Stoppage Time: The old-look Gunners

Published September 27, 2012

| Sports Network

Arsene Wenger must be a fan of Cher.

It's the only explanation as to why Arsenal has "turned back time" and returned to the days when defensive discipline reigned supreme in the red half of North London.

Wenger, the club's most successful manager to date with three Premier League titles and four FA Cups to his name, has been at the helm of Arsenal since October 1996. His tenure has been marked by a desire to play free-flowing football with an emphasis on intricate passing and speedy counter-attacks.

This was a far cry from the blueprint laid by manager George Graham, who led the Gunners to a total of seven trophies from 1986 to 1995.

With brutish defenders like Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn at his disposal, Graham helped usher in an era of sound defensive play that saw the Gunners grind out countless low-scoring victories in the late 1980s and early 90s. The reputation even yielded a famed terrace song at Highbury, "One-Nil to the Arsenal," which made its first appearance during the club's defeat of French side PSG in the second leg of its European Cup Winner's Cup semifinal in 1994 (Arsenal went on to win the final with a - SPOILER ALERT - 1-0 defeat of Parma).

Arsenal's defensive unit remained in tact into the Wenger era with Bould staying at Arsenal until 1999, Winterburn until 2000 and Adams and Dixon lasting until 2002, but the Frenchman began to assemble a collection of foreign-born players with a penchant for attacking flair through combination play. Patrick Vieira, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp, Fredrik Ljungberg, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires helped alter Arsenal's image of a stout defensive club to one that valued the entertainment as much as the win.

Wenger's stubbornness has put a ceiling on the club's success in recent years. Arsenal's inability to compete with Chelsea's and Manchester City's billionaire owners certainly has hindered the club in the transfer market, but Wenger has not coped to the circumstances in a favorable manner.

A college graduate with a degree in economics, Wenger certainly exercises such practices in transfers, buying young talent on the cheap before selling the developed product at a higher price. It's the fiscally responsible approach in an age when transfer fees are drastically inflated, but it has turned Arsenal into a selling club that has not lifted a trophy since 2005.

Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy all left Arsenal last summer, but Wenger didn't feel the need to strengthen his squad amid such high-profile departures. It wasn't until last season's humiliating, 8-2 defeat at Manchester United on Aug. 29 that Wenger decided to loosen the purse strings and sign some players on deadline day who could make an immediate impact.

The club rebounded to finish third in the Premier League last season, an admirable conclusion given the disastrous start to the campaign.

Robin van Persie, who led the Premier League with 30 goals last season, sealed a move to Manchester United this summer to leave Wenger in an all-too-familiar position. But "Le Professeur" seemingly has coped well this time around given Arsenal's impressive start to the new campaign.

Arsenal signed Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla in the summer, but its the defense that has been uncharacteristically solid this season.

The Gunners have been quite shaky in the back during their seven-year barren spell, but they kept three consecutive clean sheets to open the new season. Save for a 6-1 thrashing of Southampton on Sept. 15, Arsenal has managed to score just three goals this term. But due to its staunch defense, the club remains competitive for the top spot in the Premier League with an unbeaten record through five games.

A good indicator of how far the Gunners have come has been their ability to get positive results in tough road environments. Arsenal's three road matches have yielded a total of five points - the Gunners played to a scoreless draw with Stoke City at the Britannia, left Anfield with a 2-0 win over Liverpool and came from behind to earn a point in a 1-1 draw with reigning champion Manchester City.

"It is (a confidence boost) because we have already been to three of the toughest places you can go to - Liverpool, Man City and Stoke - and I think we deserved to win all of them," midfielder Mikel Arteta told Arsenal's official website. "Two of them we drew and one we won but we could have won them all easily. It shows we are doing things in the right way."

Speaking after Arsenal's draw at the Etihad on Sunday, Wenger's praise for his side did not come without a hopeful prediction of where the Gunners will end up after 38 games.

"What is very important for the team is that it was a point in a convincing way," Wenger told the club's website. "It was not a miraculous point. It was a well-deserved point. We dominated the game for big parts and that must strengthen the team's belief.

"It's now down to how much we improve, how well we keep that attitude (if Arsenal are to win the title). If we keep that attitude, I think we have a chance."

The Arsene Wenger of old would have lamented his team for not coming out of the gates playing aesthetically pleasing football. The Arsenal of old would have conceded twice at Liverpool to throw away two points. And the Gunners of five years ago, despite sticking six past Southampton, would have given up three more to make for a nervous finish against a newly promoted side.

But, for now, this Arsenal side more resembles George Graham's defense-first approach, and first-choice central defenders Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen appear to be forming a solid partnership reminiscent of Adams and Bould.

Yes, time has been turned back in North London.

Maybe we'll hear some Cher over the sound system before Arsenal's clash with Chelsea at the Emirates on Saturday. That would be funny.

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