Short-Sighted, Foolish and WrongPosted: June 25, 2012
Ordinarily speaking, I prefer not to group people and collectively label them based on whatever it is they believe. There are, however, a few notable exceptions: far right political groups, people who don’t like Coldplay and Spurs fans. Another set of people who have recently claimed a place among this most tarnished of lists are a certain section of Arsenal fans. If you are an Arsenal fan or have any connection to this most unfortunate sector of them, you will be familiar with them. The kind who will boo their own players; who use losses and poor results as chances to push their agendas and most significantly, with regard to this particular piece, those who called for the dismissal of the best manager in the club’s history.
The support-base should not be divided into these laboured Twitter terms for the purpose of building factions. ‘AKB’ (‘Arsène Knows Brigade) is one I have had thrown at me quite a lot, while the other factions are described ‘WOBs’ (Wenger Out Brigade) and other such nonsensical terms. These are just methods of labelling those who disagree with you under some cult-ish banner. One could argue I am doing just that with this piece, but this is not to group them all together under one huge headline, but just to point out the folly of those who take forward this most misguided and moronic of stances. Of course, one should not simply take the boss’s statements and actions as gospel – that way madness lies – and naturally questions must be asked, at times, but this piece is targeted at those who are so staunchly opposed to the current coach and will use any opportunity to attempt to deride and denigrate him.
Any person must be several shades of stupid to want Arsene Wenger out of Arsenal. While it has been a season that transcended the word ‘turbulent’ and the last seven trophy-free years have been somewhat trying for Arsenal fans, it takes an impressive level of ignorance not to appreciate that – although the manager has made his share of mistakes – he has done an incredible job to keep Arsenal at the level at which they have been for so long. What he has given to the club over his 15 years in the top job far outweigh any negatives that have come about in this time. I am not planning to evaluate his achievements before 2005: there is no need. He revolutionised the club and English football as a whole, overseeing a team playing a magnificent brand of football. An unbeaten season, two doubles and another FA Cup. Not bad, eh? But since, as we have read so, so, so many times, there have been no trophies. Many a near miss, but no silverware.
“We try to go a different way that, for me, is respectable. Briefly, these are the basics. I thought: “We are building a stadium, so I will get young players in early so I do not find myself exposed on the transfer market without the money to compete with the others. I build a team, and we compensate by creating a style of play, by creating a culture at the club because the boy comes in at 16 or 17 and when they go out they have a supplement of soul, of love for the club, because they have been educated together. The people you meet at college from 16 to 20, often those are the relationships in life that keep going. That, I think, will give us strength that other clubs will not have.”
In 2006, Arsenal moved from Highbury, their home of 93 years, to the Emirates Stadium. The journey was not long, but it was costly. Around £420,000,000 was spent on the stadium alone. Naturally, this would significantly hinder them in the transfer market so, as the above quote would suggest, Wenger planned ahead. He foresaw the problems he would face and so aimed to build a successful team, while having to prematurely break-up the ‘Invincibles’ so that the club could continue to challenge and remain financially stable. They reached major finals in 2006, 2007 and 2011, semi finals in 2009 and closely challenged for the league in 2008, 2010 and 2011. While physical success was absent, it was not that they were disappearing into the abyss; they became nearly men. The culmination of the Frenchman’s plan was supposed to be 2007/08 – perhaps, with reflection, the most painful year for Arsenal supporters. A side described by Wenger as “technically perfect” was strolling its way to the league until that day up at Birmingham that we shall not mention further. After that, there was a blip which eventually saw Arsenal finishing just four points behind winners Manchester United. Following that season, the young squad, so close to achieving a mere morsel of its potential was severely damaged by Mathieu Flamini’s departure to AC Milan and Aliaksandr Hleb’s to Barcelona. There is a theme developing here.
It has seemed for some time now that whenever they threaten to revert to the days of success, a vital part of the team decides that he no longer wants to be a part of it, for varying different reasons. After 07/08 it was Hleb and Flamini – one for ‘ambition’, the other on principle; after 08/09, Emmanuel Adebayor departed (though one could argue that he was sold, rather than taken) – another in search of more money; and as for the last summer, well, losing Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri (again, to money) and then Cesc Fabregas (mitigating circumstances) at one time would damage any team. Alas, these can be looked at simply as ‘excuses’ or ‘being a Wenger apologist’ on my part. He has made errors which have adversely affected the team while in search of trophies, but without him, the ambitions at the start of each season would have been pushed much, much lower.
