It’s a funny old game, football… if you support Aldershot Town, you could only aspire for your team to reach the dizzying heights of Arsenal’s status, their stadium, their squad and their past achievements. Or maybe you’re happy with not expecting too much, and therefore never being too disappointed. Maybe also you’re happy paying £19 for a match-day ticket, rather than £60 or probably more. If you support Arsenal, as I have done for more than thirty years, your expectations are somewhat higher, but the disappointments therefore run deeper.
Arsène Wenger started his tenure as Arsenal manager in 1996. The Wenger effect was almost immediate when viewed in the perspective of the previous few seasons before Wenger arrived… 4th in the league in 1992, 10th in 1993, 4th in 1994, 12th in 1995, and 5th in the season ending May 1996 (it’s worth noting that the jump from 12th to 5th occurred during the season in which Dennis Bergkamp arrived). Wenger’s first season in charge resulted in 3rd place in the league (the same points as 2nd placed Newcastle but behind on goal difference). At the end of the 1997-98 season plans to erect a statue of Wenger may already have been under way, as Arsenal won the Premier League with two matches to spare… which they lost, but no-one cared as they fielded weak teams in order to prepare for the FA Cup final, which they won (2-0 against Newcastle). A league and cup double in Wenger’s 2nd season.
Arsenal came 2nd in 1998-99, just one point behind Man Utd, and these positions were repeated twice more until Arsenal took the title again in 2001-02 – and again won the FA Cup. 2002-03 saw them in 2nd place again, but retain the FA Cup.
And then came the incredible season of ‘The Invincibles’ – 38 Premier League matches, 26 wins, 12 draws, no defeats. As the t-shirt said “you win some, you draw some”. The team was full of some of the best players seen during the Wenger reign… Vieira, Pires, Ljunberg, Reyes, Bergkamp, and contributing 30 league goals Thierry Henry.
Then, in the 2005-06 season, something happened that hadn’t happened since 1997-98… Arsenal finished outside of the top two… 4th, in fact. The Abramovich money had really kicked in at Chelsea and their spending won them the title. Man City’s money also brought them into the top four, and since then Arsenal have finished either 3rd or 4th.
4th spot is important. Four clubs from the English Premier League will compete in the UEFA Champions League, and in the absence of any recent trophies this is seen to be the prize at stake. It’s all a question of expectations… forget Aldershot, these days Liverpool would consider it a great achievement to get back into the top four and grab a Champions League spot. During these ‘wilderness’ years Arsenal have moved into a new stadium – the 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium, arguably the best club stadium in the UK. Old Trafford holds more, having built extensions to hold all of these people travelling from Surrey and Hampshire.
Many will say that Arsenal have been through a few years of austerity to pay for the stadium, but during that time they have always qualified for the Champions League. It’s been a narrow squeak on a few occasions – for the past two seasons Arsenal have pipped Spurs by one point on the final day of the season. It’s too close for comfort. Wenger, who no longer seems to have the knack of picking up unknowns who have gone on to be become club legends, had not spent much and not spent well. Coming into this season’s transfer window there were promises of a big transfer kitty.
The transfer window has now been open for around seven weeks, and so far Arsenal have offloaded some deadwood (some would say depleted the squad) and signed one injury-prone French youngster (Yaya Sanogo) on a freebie. The club have been linked with several players, and seemed to be on the verge of signing Gonzalo Higuaín from Real Madrid, but this move was scuppered and Higuain went to Napoli. With two weeks left Wenger seems to be no nearer to signing players required to strengthen the squad, and doesn’t seem to have a clue who he’s going to sign. And this is my big beef…
If you’re the manager of a major football club, surely as the transfer window approaches you’ll have done your homework (or the club’s scouts would have done) and you’ll have a list of players that you want to target, right? And with that list of players in your hand, you’ll want to get to work on them as soon as the transfer window opens so that you secure them and so that they’ll be well-integrated into the team by the time the season starts, right? Well, not in Wenger’s case it seems. I can’t believe the transfer window came as a surprise, so what the hell is the man doing? Surely after just squeaking into the Champions League spot two years in a row he’ll understand the need to strengthen the squad. It seems Spurs have got the idea, and this week signed Étienne Capoue, who I could best describe as the sort of defensive midfielder that Arsenal need.
What anyone connected with Arsenal didn’t want to see yesterday was a poor start to the season – in the face of adversity and criticism we wanted to see the team come out defiant and wanting to prove that they were good enough without new players. That lasted about ten minutes. I don’t want to go into the rest of it. Wenger criticised the referee (who got some things right and some things wrong, just an average day for a ref in the Premier League) but the fault lies with Wenger. I say that not because of his inability to execute in the transfer market, but because he fails to inspire the players. That Arsenal team yesterday were more than good enough to beat Aston Villa, but they didn’t believe it. Why? Because Wenger has made 4th place the big prize? Maybe. One thing is for sure – Alex Ferguson in his many years at Man Utd convinced an ever-changing squad that they were good enough, that they would win and it was their right to win. They took to the pitch believing that. I never liked Fergie but I have to pay respect to him for drilling that attitude into his players year after year. If you needed any further proof, even after he retired those players remember that ethos, and made short work of a potentially-tricky fixture against Swansea yesterday evening.
Man Utd will be challenging for the title again this season, of that I have no doubt. What Arsenal’s challenge will be, I don’t know. The next two weeks could define their season, but even with new players on board Wenger will have to convince them that 4th place, and 3rd and 2nd, aren’t the big prize to aim for.
Footnote: I am aware that back in February this year I wrote a post entitled Why 4th place is the prize. I’m not being a hypocrite. We shouldn’t start the season hoping that 4th is where we’ll finish next May. But in February this year the best I thought we could hope for in the 2012-13 season was 4th place, and the Champions League spot that went with it. And we got it… only just.