Is there a more pejorative term in professional sport than “soft”? Probably not. Certainly not one which is loaded with the same weight of negativity. Being soft implies weakness in body and mind and it’s a term which Arsenal have been whipped with for almost a decade.
As recently as ten days ago, Hector Bellerin was run over by Marcos Alonso at Stamford Bridge. Bellerin was skittled by Alonso and left in a concussed pile on the floor. Later in the same game, Francis Coquelin was swatted away like an irritating child by Eden Hazard as the Belgian ran through to score his (slightly over-celebrated) goal. In both instances, the conclusions wrote themselves: soft Arsenal being soft again. They were metaphors for the majority opinion and near-perfect illustrations for the team’s perceived flaws.
But where did this actually come from? The robust nature of the Premier League creates victims every weekend. During each round of fixtures, tackles scythe in, studs rake, and elbows swing, and yet only when they connect with an Arsenal player do we really take notice. True, once a perception takes root in football it tends to be granted eternal life, but it wasn’t so long ago that Arsenal were treated entirely differently. As a club, they have been involved in three of the most notorious brawl in recent memory: at Old Trafford in 1990, at the same ground during an horrendously bad tempered game in 2003, and at the Millennium Stadium in the 2007 League Cup final.
More generally, Arsenal were considered a dirty team under Wenger for many years – and not unreasonably: over the course of his first five seasons, no Premier League/’Ship team had more players sent off than Wenger’s side. Additionally, plenty of those offences were retaliatory in nature and by definition the antithesis of the “easy to bully” tag which has since been applied. Patrick Vieira was responsible for some the ugliest moments in the league’s history and the club’s celebrated back-four were among the spikiest defenders in the land. Even Ian Wright experienced some moments that he should be less than proud of.
In a way, they were a product of their time: Arsenal had a bad disciplinary record, but they didn’t necessarily go above or beyond in any sense. Martin Keown remains vilified to this day for his fracas with Ruud van Nistelrooy, but he was more guilty of creating an ugly visual than any genuinely egregious behaviour.
But when was the BC/AD crossover; what was the Incident Zero which germinated into this contemporary perception? Obviously the players have changed over the years and the team’s identity has shifted accordingly, but the same is true for every side and, yet, many of their original reputations remain intact. Manchester United supporters still firmly believe in the illusory “United Way”, Tottenham continue to be described as a “cup team” despite their repeated, obvious prioritisation of the league, and Leeds United – even before slipping from view – shouldered their Don Revie-era associations across multiple generations.
But Arsenal became soft. One day they weren’t, the next they were. From that point onwards, their failure has always been assessed through the prism of fragility.
It might lie with the manager himself and his 2006 criticism of Sunderland full-back Dan Smith. Smith, who would play just three Premier League games before disappearing down the leagues, fractured Abou Diaby’s ankle in a game at the Stadium of Light. It was a reprehensible challenge, but arguably one animated by Smith’s desire to take his big league chance rather than any real malice. Nevertheless, Wenger was unflinching his anger and Arsenal would later threaten legal action.
“I felt, having watched the game, that there were bad intentions there and I will take legal advice to take this game further. The player should be banned as long as Abou Diaby does not play. When you see that he gets a yellow card it is just horrendous.”
As recently as 2015, in reference to Diaby’s injury-blighted career, Wenger would even refer to Smith as an “assassin”. After nine years, his mood still hadn’t lightened.
In a way, it was admirable: a manager remaining loyal to a stricken player. Equally, Wenger has dealt with this kind of situation more than most: Martin Taylor’s tackle on Eduardo had similarly devastating effects and, of course, Ryan Shawcross’s challenge on Aaron Ramsey might have had an equally long-term impact. Arsenal supporters will reflexively claim all three incidents to have been premeditated, but that’s probably only true in the general sense. The club have enjoyed a technical advantage over most teams over the last decade and rival managers have, in a bid to counter that, likely encouraged a more physical style of play. To claim that specific players have been individually targeted seems a little conspiratorial, but it’s an understandable reaction given the severity of the injuries in question.
Nevertheless, give rival fans an inch and they will take a mile. The temptation has been to present legitimate grievances as “moaning” and the “what ifs” attached to the truncated careers of Eduardo and Diaby as evidence of an excuse culture. There are very few managers who have been as repeatedly aggressive in such situations as Wenger and that kind of reaction will always provoke a response – in this case being the reductive assumption that “the rules apply differently to Arsenal “. Other coaches have, of course, taken public issue with tackles on their players, but they typically do so in an unconvincing way or as a means of justifying a poor result. With Wenger, it has always seemed that much more personal and as if he’s affronted by the injury and wounded by the human cost. He’s a charming man and a generally dignified manager, but to see him interviewed after a game in which one of his players has been injured is to watch him at his most emotional.
Embroiled within this is Arsenal’s team profile: they are not prone to retribution. In the past, taking liberties with Thierry Henry or Robert Pires might have had Vieira-shaped consequences, but there’s been little to fear since his departure. Francis Coquelin may fancy himself as an enforcer of sorts, but he is more of a clumsy tackler than an outright menace; what then is the cost of kicking Theo Walcott or Hector Bellerin – a stern look from Mesut Ozil?
Unfortunately, there’s rarely much nuance in mainstream discussion. The factors above should all be incidental and have little bearing on the present day. However, because the game is now a slave to the soundbyte and in thrall to the cult of personality, the temptation is to guess at the characters which lie behind these public figures. If Wenger complains about injuries, it must be because his players need protecting. If an Arsenal full-back is battered to the floor and none of his teammates get in the face of the opponent who put him there, it must be because they are a fragile side. In reality, it’s little more than a PR problem but, as with all great spin, it has allowed to become truth over time.
So inevitably, as another title challenge fades away, the discussion has again turned to this phantom weakness.