While medals were scant, the retention of Champions League football in spite of such a wealth of leavers has been both miraculous and imperative. Since the wondrous days of the Invincibles, there can be no doubting that Arsenal have receded. But not by an awful lot. The ‘big four’ was something of an elite club between 2003 and 2009, with only one team beyond Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United finishing in the Champions League spots but, due to circumstances well-documented, Liverpool did manage to keep their place in Europe’s most prestigious club competition. A glimpse down the table at Liverpool shows what missing out on the Champions League and a lack of managerial stability can do to a team. Since they first fell short of the top four (and including that season), their league finishes have been 7th, 7th and 8th. Over £100,000,000 has been spent; three managers have come and gone; almost all of their ‘big players’ with the exception of Gerrard have moved. This is not to say Arsenal would definitely suffer the same way, as Liverpool were suffering thanks to their ownership situation, but what they did find was that the best players no longer wanted to stay at a club they could see was going backwards. The best players did not want to go to a club that no longer offered Champions League football and they struggled to invest, to a degree, without the windfall the competition provided, which is estimated to be around £45,000,000. Wenger has ensured that Arsenal have maintained their status in this most exclusive of groups and where others may have taken a more short-termist approach, he chose to prioritise the club’s standing over the cup competitions. While it can be and has been frustrating for the supporters, the benefits of it will be seen in time and are being seen by most now. What is eight years, when one looks at the complete rebuilding job that is afoot up by the Mersey and how many years it will take to restore them to their old heights? And they do not (as of yet, at least) have a huge stadium debt to be fighting against.
So, at the expense of trophies, Arsenal have retained Champions League football for the last eight years. Their general investment as had to be minimal so they can scale down their stadium debt. In this table – which encompasses all transfers up to and including the sale of Nasri – it is clear to see how the onus has shifted with regard to the limitations placed on Wenger by the need to operate financially healthily. It shows that the Gunners have only had a transfer deficit in two seasons since they moved to the Emirates in 2006, with the overall net gain at around £41,052,000 (based on figures from sportingintelligence.com and transfermarkt.de). In September, the overall level of debt stood at just short of £100,000,000, and will only have come down since, with commercial revenue, matchday money, the retention of Champions League football and the recent sale of a property development, which brought in around £30,000,000. This is very much aided by the fans, who pay the highest season ticket prices in the league, as well as those outside the country, who make Arsenal to be one of the top ten most supported club worldwide. In the summer ahead, it is quite possible; if not probable the we will see a “shift” in Arsenal’s transfer policy. With the acquisitions of Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud for circa £10,000,000 each and the strong likelihood of others following suit, it looks as though Wenger has now got more access to funds to buy the kind of players he did before the move: more experienced and established ones, such as the aforementioned forwards and akin to the likes of Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Sol Campbell and many others in the ‘old days’.
Within these tougher recent years, some of the criticisms of him have had their merits. His over-paying and over-playing of younger players and some of his mistakes in the transfer market have deserved scrutiny and negative assessment, but these are, in the grand scheme of things, rather minor with a look at what he has achieved and what he will achieve. A glimpse at what former and current players alike have said about him is illuminating. The respect he commands from so many corners is warranted. Most importantly of all, Arsenal have not gone backwards on the stadium’s account, but stagnated. This has its roots in the financial constraints, the player sales and – to a point – just down right misfortune (I think here to some of the injuries); his errors have, in some cases, it can be argued, stopped Arsenal from jumping back up to the pre-Emirates heights. History has shown that he can take Arsenal back to where they were, while that which held them back is slowly dissolving.
Last season was the most important of his present and future in North London. Fabregas and Nasri made way; missing out on the Champions League would surely see the remaining star players leave and in turn, attracting new players would be more difficult without the promise of it. Even though he must take his share of criticism for how it began, the way he fixed the problems and managed to recover from horrible first six weeks and the almost-as-bad January to recover third place meant he emerged glowing. This relative success (after all, third was “our trophy”) must be use as a platform to build and become the team those before it could have been. One would be searching a very long time if they were looking for a manager who could have achieved what Wenger has these last eight years. He will see Arsenal back to the ‘good old days’. If the summer ahead goes as planned, it could be very soon.