Today we continue with the third installment in my ongoing series highlighting players of the Arsenal “Banter Era”. Stretching from 2007, when Thierry Henry left the club for Barcelona, to 2017 when the signs were on the wall that Wenger was going to be fired, Arsenal’s “banter era” covered a decade of ups and downs, winning the FA Cup three times and coming close to winning the League twice. But almost in spite of the decent trophy return this was a time largely defined by a team of players who were almost good enough, who fans fought over constantly, and who opposition fans often ridiculed. The banter era players were both a testament to Wenger’s genius – that he could keep a team in the top four with these guys – and also a sign that there were deep problems at the club. But despite all that, these are players who always made us at least laugh at the ridiculousness of Arsenal’s situation at that time, if not at their own actions.
Picking two center backs to represent the banter era is an almost impossible job. Not because the CBs we had were all good, but because we had so so many bad ones that it’s probably easier to pick the good ones or one. Partly, to be fair to the players, that is down to Wenger’s system. Stewart Robson never failed to point out “Wenger’s suicidal high line” but the problem wasn’t just that Wenger’s teams played with all the fullbacks in the opponent’s box, it was that his teams also didn’t press, almost never had a real DM, and seemed too honest to just foul to stop breakaways. The result was a system in which playing center back meant you spent a good deal of your time on the pitch in a panicked footrace with an attacker bearing down on your goal. Any slight misstep meant an error for a goal, a red card, or just a bad looking goal.
It took a special kind of player to make Wenger’s post-Invincibles system work and before I get into my choices for Banter Era center backs I’d like to highlight one who could and did do the job: Laurent Koscielny. Koscielny’s Arsenal career started in ignominious fashion, he got a red card (2nd yellow for a “handball”) in his very first game, a 1-1 draw with Liverpool. That whole game is pure banter era, by the way. Hodgson is coach of Liverpool. Joke Hole got a red card for Liverpool in his debut for a foul on Koz (it’s a nutso tackle). Wenger started with Chamakh up front (van Persie on the bench), and Eboue started in the right midfield spot. The midfield that day was Eboue, Diaby, Nasri, Wilshere, and Arshavin – not a decent defensive player in sight. Arsenal had 17 shots to Liverpool’s 8. David N’Gog scored for Pool (1 of the 19 goals he scored in 94 appearances). And Pepe Reina chucked the ball in the net for an OG for the Arsenal.
Koscielny spent 9 seasons at the club and literally gave everything he had to Wenger and Wenger’s system. I know that some folks dislike him for the way that he left the club (something about the shirt reveal or the amount of money we got for him or the fact that he insisted that he’d been told he could leave) but in my mind he had been a tremendous servant, spending 8 seasons under Wenger’s insane system and 1 season with Unai Emery.
Ok, so he got 6 red cards but many of them were utter bullshit: his first red card was for a supposedly deliberate handball, he got a red card for “last man foul” from Mike Dean at Newcastle when Squillaci was covering, another from Dean against Man City which wasn’t even a foul, and while he did have one violent tackle red card and one stupid red card this is a player who played in that high line system and in 353 total appearances for Arsenal, he “only” got 6 red cards. He battled guys like Diego Costa (who literally clawed Laurent’s face) and the Premier League referees who let them get away with bloody murder against Arsenal.
He scored 27 goals for Arsenal, which is a huge number for a CB, and most importantly, he scored the equalizer in the 2014 FA Cup final. He also scored a bicycle kick goal. Yep. And most importantly, and often either forgotten or perhaps wished away by folks who have animosity toward him, he tore his achilles playing in a Europa League match against Atletico Madrid and lost out on a chance to play with the World Cup winning France team. He sacrificed the biggest dream a footballer could have to play in a game that Wenger was never going to win. I’m not at all sorry to say that I have nothing but respect for Laurent Koscielny but I guess I understand if he’s your pick: he played in virtually every single one of the Banter Era matches and did pick up a lot of red cards, and had a lot of errors.
In contrast, I have nothing but contempt for William Gallas and Mikael Silvestre. Here’s where it gets tough to pick a banter era CB. We have some guys that we all hated and some guys who were – to be fair – just completely out of their depth and put in an almost impossible situation. Shkodran Mustafi is an easy choice for B.E. starting XI CB because he was just such a clown and a fuck up. And he also cost Arsenal a huge amount of money and was recommended by the stats analysts. And he was the biggest dud CB we’ve ever had but he kept getting selected because we either had injuries or because he could pass the ball and was one of the only CBs we had who could pass the ball! Like I said, he’s an easy choice. He was once voted the 2nd worst defender in world football by the readers of Marca.
