The (hopefully temporary) fall of Arsenal
After yesterday’s tragic and embarrassing 8-2 defeat at the hands (or maybe I should say “feet”) of Manchester United, I started on a long blog post about money being the controlling factor in football. Note to our American friends at this point, I’m talking about football, a game played by kicking a ball with the feet… not carrying and throwing an egg-shaped object while wearing body armour. After mulling over my thoughts and the content for twelve hours I’ve ditched that blog post. Money is a big controlling factor in today’s game, but there are other important elements. What I’m saying is that if you give two clubs an equal amount of money there’s a good chance that one will do better than the other.
Let’s get a few facts out of the way. A number of English clubs (they’re based in England and play in the English Premier League, although many of their player’s aren’t English) have huge amounts of cash to spend. This has come about from investment from extremely wealthy benefactors (you probably know who I’m referring to) and from selling branded merchandise and shirts to people who live a long way from where the club are based (again, you probably know who I’m referring to). There is an extremely high correlation between a huge cash injection and an upturn in fortunes. If that this point I mention Chelsea and Manchester City, I doubt I’ll get much disagreement. Liverpool were recently acquired by John W. Henry II’s Fenway Sports Group and have spent more than £80 million on players this year. It should be noted that spending loads of money doesn’t equal success, and this has been illustrated in the past… but again I don’t think I’d get many arguments if I said it gave the clubs more chance of success.
The point of this blog post is to examine the Arsenal situation. Before the arrival of Arsène Wenger, Arsenal were a reasonably successful Premier League club… although I do remember a season where there was a mild relegation concern. The turning point was a 5-1 win over Norwich, featuring a John Hartson hat-trick. I remember it well, I was in the jubilent crowd. Following Wenger’s arrival in 1995 Arsenal increased in ability and consistency. From 1997-98 to 2004-05 Arsenal were never outside of the top two, winning the title three times within that period. It’s also worth remembering that in the 2003-04 season Arsenal were unbeaten in the league for the entire season, a feat last achieved by Preston North End in the 1880s. As the t-shirt said “you win some, you draw some”.
Since the 2005-06 season Arsenal have been edged out of the top two by Chelsea (and occasionally Liverpool, and once by Man City) but they’ve remained in the top four (all-important for entry in The UEFA Champions League). Funnily enough (no, not really) Chelsea’s rise into a permanent top four and frequent top two place has coincided with Roman Abramovich’s funding. Something of a rot has now set in for Arsenal – the last trophy to be lifted by Arsenal, the F A Cup, dates back to 2005. In season 2010-11 Arsenal looked to be getting themselves back into the top two, but suffered a dramatic decline in the closing weeks of the season. They were described as the only team ever to have come fourth in a two-horse race. Second place went to Man City, and Chelsea (after an appalling season by their recent standards) clinched third spot.
As I said earlier, money (and the top-notch player signings that money affords) don’t guarantee success but sure do provide an increased chance. So after a few years of watching the gulf between his club and Man Utd, Chelsea and more recently Man City widen, you’d have thought Mr Wenger would make strengthening his squad a priority before the 2011-12 season. Everyone knew that Cesc Fabregas was going to leave, and everyone knew that Samir Nasri wanted to leave. And everyone knew that Wenger’s policy of optimistically buying bargains in the hope they’d develop into world-class players wasn’t working. He has occasionally had the golden touch in the past, but he’s been no King Midas in the past few years. Yes, I am pointing at Arsenal’s central defence – Thomas Vermaelen is deservedly the automatic first choice, but he needs a world-class partner. Unfortunately Wenger has to choose from Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci. None of them are good enough. Eighteen year-old Ignasi Miquel from the reserves look better than all three of them put together. So, shopping list item #1, Wenger needs a new solid, experienced, dependable, consistent central defender. Shopping list item #2, he needs another central defender of the same quality.
Rumours were than Wenger had £40 million to spend during the transfer window. Rumours are indeed rumours, I don’t know how true that is. Off trots Fabregas (and good luck to him, it was inevitable he’d return to his home town, and he gave Arsenal many good years of service). Gaël Clichy heads for Man City, and I think Arsenal handled this poorly – if he’s going there to be City’s first-choice as left-back, Arsenal should have asked for and held out for far more than £7 million. Where are they going to find a replacement for that sort of money? And then young Samir also heads to Man City, not for the money you understand (although allegedly tripling his weekly wages to £180,000 may have swayed him). Add this up and you get two things… around £67 million in the back pocket and a severely-weakened squad. That’s a squad weaker than the one that took fourth place last season.
Mr Wenger will point out that there have been signings incoming. Gervinho, a striker – looks useful, but was a striker really the club’s priority? Well, anything that expedites Nicklas Bendtner’s speedy departure is a good thing. That’s £10 million spent. A couple of promising young bargains, Carl Jenkinson (right-back) and Joel Campbell (striker) cost another £2 million, and then the big name signing of promising but inexperienced winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (yep, names don’t come much bigger, except in Russia maybe) which was reckoned to be around £15 million. A quick sum tells us that Mr Wenger still has about £40 million to spend, or £80 million if you believe the rumour of the initial transfer pot. Which leads me to the question…
What the **** has he been doing during the transfer window?
Walking his dog, reading a long book, maybe building a gazebo in his back garden. He made a few half-arsed attempts to sign Gary Cahill from Bolton and Phil Jagielka (had to check the spelling) from Everton. He dallied over the signing of Juan Mata, failed to do anything, and Mata was then signed by Chelsea (and promptly scored a goal during his fifteen-minute debut). Wenger made a comment about buying players if they had the right qualities… well, if they’re good enough to get into the Chelsea side, then they’re probably good enough for Arsenal.
Look at recent signings made by other clubs… Luis Suárez, Edin Džeko, Sergio Agüero, Jose Enrique, Ashley Young… what was Wenger doing while all of these guys didn’t get on his radar? And this isn’t just a recent problem. If Wenger had spotted the opportunity, don’t you think Rafael van der Vaart would have preferred Arsenal to Tottenham?
Rumours of signings continue – apparently Korean striker Park Chu-young may sign today (another striker). But after Nasri and Febregas departing, items #3 and #4 on the shopping list should be two midfielders. And if it’s true that Armand Traore is heading for QPR, Arsenal need more cover at left-back. So Arsenal need five players, and the transfer window closes on Wednesday evening. It’s a public holiday in the UK today, but I hope Wenger is at his desk and on the phone.
But a final thought. I tweeted yesterday that the problem “went far deeper than Arsene Wenger’s inability to work the transfer market and ManUre’s big-time spending”. I hate to admit it but Man Utd have something that you can’t buy and that Arsenal haven’t had for a few years… the attitude of winners. Much as I hate to say it, Man Utd always take to the pitch looking as if they have a God-given right to win. And often they do. Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool look like they’re learning that attitude. It comes from discipline and team-work. It comes from a good manager… and again, as much as I don’t like that miserable old scrote Alex Ferguson (and refuse to recognise his knighthood) he is a great manager. It comes from looking around you and seeing quality dependable players. Arsenal proved yesterday that they don’t have a winning attitude, they don’t exhibit great discipline or team-work, and they don’t have quality dependable players in all positions. They do have a manager who has proved himself to be great in the past – now he has to take responsibility, bring new players in, and create a great team from those new players and the existing players. If he can’t do that, it’s time to go.