Arsenal’s north London derby defeat to Tottenham at White Hart Lane on Sunday has been hailed as a true turning point in the balance of power in the area and between both clubs for the first time during Arsene Wenger’s tenure as manager, but is it all as easy to rectify as simply spending more money in the summer or do the problems go deeper than that?
The term ‘sterile domination’ is one that’s been coined to describe the Arsenal we see before us this season and their record against the top four, which reads played seven, won one, drawn one and lost five, on top of defeats in Europe to the likes of Bayern Munich and Schalke just highlights that they are struggling against better quality opposition this term. Losing Robin van Persie to Manchester United in the summer and bringing in Olivier Giroud as his replacement sums up the transfer policy and the sharp fall in quality better than any words can. Giroud is a perfectly serviceable option to have in your squad, but he shouldn’t be the only option to call upon and the club looks desperately short of options in key areas.
Former Gunners defender Sol Campbell urged Wenger to re-think his transfer policy of recent years, pointing to Sir Alex Ferguson as the model to follow for the future, telling The Mirror: “You have to give him (Wenger) immense credit for what he has done and it has been overlooked that while they have not done well in the cups, they have been consistent in the league.
“But maybe there has to be a change regarding transfers. It should be done on a more case-by-case fashion. I think the fans deserve that. Sir Alex Ferguson clearly looked at what United could win if they had Van Persie and decided that if they succeed, that would justify the fee.”
Before we get ourselves into a tiresome net spend argument, which is obviously inflated due to the sales of van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in recent campaigns, that doesn’t detract from the fact that Arsenal have spent significant funds, but their replacements have all been purchased from the bargain bin in an attempt to reign in costs. Liverpool have been guilty of the same needlessly cheap exercise for years and all it does is plug your squad full of decent players that are incapable of performing to the standard required of a side chasing top four football.
The respective run-ins that both Tottenham and Arsenal have mean that the seven-point gap can yet be made up, while they still sit just five points behind Chelsea in fourth with ten games left to play, but the run they went on this time last season was only made possible by the presence of van Persie, and they look short of not only leaders but players to look toward for inspiration when everything isn’t going according to plan.
Wenger essentially answered his own poser during the post-match interviews yesterday, telling the BBC: “In the first half there was nothing [in it] and then we were 2-0 down. I don’t know how it happened. We produced a great energy level from the first to the last minute, but we were not decisive enough in our box or their box.” That crucial lack of quality at either end of the pitch is ensuring this is perhaps the most difficult season they have had in qualifying for next year’s Champions League and the odds are stacked against them, even if it is still not an impossible feat.
When things are going badly, former players are always quick to label what the manager at the helm should be doing, despite not having any real experience in the game other than their success on the pitch. Everyone is a critic, but when it comes to Wenger and his reluctance to spend big money when needed, it’s an opinion that’s almost universally held and should they fail to make the top four this season, all of their hard cost-cutting work in preparing the club for Financial Fair Play will have been in vain; they simply won’t be in a position to capitalise on the levelling of the playing field that they hope will happen from Europe’s second tier competition and therefore will struggle to attract the players required to close the gap.
Given his recent failings in the transfer market, there’s no reason to suggest that throwing money at Wenger would guarantee success at all, while the reports of him being handed a budget upwards of £70m in the summer always appear to coincide rather neatly with the club putting up ticket prices – the cynic in me would suggest that they are more than linked.
What is clear, though, is that something has to change, whether that be the club’s bean-counting approach, the man in charge or an overhaul of the playing staff. The club is clearly on the way down at the moment, incapable of stopping the rot, while on the other side of the street, Tottenham under Andre Villas-Boas are a club on the up.
Wenger’s greatest downfall, even larger than his stubbornness to accept that he’s wrong and that he may need to adapt at times, is his trust in his players and across the squad, there are plenty that deserve a swift exit and it’s actually quicker to count on one hand the ones that need to be kept than not.
Just so long as Wenger continues to define finishing in the top four as akin to success and a ‘trophy’, then they will continue to accept second best and even by those standards the club is underperforming this season. Changing the culture of the club and approach behind the scenes is just as important as spending money, even if Campbell has a point that quality rather than quantity on a case-by-case basis should be keenly looked at in the summer. This isn’t quite a time of crisis yet, more a day of licking wounds, but Arsenal need to get their house in order or they run the risk of falling short precisely at a time when their financial future dictates they must succeed.