The margins between winning and losing in the Premier League are fine. The difference between a point and three can be as marginal as a slip (tips hat to Liverpool fans). Matches are notoriously fast paced. Opponents are aggressive. Crowds are often hostile. As a result, the Premier League is the most daunting yet entertaining league in the world. What it is not, is a league in which you can go in half-cocked or ill prepared.
Arsenal fans should have been excited and enthused at the prospect of the upcoming season. Last season’s second place finish is a fantastic starting block from which to mount a title challenge. LeicesterCity’s loss of N’Golo Kante – a player who accumulated 3 Man of the Match performances and inspired many a Leicester win should also allow for Arsenal optimism. Further encouragement should reside in the capture of Granit Xhaka, a player who can reconfigure the Arsenal midfield and overall strategy of the team whilst adding that steely resolve that has been absent in recent seasons. The presence of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez – two genuine world class attackers who are fully acclimatised to the league should further boost confidence levels and the emergence of the young Alex Iwobi should also have Arsenal fans purring. These factors coupled with the possible resurrection of the 2013-14 deceased Aaron Ramsey, the continued upward trajectory of Hector Bellerin and the shrewd purchase of Mohammed Elneny should have Arsenal fans eager to get their teeth into this season’s opponents.
Yet fan approval and satisfaction lie at a palpable low. As with every transfer window that Wenger has resided over in the last 5 years – the club’s inaction and lack of clear intention or objectives have allowed enthusiasm to wither and anxiety to manifest. Somewhere in Dante’s nine circles of hell presides Arsenal fans – possibly in between Limbo and Lust; for that is how each and every transfer window must feel. Fans lust for the signatures of Lacazette, Higuain and Mustafi and are left waiting in Limbo.
It would have taken very little for Wenger to rouse the fan base this summer and give them a season to truly look forward to. It is potentially the last season Arsenal fans will enjoy/endure (delete as applicable) under Arsene Wenger; and whilst there can be no doubt that supporters have enjoyed tremendous success under the French manager, the club has grown stale under his management. There was enough potential within the club and the summer break to rouse the endorphins and feel-good temperament of the club’s followers. In fact, the signing of Xhaka and the attempted signing of Vardy hinted at a proactive Wenger, a change of strategy, as a more aggressive style of player was sought. Additionally, the simple action of getting business done early signalled a possible last hurrah for Monsieur Wenger. But optimism soon turned to satisfaction, satisfaction soon turned to worry, worry soon turned to discontent and now discontent is bordering on the brink of palpable anger.
There are two key moments on which this summer’s success has soured. Firstly, the pursuit of Jamie Vardy. Here was a player as un-Arsenal as you’re likely to find. A terrier forward whose natural instincts and street footballing style contrasted with the academy raised Arsenal players. Supporters were divided over their club’s interest in the Leicester City forward but the acknowledgement by the club that a striker was necessary was well received. As events unfolded, the transfer broke down and Vardy furthered his repute amongst Leicester fans by signing a new contract. Whilst some may have been disappointed, the belief that Arsenal were actively looking for a striker eased any ill-thoughts. But a month on from the Vardy bid and Arsenal are still without an attacking recruit. Team cohesion and a clear playing style are just as important as signing the right personnel but when the club openly admit to needing a striker and negate to do so, it suggests a business plan or strategy that borders on negligence.
The second turning point occurred when Arsenal captain and centre back Per Mertesacker suffered a potential season ending injury. Many would have claimed before the injury that Arsenal should have been looking for a new central defender regardless of the BFG-less 9 months that Arsenal are set to endure but comments quickly emerged confirming that Wenger would enter the market and look to bring in a defender before the opening game of the season. Tensions were eased and optimism quickly rose as links to fellow German Mustafi appeared on Sky Sports. But two weeks on from Mertesacker’s injury and Arsenal are still without a new senior centre back. To compound the unfortunateness of the situation and the lack of investment in attempting to replace the German, Gabriel – the backup to Mertesacker, injured his ankle ligaments in injury time of a preseason friendly not long after. Currently going into the opening of the Premier League season, Arsenal are without a senior centre back – leaving the very real possibility of both Calum Chambers and Rob Holding starting the season against a Liverpool attack that could include Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firminio and Divojk Origi. Whilst initial performances from Holding seem impressive, there were a number of occasions when both he and Chambers made avoidable errors and lost possession in dangerous areas – mistakes that cannot be afforded at Premier League level.
