Mark Callanan looks at the situation in Arsenal and talks about Arsene Wenger’s empire crumbling.
Last year’s 8-2 humiliation at the hands of Manchester United was undoubtedly the low point of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal tenure. Although Arsenal had been slowly receding as their rivals outspent, outmanoeuvred and outplayed them, the defeat to United represented a watershed moment. Gone were the Arsenal who competed at the top table of English football, replaced instead by a team who had come to view Champions League football as the only real trophy available to them. Even this appeared at stake following such a catastrophic result. Wenger responded by engaging in a furious Christmas eve-like shopping spree, paying scant regard to what was needed, instead preferring to purchase anything from the bargain buckets of European football.
Arsenal, of course recovered from their Old Trafford humbling to once again secure “their trophy”, Champions League qualification. Wenger was again proven right, his professorial smugness evident for all to see. Wait and see, he said with a knowing smile. The White Knight of Financial Fair Play is coming, we were assured, as the benefits of austerity were outlined. Considering Wenger owns an economics degree he should be more than aware of the difficulties that face implementing such a program, as has already been highlighted by Man City’s imaginative use of sponsorship with Etihad. It is worrying for Arsenal fans then, that the club have not only placed faith in Platini’s initiative, but have fully positioned themselves spreadeagled on the floor waiting for its arrival. If Financial Fair Play is not the promised land, Arsenal, embarrassed and feeling let down, will be forced to accept that, in fact, some money has to be spent to ensure success. By this stage it may be too late, as their more ostentatious rivals move into the distance leaving Wenger to rage against the economic injustices of the world while lamenting the duplicity of Platini and UEFA.
This summer signalled the departure of the captain and best player for the second season running and judging by the difference in class on Saturday, Robin Van Persie was more than justified in his decision to swap London for Manchester. The mass exodus of talent from the Emirates over the past six years is concurrent with the board’s desperate desire to balance the books and remain secure financially. Indeed this appears top of the agenda with profits held aloft AGMs as if they were trophies. What is not mentioned when these profits are heralded is that they are driven by player sales. Over 90% of Arsenal’s total profits in the last six years have been driven by player sales. In the last five years Manchester City unsurprisingly lead the net spend transfer category having spent £407 million, Chelsea follow with £231 million. Given Arsenal see themselves in the same level of English football, where are they located in the list. Granted they have no benefactor models so it is understandable they would be a little lower down. Sixth or seventh possibly? In fact Arsenal prop up this table by some distance having having been comfortably been outspent by the likes of giants such as Norwich, West Brom and most shockingly Stoke whose net spend is £120 million more than Arsenal’s in the past five years.
A line of argument could be made praising Wenger for continuing to remain competitive(in a Champions League qualification sense) while gaining £45 million in the process. This hypothesis however, places Wenger as merely an actor in this pantomine. The truth is, Wenger, like Ferguson, is master of all he surveys. Depending on which report you read, Arsenal have between £35 million and £70 million to spend on playing staff and the club’s reluctance to go after big name’s is as much about Wenger’s insistence on building a team on youth as it is about financial matters. It is clear, after seven trophy less seasons that this policy isn’t working. Arsenal have become a sort of elite feeder club, buying players young, seeing them reach a semblance of their full potential and then immediately offloading them to the highest bidder.
While this may bolster the bank coffers, it is not conductive to building a winning team. Replacing star players year after year with cheaper versions and academy prospects has meant that Arsenal now face the very real danger of not qualifying for Europe’s elite club competition. In the last five years Arsenal have sold: Robin Van Persie, Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor and Mathieu Flamini. Any team in the world would struggle to lose that many quality players in such a time period and although Wenger has managed to replace some of these departees well, most were succeeded by inferior options.
Although Arsenal’s transfer policies have had a significant impact on the club’s onfield travails, player recruitment is not solely to blame for the decline in the club’s fortunes culminating this season in their worst start to the league in the Wenger era. The defensive solidity upon which Arsenal’s previous Premier League glories were built on appear to have been completely abandoned in favour of an anarchistic system where players don’t even know who to mark at corners. The often comical prescense of Andre Santos at left back(allegedly) serves as a depressing reminder to Arsenal fans who weekly watch their two previous left back duke it out for the title.
Who could blame top Arsenal players for abandoning such a chaotic ship. This is the crux of the problem. While financial prowess is well and good, it is reliant on a competitive team and as long as Wenger continues to let world class players leave without replacing them with alternatives of the same stature, Arsenal will remain in a downward spiral. Does Jack Wilshere really want to be the next Stephen Gerrard, merely content to compete for the occasional cup win. Gerrard at least will have Istanbul to look back on when he hangs up his boots.
Despite all the preceding negativity, Arsenal are not a bad side and still retain top class players. Individuals like Wilshere, Cazorla and Arteta are quality operators but are desperately in need of a better supporting cast. A marquee striker’s arrival in January would not only boost the club’s Champions League qualification hopes but also serve as a statemtent of intent that Arsenal are on an upward trajectory. Whether Wenger’s miserly hands can be forced into opening the purse strings remain to be seen but the fact of the matter is that unless the Gunners are willing to at leat occasionally compete at the top end of the transfer market, they are doomed to mediocrity, at best.