I don’t particularly like being an apologist for Arsene Wenger. In failure, or relative mediocrity to be more precise, he’s become a parody of his old self. And yes, the ‘old’ Le Professor tag was profusely annoying. Admittedly it wasn’t self-anointed, but it was accepted and worn all too smugly. That it was given in the first place was understandable. Do you remember Arsenal at their early-naughties apex? Pires, Henry, Bergkamp and Vieira, you could go on. Crucially for most they were better than Manchester United, and more fun and combustible too.
There was once hope of a seamless transition to Arsenal’s third great incarnation under Wenger. At one point everyone thought Cesc Fabregas was going to be Arsenal’s next great lynchpin. Abou Diaby had moments that reminded you of Patrick Vieira. Robin Van Persie began to show real promise as Dennis Bergkamp’s replacement. Jose Antonio Reyes came over from Spain, breaking Arsenal’s record transfer fee, and looked shit hot at the start. Wenger was doing it again, and when his signings did fail it was a surprise.
So how has it come to this? Arsenal have a dangerously thin squad to start the new season, they’re riddled with injuries, they’ve let a mass of squad players go, and at the time of writing have failed to sign anyone of note – unless you count Yaya Sanogo, whoever that is.
Where I suspect it all started to go wrong was seven years ago when Arsenal decided to offer Ashley Cole significantly less money than Chelsea. Here was a rarity in the Wenger era; a home grown player that was one of the best in his position not just in England, but in Europe, and he was allowed to leave for a rival, a London rival, a London rival for the title.
On one hand you could understand the logic behind it at the time, and Wenger’s confidence that it would work out in Arsenal’s favour. Cole was a brat, hadn’t played much in his last season at the club due to injury, and Wenger had Gael Clichy coming through. Arsenal had also made the European Cup final that season, and were only two years removed from a title win. They were still perceived as a contender and they believed they were.
Clichy was signed from Cannes for £500k in 2003 and had already served his apprenticeship in Cole’s absence. So the formula seemed obvious: sell the disgruntled and greedy Cole and promote Clichy. There was a flaw with this plan however – Clichy simply wasn’t a patch on Ashley Cole. The insidiousness of the downgrade wasn’t initially obvious because Cole had been missing through injury. You can’t miss what isn’t there.
In isolation such mistakes aren’t likely to cost you that much, as all clubs make bad decisions, usually every season, in some form or other. Where the damage has been done is allowing this same process to repeat itself, continuously, for the past six years. This is the legacy of strict budgeting becoming the overarching ethos that supersedes everything else at the club. Wenger can be accused of allowing the glove to fit, he has always looked for younger invariably cheaper players who he’s certain will get better under his tutelage, and most do. It could be argued that this preference has allowed the new owners to restrict Arsenal increasing their expenditure on player salaries as their debt has disappeared and their revenue streams have increased. The difference now, compared with Vieira, Pires and Henry, who all spent their prime years at Arsenal, is that a combination of lack of success, and a stifled wage packet, leads to players leaving too soon and usually at the most inopportune of times. This pattern repeats itself with the replacement two to three years later.
No matter how gifted you are as a manager the odds are heavily against you if you’re spending considerably less than the other top teams you’re expected to compete with. The language here is key – ‘teams you’re expected to compete with’. Wenger fomented the expectation that Arsenal would compete with Manchester United and Chelsea while spending less than them, because he’d done it, and we’d seen him do it. But it simply isn’t sustainable now when the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and recently Manchester City can afford to buy players at their peak – some of them from Arsenal – meanwhile Wenger is constrained into buying players who only fit the wage structure, either youngsters, or second tier mid to late twenty something players with little upside that the richer clubs have little interest in.
There’s the ‘bigger’ question of why Arsenal continue to operate like this. There was a lack of transfer money for a while, which was clearly siphoned off to help fund the move to Ashburton Grove. The ethos of maintaining a strict wage structure, and sticking to it, though impractical in today’s climate, no doubt gives them the satisfaction of sustainability, unlike the oligarch reliant. Or is it entirely symptomatic of Wenger’s hubris that any player could be replaced regardless of what they cost and where they came from?
There is another explanation. That Wenger surveyed the Abramovich altered landscape, knew he could be heading into a lean period, and adjusted his expectations accordingly. His mistake was not telling the fans that this was likely to be the reality, for a while at least. Even so, he probably didn’t expect to go without a trophy for eight years. Title less? Possibly. Not getting a sniff of winning the European Cup? Likely. Failure in the domestic cups is another matter, as is being miles off the pace in the league every season. They’re in a rut now, and getting out of it will be hard and won’t happen quickly.
You suspect the turning point for many fans was last summer’s sale of Van Persie to Manchester United. It widened the existing gap between the sides, and it seemed like a meagre surrender to a club they despise. As we’ve seen this summer, with Rooney and Suarez, clubs aren’t obligated to sell stars to rivals. Then again Van Persie only had a year left on his contract at the time, so Arsenal were in a bind on that one. Clubs who don’t protect the value of their players shouldn’t be expected to win trophies or compete for leagues.
