Arsenal rallied well in the league last season to make the best of a horrific start as they managed to overhaul their local rivals in the race for third. Nevertheless, the fact that the club nowadays sees coming third as an achievement only serves to highlight the extent to which the experiment with the club’s playing style has backfired, with Arsene Wenger’s increasingly stubborn demeanour and dogmatic approach certainly as much of a hindrance than a help.
It’s clear that the club hope to find solace in the Financial Fair Play rules, with Wenger stating recently: “We always defend the values of the club, and the model has to be self-sustainable, otherwise it can completely go out of shape and become very fragile. The financial solidity of the club is vital, for me, and therefore I have always supported that and I will continue to do that. I believe that the Financial Fair Play is about that. If UEFA push it through they will have a big supporter in me. I believe that football has to work like every single company, it has to work with the money it produces itself.”
It’s a completely understandable viewpoint, but banking on the strictness of UEFA with any initiative of any real substance is dangerous. If, say, both Real Madrid and Barcelona fail to meet the financial criteria for entry into European competition, they will likely cave rather than lose much-needed sponsorship money and global interest in the competition. It’s a great idea in practice, although still with the odd huge flaw, but then again so is Communism, and that hasn’t really worked anywhere in the world in the conventional sense throughout history, rather adapted to suit the needs of those in power (obscure reference, I know).
The club’s policy of self-sustainability is an admirable approach but it’s had a knock-on effect with their competitiveness on the pitch. Many will lambast Wenger if Robin van Persie is sold this summer to Manchester City with cries of ‘selling club’ from the cheap seats, but in all reality, going right back to Nicolas Anelka being sold to Real Madrid in 1999, the club have always bought wisely, developed players then sold them on at a higher price. It’s nothing new, but the reasons behind such moves have developed over time.
Wenger’s experiment of trying to win silverware in a certain style has become more of a rampant ideal rather than a realistic goal to aspire to. It’s become a stubborn, puritanical moral crusade aimed at proving the doubters wrong rather than one motivated by securing results and winning trophies.
If Van Persie doesn’t buy into that ethos any longer, then that isn’t his fault, it’s the fault of Wenger for not adapting and compromising his principles while the evidence continues to stack up that they simply aren’t working. The signings of Podolski, Giroud and whoever follows them into the club this summer are certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s clearly all just a little too late.
The word ‘ambition’ is often used in a derogatory fashion, but in this instance it should be applauded. I think the majority of us would rather Van Persie did stay at Arsenal, if not only for the sake of the competitiveness of the league, but if he leaves (I’d make him stay and honour his contract by the way) then despite his poorly-timed and ill-advised statement, it’s entirely understandable given the circumstances.
We can try and paint this as another example of the ‘evils’ of the modern game, players motivated by money leaving the club in the lurch that has stood by them through thick and thin, but ultimately, the reasoning behind each player’s departure from the club over the last few years has been the same – Arsenal can’t offer them the silverware they so crave – so perhaps a closer look at the root of the problem rather than the convenient and often quickly taken get-out excuse of blaming the players should take place.
Cesc Fabregas left the club in the right way with the only move that he was ever likely to leave the club for – his hometown team of Barcelona, but the way Samir Nasri left and has acted since has been nothing short of disgusting, but you can’t exactly disagree with the reasoning behind it and City’s title triumph last term completely vindicated his decision.
Wenger stated a few weeks back: “The only sad thing is that sometimes your work is destroyed by others. You want to see a player in his prime doing it for your club. But it does not work like that all the time. I am a victim of that. I lost Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Cesc Fabregas at an age when they should have been playing their best football for Arsenal. But I never left the club when I could have.”
The sheer lack of awareness of that statement is truly terrifying, the club are not a ‘victim’ of anything, and their work hasn’t been ‘destroyed’. It shows why the club aren’t moving forward – words like ‘pragmatism’, ‘realism’ and ‘adaptability’ may not be the sexiest around, granted, but it’s what is holding the club back, a failure of the man in charge to realise that his philosophy isn’t quite working and need adjusting.
Whenever you talk about Arsenal and what the club can realistically hope to achieve, it is always met with the caveat of talking about the club’s resources compared to their rivals at the top of the league. Nobody is expecting a title challenge well until April, but perhaps one at least past Christmas isn’t too much to ask for considering the players they have at their disposal.
Wenger has done a brilliant job at the club during his 16-year tenure; qualifying for the Champions League for 15 successive seasons is a huge achievement, but Arsenal are such a big club that we shouldn’t solely be praising him for qualifying for tournaments, rather winning them.
Wenger appeared to be under genuine pressure at the beginning of last season from certain sections of the fanbase and one suspects it will happen again this term if things don’t start well. Patience is wearing thin because marked improvement is hard to find; they’re not quite stagnant yet, but it’s not too far off.
You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1