Spineless Arsenal need Brian Clough treatment
Neil Clark: What Arsene Wenger could learn from Old Big ‘Ead about winning trophies
Just over two weeks ago, it all looked so promising for Arsenal fans. But after a disastrous fortnight in which they have lost to rank outsiders Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final, crashed out of the Champions League to Barcelona and been knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United, Arsene Wenger's men now have only the Premier League title to chase.
Unless Arsenal can overhaul United in the league - and their recent 0-0 home draw with an out-of-form Sunderland team doesn't augur well in that regard - then 2010/11 will be yet another season without a trophy for Wenger's men.
You have to go back to 2005 for the last time Arsenal won anything.
The Gunners delight us with their flowing football and skilful approach play, and are the team that all neutrals love to watch. But, infuriatingly for their supporters, they seem incapable of landing silverware. What can Wenger do to remedy the situation?
The answer: learn from a manager who did have the winning habit - the late, great Brian Clough.
Like Wenger, Clough demanded his teams play football on the grass and not in the air ("If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he'd have put grass up there" was one of his lines).
But unlike Wenger, Clough was the supreme pragmatist when it came to winning football matches.
In his book Cloughie - Walking on Water, Old Big 'Ead revealed the secret of his success, included winning First Division titles with two unfashionable provincial teams, Derby County and Nottingham Forest in the 1970s, and two European cups - two more than Wenger has achieved. It was all down to the spine of the team: "centre-forwards, centre-halves and goalkeepers, in that order, or reverse order".
Clough, a prolific centre-forward in his playing days, knew full well the importance to a team of having an out-and-out goal scorer. He also knew that having two solid-as-a-rock centre-halves would help keep goals out at the other end.
And it was Clough‘s right-hand man, the ex-goalkeeper Peter Taylor, who impressed on him the importance of having a top shot-stopper. "I've never fathomed why top keepers don't cost as much as top strikers," Clough wrote. "A save can be as important as a goal but a mistake by a keeper is often more costly than a miss by his team-mate at the other end of the field."
Clough prioritised on acquiring the best goalkeeper, the best centre-halves and the best striker for his team. In his autobiography, Clough tells how and Taylor captured
Tranmere's highly-regarded centre-half Roy McFarland for Derby from beneath the noses of the Merseyside giants, Liverpool and Everton, by arriving on the doorstep of McFarland's house late at night, and asking his father to get the young player out of bed.
"We're going to create one of the best teams in England and I'm not going anywhere until you decide whether you want to be part of it," Clough told McFarland, who signed the forms before going back to bed.
Having gained promotion to the First Division for Nottingham Forest in 1978, Clough then broke the club transfer record - and the record spent on a goalkeeper - by buying Peter Shilton from Stoke for £250,000.
The critics claimed that Clough had paid over the odds. But Shilton‘s brilliant displays helped Forest to become only the fifth team to win the title following promotion. "We won the Championship with time to spare, clinching it with a goalless draw at Coventry - one of 25 clean sheets achieved," Clough later recalled. "Who said Peter Shilton was too expensive?"
At the other end, old-style centre forward Peter Withe and Tony Woodcock banged in the goals.
By contrast to what Clough achieved at Derby and Notts Forest, Arsene Wenger has failed to build a strong spine for his Arsenal side. It's noteworthy that much of Wenger's early success at Arsenal came because of the players (and in particular the defensive players) he was bequeathed: the safe-as-houses David Seaman in goal, the commanding Tony Adams and Martin Keown at centre-half, and the brilliant Dennis Bergkamp up front.
In their important cup and league matches of the late 1970s and early 80s, Clough's Notts Forest were clinical in front of goal and made very few mistakes in defence. Compare that with Arsenal's profligacy and the amateurish defending which cost them last month's Carling Cup.
Another thing that Wenger can learn from Clough is the way Old Big ‘Ead never disputed referees' decisions - and instructed his players not to either. Had Clough been manager of Arsenal when they lost to Barcelona last Tuesday, he would simply have admitted that his team lost to a better side and focused 100 per cent on preparing his team for their next match.
Instead Wenger went into full whingeing mode, accusing Uefa of being a "dictatorship" for not apologising after Robin van Persie's sending-off. The result was that when Arsenal turned up to play Manchester United on Saturday in the FA Cup, their minds were still on events in the Nou Camp. And that's all down to the gaffer.
And yet we know Wenger is an admirer of Clough's. This is what he wrote by way of a tribute to Clough a few years back: "I remember watching his teams play and that Forest side of the late 1970s will go down in history as one of the all-time greats. People use the word legend too freely, but Brian Clough is a true legend... His success in England and in Europe is a legacy for which he will always be remembered."
If Wenger wants to transform Arsenal from a team which plays nice football but doesn't win anything into a team which plays nice football and does win trophies, he should order a DVD of Old Big ‘Ead's greatest triumphs to remind himself how it can be done.
It's too late to put it right this season, but in the summer Wenger has to go shopping for the players who can give Arsenal the "spine" they clearly lack. ·