That Van Persie should be allowed to reach the last twelve months of his contract is clear evidence of the budget inhibiting the club’s ability to contend. It’s not just about transfer fees and how much of it you’re spending, wages, and the ability to pay the best players, is just as important if not more so today. If it had only happened with Van Persie you could make the case that it was an isolated incident and the player, rapidly reaching his thirtieth year, wanted to keep his options open. That it’s happened repeatedly at Arsenal over the last three or four years means that it can only be construed as a trend. How else do you explain Van Persie, Nasri, Clichy and Walcott – all of them first eleven players – having their contracts dwindle into the final twelve months? Of those four only Walcott is still an Arsenal player.
After multiple exasperating years of domestic mediocrity Arsenal fans are demanding that the club relax its financial model. The club’s aware of this disenchantment, and how their place in the top four is increasingly coming under threat with each passing year. Such pressure can easily lead to some bad choices. Somebody I know once said to me that panicking, in any situation, is pointless, as it never helps. That’s easy to say, but to not panic in Wenger’s and Arsenal’s predicament is hard. Wenger and the Arsenal board are entirely culpable in helping create that climate when they’re so publicly bullish about how hard they’re trying to buy the right players and how much there is available to spend, when all people see is their actions, or inaction, saying otherwise. Telling everyone that you have cash to spend is small time and fans are always likely to see through such subterfuge, or suspect it to be so. And let’s face it Arsenal fans are likely to be sceptical, even when they have spent it’s usually been from a position of weakness which has been self inflicted.
They’re in that position again, so perhaps Arsenal fans should consider this perspective – and whether Wenger shares it – is signing no players more damaging than signing the wrong ones?
The case against spending for the sake of it: Arsenal’s transfer window of 2011 and their start to that season. In July Fabregas was sold and Gervinho and Chamberlain arrived, leaving them with a positive net spend. In a week in late August they meekly lost their first home game to Liverpool, sold Samir Nasri in the midweek and then the following weekend they were subjected to the most miserable and embarrassing thrashing in the club’s modern history at Old Trafford, largely thanks to a ramshackle backline. They waited to gain qualification for the Champions League group stage (and the money it secured) before buying new players. This lead to a series of premium priced panic buys at the end of the window. They paid £10m for a past his best Arteta, settled for the unsuitable Mertesacker, took a Chelsea cast off in Benayoun on loan, spent £6m on some South Korean striker fella who barely played, and worst of all was Andre Santos, a left back that couldn’t defend for toffee for £7m. That was the Nasri money gone, and whatever else that remained in the coffers from the sale of Fabregas couldn’t be spent on anyone suitable in the time that remained. Despite all of this, come the end of the season they still finished third. Look at those summer moves and decisions in succession, one error leading to and compounding the next. They aren’t those of a well run or ambitious club, or a club that’s likely to build a team that will succeed in the short or long term the way Arsenal fans want it to. With the way the club is structured financially, and the competition for the top four tougher than ever, Wenger cannot afford a similar raft of mistakes this time.
Last summer offered hope. From afar I wondered too, can Wenger finally go for it? The signing of Podolski was done early, before the summer window even opened. ‘Finally’ Arsenal fans must’ve been thinking ‘someone to dovetail with Van Persie and Walcott up top’. ‘We finished third last season, a couple more signings in defence and midfield and we can challenge for the league again’. ‘Triffic’ as ‘Arry would say into a mic through the open window of a Range Rover at the entrance of a training ground.
Nope. Van Persie and Alex Song went and they were replaced by Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla. They’re good players, particularly Cazorla, so is Podolski, but given their ages they are unlikely to get any better. They were compromise signings designed to maintain the status quo of fourth place. It worked, and more than ever Wenger feels he needs this profile of player for it to keep working. He’s juggling two approaches; the illusion of trying to compete in the here and now, and maintain the potential platform that Champions League revenue can offer, and build a better side for the future, and is left barely able to do the former.
Consistent Champions League qualification should be a springboard for improvement, not a perpetual plateau. Wenger understands its importance and the opportunity it should provide:
‘Every player who wants to join us, first question is, ‘Do you play in the Champions League or not?’ Simple as that.’ – Arsene Wenger.
The second question is likely ‘will you pay me Champions League wages then?’ Relative to what a perennial champions league club from England is expected to pay in wages, Arsenal languish well behind. Yet Arsenal fill that soulless new stadium of theirs every home game, and, as Swiss Ramble explains here in greater detail than I could, financially Arsenal are now in rude health. With no new signings and a whole bunch of high earners like Arshavin recently released, the wage bill has likely shrunk while turnover has increased with the new TV deal starting to take effect. The era of prudence that Wenger steered them through was supposed to allow Arsenal to exist and compete in a higher financial echelon today.