Whilst injuries to Arsenal’s first team rarely comes as a surprise, it is the dithering which has occurred since that has left Arsenal on the precipice of a disaster. It could be argued that deals are on the verge of being completed, that Wenger has identified his targets but clubs are playing hard ball or that the players identified simply aren’t for sale but something tells me that this isn’t the case. It would seem more likely that Arsenal, despite being in a position of weakness, are trying to low-ball clubs with offers or are scouring the market looking for a stop-gap or cheap solution. Whilst Wenger has often been congratulated for his shrewdness in the market, it feels like the Frenchman has fallen behind his rivals in this regard – paralyzed by fear of an expensive mistake. Yet the transfer window has changed rapidly in a short period of time; £42 million a few seasons ago would have bought you a player of Ozil’s quality, it seems that is a relative bargain in today’s market.
Whilst Wenger’s dithering is infuriating, it is his hoarding and stockpiling of money in the club’s coffers that have truly incensed supporters. The rate of inflation in football is disproportionate to that of money in society. Whilst many a man can be dismayed at the outrageous price of a Freddo these days (do you know my local corner shop sells them for 65p), it is nothing compared to what a Sissoko would cost you (just for your reference – a Moussa Sissoko is the equivalent of a Freddo, a Sanchez is a Mars Bar, a Xhaka is a Bounty and an Ozil is a Lindt 70% Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt). And while the inflation of the Freddo has been steady year on year, the average price of a player has accelerated beyond what is reasonable. Yet this is the footballing world that we live in and if the club is happy to receive the disproportionate quantity of cash from TV deals, sponsorship contracts and commercial incentives then they must also accept the reality of the market they live in. Mourinho, Guardiola, Klopp and Koeman have all done as such yet Wenger retains his right to incredulity by refusing to pay top-heavy fees. It would of course be admirable if Wenger’s single handed refusal sparked a revolt from clubs which resulted in clubs refusing to be held to ransom and reverting the football transfer market to a far more reasonable system or if it resulted in clubs burning through their cash reserves leaving Arsenal with a free run at any target they wished, safe in the knowledge that they cannot be outbid by an oligarch or billionaire consortium. But it’s time to wake up and smell the roses. Arsenal are not above every other club and to persist with these perceived morals may seem admirable – but it is simply the arrogance of a stubborn manager and the greed of a board who are delighted with the club’s turnover and groundhog day styled success. One wonders that if David Dein wasn’t pushed out of the club when he got into bed with Usmanov, would the club be in a better position. Maybe he would have left of his own volition rather than be affiliated with the club’s lack of ambition.
The hoarding of money becomes even more infuriating when you take into account the transfers Arsenal have missed out on in the past for refusing to pay the requisite fee. Take for example the striker situation: Arsenal have reportedly attempted to sign Lacazette, Higuain and Suarez on several occasions in recent years. Given the amount proposed for each player, if Wenger had been willing to sanction a move for any of them at the required amount, Arsenal would have a player at double or treble the value they paid for him. A player of Suarez’s quality would go for nothing less than £100 million in today’s market, Higuain has just moved for £75 million and Lacazette is being quoted at £60 million. This frugality with money has seen Arsenal miss out on three exceptional talents and yet it seems as if the Arsenal board have learned nothing from their penny pinching.
Furthermore, Wenger has recently been quoted in Alan Curbishley’s new book Gamechangers as saying: “I personally believe the only way to be a manager is to spend the club’s money as if it were your own because if you don’t do that you’re susceptible to too many mistakes. You make big decisions and I believe you have to act like it’s your own money, like you’re the owner of the club and you can identify completely with the club.” An admirable stance, yet where was this refusal to pay over the odds when the club offered him £8.3million a year in 2014 to extend his contract for a further three years. Are two FA cup trophies over a 12 year reign worthy of £25 million pounds of the clubs money to keep Arsene Wenger as an employee of Arsenal Football Club? I am neither a ‘Wenger Out’ or an ‘In Arsene We Trust’ brigadier but surely it is a pertinent question given the man’s fascination with value for money.
The purpose of football is to excite, to give supporters the hope that anything can happen. Regardless of what has gone on in recent weeks, the team must now focus on how to get 3 points from Sunday’s game. It is not unfathomable for Arsenal to get through the first few games with the players they have available and still accrue a reasonable amount of points whilst doing the business in the transfer market necessary for Arsenal to adequately challenge for the league. But fail to do so and Arsenal and more specifically Arsene could find themselves on the receiving end of a furious fan base. As Wenger enters potentially his last year as Arsenal manager, it feels like the next two weeks could be hugely significant in how his reign as a whole is viewed in the history of Arsenal Football Club. In the Fourth Circle of Dante’s Inferno people were divided into two groups and punished for greed. The first group were punished for lavishly spending and the second was punished for hoarding possessions. For the sake of Wenger, I would settle for somewhere in between.
Til next time,