Arsenal’s players are still not good enough, our board is still too stingy and our fans still pay too much money to sit in sub-zero temperatures and watch the away end dance for 90 minutes. Yet I still have optimism that the season can be saved, by which I mean finishing ahead of Tottenham and having enough change kicking around to buy a decent player or three.
For this is a road trod by Gooners all too often since Patrick Vieira kick started the annual Islington merry-go-round. To list every star player replaced with a slightly worse one would not only pluck at tired heartstrings but also tease anger out of a normally docile support that has collectively sighed more times than Private Eye’s legal team. Summers meant for relaxing are spent shredding nails over the latest overpaid, underworked mercenary that sees both silver and gold at stadia other than the Emirates. Gruelling winters are endured at the computer with a mug of tea, scanning forums and social networks for signs that Arsenal will purchase anyone other than pre-pubescent fullbacks in the January window.
This should not be the reality. There is a generation of young supporters who are growing up with scarce remembrance of any trophy more prestigious than the Markus Liebherr Memorial Cup. The highlight of each season is increasingly likely to be a turnaround against our North London rivals, inspired by another world class Wenger-tuned mercenary who’s off in the next window. The delight in celebrating a derby win is paradoxical given one’s acceptance that this is about as good as it’s going to get. Of course, Walcott has just signed a new contract. But the fact that this wasn’t expected speaks War And Peace-style volumes about the logistical mess that is our club. This should not have taken 7 months. We were too slow.
And through our giddy sideways stumbles, the enemy three miles up Seven Sisters Road have strode forward to emerge as serious rivals. Tottenham have bought shrewder than us, kept and neutered their players better than today’s Arsenal seems capable of. Their previously limited ambitions have become rather grand, and now there is little reason other than history as to why Spurs cannot take our Champions League place. In Gareth Bale they have the kind of game changer that we have sold several times over, yet the reason why he could be persuaded to sign a new deal and Hleb, Flamini, Adebayor, Nasri and Van Persie could not is perplexing to say the least.
At the heart of it all is Arsene Wenger. His faults are well established. He is, at least publicly, too loyal to players that don’t appreciate his commitment to their careers. He is perhaps too prudent, an Economics degree surely contributing to his view on what is true value for money. He is notoriously stubborn and has training his way, not giving enough time to Steve Bould to mould the defence into a shape rather than just four footballers occasionally in a weak horizontal line. Saying that the top four is like silverware doesn’t help the supporters of a club that hasn’t lifted the curse, or a trophy for that matter, for over seven years now. No matter what happens this season, it will be at least eight.
But it is too simple to address Wenger and Wenger alone. He is an easy target, a gangly Frenchman who almost looks to be a caricature of himself. He is obviously incredibly intelligent, yet all too often boils over when things don’t go his way. The world seems to be against him at the best of times; he can receive a touchline ban for kicking an innocent water bottle yet Ferguson often gets away with what can only be described as harassment of officials who, unlike water bottles, have feelings. When his side has come close to recreating the magic of 1998-2005, he has endured torment and heartbreak as it is often inches or seconds that take Arsenal’s tilt at a trophy away. Take Lehman’s sending off against Barcelona in 2006. Eduardo’s leg break in 2008, a year in which Arsenal should have won the Premier League. Van Persie’s ridiculous sending off against Barcelona, and Bendtner’s miss in the same game. Koscielny and Szczęsny’s clanger in the League Cup final, and more recently Gervinho’s open goal clanger against Bradford. Had the Gunners seen off the Bantams (who are 65 places below them in the standings), they would have set up a semi final against a painfully average Aston Villa.
There are those that say Arsenal’s decline is down to Arsene himself. I can emphasise to some extent, but there is no such thing as a perfect manager. It is not a coincidence that David Dean’s departure was the end of champagne and bus parades. He was always the one that forced deals over the line, the one who was willing to push the boat out for top talent. The game is evolving to the stage where the amount of unknown future stars is becoming non-existent, and Wenger himself hasn’t evolved with it. You can guarantee that the best young talent abroad is no longer Arsenal’s market to corner as English clubs have aggressively networked in recent years. This has pushed the price up as competition for players has soared. The result? Juan Mata costing a dear £27m. Chelsea had to shell out £35m to ward off competition from Arsenal and Spurs for Eden Hazard, and Sergio Aguero set Manchester City back £38m.
The introduction of oligarchs in football has dumped gooey black sludge on our beautiful game, tarnishing its foundations and skewing the playing field. It is pointless to debate the ethics of pumping money into a club and ripping the quality away from others, simply because ethics isn’t even closely linked with the sport anymore. Football is no longer about the area, supporters, history and footballing culture. It is about the business, sponsorship and finance speaking louder than the name and crest which have taken hundreds of years to garner their significance. Kroenke’s involvement with the club speaks volumes about how Arsenal’s culture is eroding, as does the blood and £1,955 supporters annually cough up to watch their team stutter and stop season after season.
In any dynamic as complex as the football landscape, there will always be paradoxes that speak for the good and bad shoulders of the football world. In the case of Arsenal, it’s decline is complicated as football appears to have left Arsenal in a time before clubs became rich men’s playthings. Whilst there is hope that this season can be rescued, unless there is a change in Arsenal’s frankly bewildering wage, contract and transfer policy, this decline may be terminal , at least in terms of Arsene Wenger’s astoundingly fascinating reign at the helm of a club he loves will all his heart. No matter what you say about a man turning greyer by the day, you can’t deny his story at the North London outfit would make one hell of a book.
Let’s hope that at the end of Arsene’s reign there will be a happy ending.
Pic Flickr – photographer Dyobmit