Given what we know, it wasn’t a surprise to me, you or anyone that when Stevan Jovetic was there for the taking in June that Arsenal didn’t. In July Higuain had his price. Arsenal knew it, they didn’t pay it. ManCity signed Jovetic and Napoli signed Higuain for less than the last incendiary bid they sent in Liverpool’s direction for Luis Suarez, a bid you suspect Arsenal knew had no chance of succeeding. The worst one, in my opinion, was Luis Gustavo. He was available, but Wolfsburg, hardly a big club, and not in the Champions League either, were prepared to do what Arsenal seemingly weren’t: fill his bank account. I can understand the frustration of the Arsenal fans. Arsenal would be better off if they had landed any of those players listed above.
However, I do think that all the pining for a high profile signing obfuscates the reality of Arsenal’s predicament. Signing a Higuain, Suarez or Jovetic wasn’t going to turn Arsenal from a top four also ran into a title contender, just as Van Persie’s prolific last season at the club couldn’t. They need much more than that, and Wenger knows it. Breaking the wage structure just to get one target isn’t going to solve this. They need to do it several times over three or four transfer windows. That he knows it shows to me that sacking Wenger isn’t the answer for Arsenal. Getting a new, more ambitious board/owner above him, who will allow him to do this, is.
The majority of fans at other clubs rightfully scoff at the portion of the Arsenal support that has been baying for Wenger to go. From a Liverpool fan’s perspective past experience indicates why sacking a manager, particularly a winner, is a fanciful panacea. Liverpool routinely finished in third or fourth place most seasons under Benitez, only challenged for the league once, and we haven’t finished anywhere near the top four places since he’s left. It’s highly uncertain whether we will in either of the next two seasons. As Liverpool fans we understand why sacking Wenger would be completely daft. We’d love to finish where Arsenal have for the last few years, as with it the chance of improvement is quicker, easier and more likely.
But nowadays a lot of fans are encouraged by the media to behave like dickheads. Money is king in the greed is good league, and the paying punters are paying absurd amounts of cash to watch games of football. They believe that entitles them to eschew any form of objectivity, patience and responsibility. Your support and loyalty for a club should transcend your money, but ticket prices are at take the piss levels (Arsenal’s season ticket prices are the highest on average, by some distance) so that’s getting harder to justify. Quite a lot of Liverpool fans – me included – exasperated at a seventh place finish in Rafa’s final season, adopted impatience, or at best didn’t put up enough of a fight against it. We looked at the squad and thought, ‘a couple of signings and a fresh approach and we’ll be up there again’. Then we saw who the football illiterates running the club decided to replace Rafa with (I refuse to name this person. He looks like an owl and I believe he’s managing some country now) and deep down we all knew we were in trouble. When the season was starting most of us said in a state of trapped disbelief, ‘we’ll give him a chance’, and we did, but by then it was too late. Not only was our club being run by frauds, it was also now managed by one.
Arsenal fans might say they fancy a go on this roulette wheel before the fact, but let’s see how they like it when they come face to face with the cold hard reality of the odds being heavily stacked against them without Wenger to patch things together. Not that Wenger’s in any danger of being sacked, the current owners must love him. He, along with David Dein, made Arsenal a cash cow, and these new owners are reaping the benefits. Between minimal annual net spends, a wage bill scarcely half of their turnover, 60k home gates with punters paying through the nose, the annual Champions League revenue, the Premier League’s obscene TV deal and other merchandising and revenue streams, they’re coining it. This is why they bought the shares. Silverware is irrelevant to them. Perhaps Arsenal fans could make the argument that they need a confrontational character as their manager, someone who will echo the ambition of the fans, publicly, and force Kroenke and Usmanov to open the financial taps, but why would either of them do that?
It says everything that the awful Piers Morgan is the cheerleader for the Wenger out movement, using his twitter account to demand instant gratification for his ‘support’ with trophy signings, and presenting an omnipresent snarling, impatient, childish delusional sense of entitlement. All because you weren’t able to beat oligarch funded clubs and Manchester United – by every measure a bigger club – to the league for a few years. Now remind me again, who was the last bloke to break that monopoly, and in style? That any Arsenal fan can be that ungrateful towards Arsene Wenger and what he’s done for the club is quite frankly sickening.
So moan and argue all you like for his level of complicity in the current weakness of the squad, but Wenger cannot be blamed for an ownership more concerned by the bottom line than trophies. Getting the right reinforcements in before the end of August is going to be hard given the state of the market, and where Arsenal have placed themselves in it. One or two canny signings will help matters, but it’s unlikely to significantly alter Arsenal’s short term ceiling or cellar. Both Manchester clubs are out of sight, Chelsea probably will be too. Spurs are spending their once in a lifetime albino chimp windfall on proper talent. Liverpool are steadily replenishing their squad. Things are only getting harder. More than ever, Arsenal needs a manager of Wenger’s quality to keep their heads above water.