Arsene Wenger: 'You don't deserve to wear the shirt'
Seven words shocked and shamed a group of underachieving talents, shaking them into a vigorous reaction that now sees them atop the Premier League.
Trailing to Liverpool at Anfield on December 13, Arsenal's players sloped into the dressing-room at half-time to be met by a seething Arsene Wenger. "You don't deserve to wear the shirt,'' he screamed.
As this most cultured of managers rarely raises his voice, seven words dripping with acid burned into the consciences of his players, who tore into Liverpool after the break. Gone was their earlier diffidence, Arsenal passing the ball rather than the buck.
Glen Johnson was harried into an own goal, Andrei Arshavin launched the type of Russian-made missile that gave JFK sleepless nights and Arsenal really began to believe in themselves, in their title potential. In 38 days, they have made up nine points, overtaking Manchester United and Chelsea.
But hold the hype. Before the open-top bus is booked for a spin up the Holloway Road and Nick Hornby updates 'Fever Pitch', Arsenal know many arduous challenges lie ahead. Next Wednesday, they enter a period that Sky will probably call 'Judgment Fortnight': daunting trips to Villa Park and Stamford Bridge sit alongside visits from Wayne Rooney's United and Steven Gerrard's Liverpool.
Only after this sustained examination of Arsenal's character can a clearer picture emerge of their place in the landscape of English football.
Wenger is no fool. He can see his team also top the table because Chelsea and United dropped points unexpectedly in the first half of the season. Will those mistakes be repeated?
Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea are well coached, well balanced and well motivated, deservedly remaining favourites for the title. United should never be written off with Rooney on the ball and Alex Ferguson on a mission.
Similarly, the fear that dares not speak its name at the Emirates -- Cesc Fabregas falling lame again -- could always strike. In a season plagued by injuries at many clubs, an alarming development the authorities need to investigate, Arsenal's momentum could be slowed by a hamstring, groin strain or stress fracture.
Gooners will respond that Arsenal have survived without Fabregas, but he does raise their tempo. At least Robin van Persie, who returned to training last week to step up his rehab after ankle surgery, hopes to resume playing in April. Now that would be elegant cavalry.
Flaws exist. In Van Persie's absence, Arsenal lack a 20-goal forward in contrast to the Chelsea of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. Perhaps if Eduardo enjoys a run of games he might banish any doubts in his mind, and others', that he is still inhibited by the memory of the Martin Taylor incident.
In midfield, Denilson has not built on a promising start. At the back, the goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia, is not good enough, remaining vulnerable to high balls. While acknowledging all these concerns, and paying due deference to rivals of the quality of Drogba and Anelka, Rooney and Patrice Evra, what is undeniable is that a window of opportunity has opened for Arsenal, prised ajar by Wenger's seven words.
Longer-term dynamics underpin their development. To borrow a phrase from the political archives, the inevitability of gradualness defines Wenger's approach. Evolution not revolution. Be patient.
Wenger's young players are growing season by season, the likes of Alex Song gaining in maturity and a tactical appreciation of his role, anchoring midfield to liberate Fabregas.
Arsenal are also leaders of the Premier League partly because they now have more leaders. The captain's armband sits snugly around Fabregas' left bicep but others readily take on responsibility. Tomas Rosicky consistently troubles opponents, particularly when moving inside and linking with Fabregas.
Thomas Vermaelen has proved an inspired purchase at £10m, partnering William Gallas well, contributing five league goals and exuding a winning mentality. Since being stripped of the captaincy, Gallas has driven Arsenal on through word and deed, some of his tackles showing that the team are not just about pretty 'Wengerball'.
However contrite Arsenal were publicly about Gallas' shocking challenge on Bolton Wanderers' Mark Davies on Wednesday, privately some within the dressing-room are not disappointed they are being depicted as hard men. For too long they have been dismissed as a soft touch. Arsenal's football now comprises Beauty and the Beast, Fabregas and Gallas.
Such sentiments found approval among a terrace fraternity tired of their team being outmuscled by Bolton.
"I hope the bloke (Davies) is OK, but once that tackle went in, it sent a message to Bolton; enough is enough, play fair or we go to war,'' read one post on a fans' forum. "Arsenal always try to play the 'Beautiful Game'. Other teams take advantage of that. It's good to see we have this in our game.''
Fans do have selective memories. Abou Diaby used his studs to tattoo the ankles of Bolton's Ivan Campo in 2006 and Gretar Steinsson in 2008. Yet an anxiety of being bullied by Bolton, particularly in the Sam Allardyce era, has often preyed on Arsenal's mind. Perhaps that explains Gallas' challenge, rightly described as "akin to assault'' by Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager.
The Football Association's refusal to charge the Arsenal centre-half beggars belief. Happy to ban managers for speaking their minds, the FA allows dangerous lunges like Gallas' to go unpunished.
Inspired by seven words, Arsenal may have ascended to the summit, but they have vacated the moral high ground.
Maybe in the modern game it is impossible to occupy both. (© Daily Telegraph, London)