You could also pick Squillaci. Real easy choice there! Dude played 39 times for Arsenal and never once had a good game. But the reason I land on William Gallas and Mikael Silvestre is simply because they represented the absolute worst aspects of Arsenal during the Banter Era. While Koz did get a few too many red cards, William Gallas was just a complete asshole.
Gallas came to Arsenal in a player plus cash deal for Ashley Cole. For those who weren’t around at the time, Ashley Cole was tapped up by Jose Mourinho who was coach of Chelsea at the time. Chelsea had recently been purchased by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and his sole tactic at the time of acquisition was to literally ask “what were Arsenal doing, and how can we throw billions of Pounds at it and steal all their players and recruits.” They tried to buy Henry, but Henry had too much class and turned them down. They then set their sights on Ashley Cole and after Arsenal “only” offered a salary which would make him the highest paid FB in the Premier League, he wiggled his ass at Chelsea and they literally met him in a seedy hotel room to consummate their marriage. Arsenal reported them to the Premier League and they were fined for tapping up.
This might seem like a strange story these days because footballers are constantly and openly being tapped up but back then it was a big deal and it was against the rules. It was also a massive betrayal by Cole and made him one of Arsenal’s most hated former players. He pretends not to care but we all know he does.
And just to make matters worse, Chelsea managed to infect us with William Gallas in the deal. I guess I understand why Wenger wanted Gallas, I think he played for the French national team, and it was cheaper than buying in the open market. See, this is where he becomes pure Banter Era: another half-assed player that Arsenal got on the cheap because it’s all we could do having tied ourselves up with unhealthy bank loans in order to build the new stadium. We almost literally couldn’t afford anyone else, and he immediately became “one of our best center backs” – which ain’t sayin’ shit.
He was also almost immediately promoted to captain of the team, which was, in hindsight, a dumb ass move by Wenger. His captaincy lasted one year I believe, culminating in a very public strop where he sat down on the St. Mary’s pitch to protest his teammate – Gael Clichy – giving away a penalty in an emotional game which saw Martin Taylor break Eduardo’s leg. And then another public outburst in 2008 where he revealed dressing room secrets which then prompted Wenger to strip him of the captaincy and drop him from the team.
He also gave a big, passionate huddle speech before a Chelsea match in which he told the players that “we have to show them that we are not afraid.” Arsenal lost that match, and big Tone ridiculed Gallas for his on-pitch antics.
And again, here’s the big problem: a normal club would have fired Gallas (out of a cannon, into a wall) pretty much at the end of that season. A normal club would have moved on from him and bought a new defender but like a bad case of bed bugs, he just lingered, for two years. TWO YEARS after being stripped of the captain’s armband and dropped. TWO YEARS because Arsenal just couldn’t get their heads out of their asses and find a decent replacement.
We finally did get rid of him in 2010 after he was dropped from the team toward the end of that season and then left on a free transfer.. to Tottenham. And since we got rid of him he won’t shut his fucking mouth! He’s constantly talking shit about Arsenal.
William Gallas has to be one of the worst transfers in Arsenal history. We traded one of the best fullbacks of that era for a guy who was a part time decent player and a full time dressing room distraction. He was a grenade in the Arsenal dressing room, tossed in there by none other than Jose Mourinho himself. It’s no exaggeration to say that it would have been better to take just cash and not have signed William Gallas.
All that said, he wasn’t the worst center back we had during the Wenger era. That was Mikael Silvestre. Again, another center back that Arsenal got on the cheap from a club where the manager once said “I wouldn’t sell them a virus.” These were the transfers that drove us Arsenal supporters nuts. He had been a failure at Man U – notorious actually for an error on the goal that allowed Arsenal to win the League at Old Trafford – but we needed a CB and boy howdy did we get one. It turns out that Alex Ferguson did in the end sell us a virus.
The astonishing thing about Silvestre is how often he featured with William Gallas and how often it all went awry. In his first 7 matches with the club Arsenal won 3, lost 3, and drew one (this 4-4 draw with Spurs). The three losses were to Stoke (he failed to defend the Rory Delap throw in), Aston Villa (I beg you to watch this nonsense), and Man City just at the start of their moneyball era.
So, because they played together for a year, because Silvestre was such utter shit, and because William Gallas is a complete prick. I pick both of them for the Banter Era CB starting XI – with The Squid Squillaci on the bench, ready to jump in and utterly destroy what’s left of our defense, and Shkodran Mustafi dancing in the dressing room.