As Ferguson says, managers need time to do their job properly. However, to be recognised as successful, Alex is correct in saying that this is judged purely on trophies.
With that notion secure, the requirement for Wenger to take a trophy to prove that this team is as good as he claims, though whether the Carling Cup is really the stage for that is questionable. What is not in doubt is the difficulty in now rebuilding the morale of a team which is quite clearly knocked. Whether or not Arsenal really value the Carling Cup, the symbolic meaning of the competition was not understated. Nevertheless the club has more than one chance at proving themselves on the highest level. A trophy can make or break a side, and though six years is relatively short in real terms, for one generation of a team that is all it takes to lose the winning mentality.