Have departures cost Arsenal a decade of dominance?

I recently wrote an article questioning whether an injury-free season would have seen the Premier League title end up anywhere other than Stamford Bridge.  I, with my objective hat tried to claim that while these things are never certain the likelihood is Chelsea would still have won the league.

I was immediately bombarded with comments from unhappy Arsenal fans calling me everything from an ‘idiot’  to a ‘joke’ to someone with an ‘obvious grudge against Arsenal’, while two out of those three descriptions were pretty spot on, I’d disagree with the third. As a Manchester United fan I save my grudges, for the usual suspects Liverpool, Manchester City and occasionally Chelsea- merely because we’re usually head-to-head in the title race.

However the recent news regarding Cesc Fabregas’s possible move to Barcelona, had me wondering just how much the Gunners have suffered not from injuries but from the departure of key players just when the team seemed destined for success.

The argument many Gooners put forward was that had Robin Van Persie stayed fit, the title would have been going to the Emirates this season. While this may be or may not be true, one thing’s for certain, with the form Fabregas had been showing last season, a fully fit RVP alongside him is a mouth-watering prospect for Arsenal fans next season should the little Spaniard be persuaded to stay.

When looking back at the most successful club of the past decade, it would seem in terms of trophies that Manchester United could claim to have been the most triumphant. Five Premier League titles, an FA cup, three League Cups and a Champions League win, just about edges out Chelsea. To be fair though, with three PL wins, three FA cups and two League cups Chelsea are not that far behind and had John Terry not slipped in Moscow you could argue that it was the West Londoners who would have been the club of the decade.

Arsenal have had a lot of success under Arsene Wenger but most of that success was earlier in his tenure, with five trophy-less seasons causing many to question some of his ideals- particularly in the cup competitions. However during Wenger’s reign he has seen an unprecedented number of important players leave, which makes you wonder just what his teams could have achieved had he been able to keep some of his prized assets.

Following the ‘Invicibles’ season of 2003-04 many expected Arsenal to become the new leading power in the premier league, surely after such a successful season it seemed the United-era was over.

Although Arsenal finished the following season 12 points behind Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea they did beat United on penalties to win the FA Cup. There was also the added bonus of being the league’s highest-scoring team and having the league’s top-scorer in Thierry Henry. It was also something of a transitional period as older heads such as Martin Keown and Ray parlour departed and young faces such as RVP and Mattheu Flamini came in.

The loss of Patrick Vieira before the start of the 2005-06 season was a huge blow that possibly scuppered Arsenal’s title chances before they ever even got going.  With plenty of youngsters coming in though including Theo Walcott and Alexander Hleb there was reasons to be cheerful- not to mention a Champion’s League final appearance. Although finishing 24 points behind champion’s Chelsea meant there were problems that needed to addressed.

The 2006-07 season, when Arsenal should have been looking to strengthen to try and scupper the ‘Special One’s progress they again saw the departure of key players such as Robert Pires, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole.  The plus side to this is that Wenger finally off-loaded the complete pile of p*ss that was Pascal Cygan. While that season saw United regain the title, Arsenal struggled, finishing fourth. The one positive for the Gunners had been Henry deciding to stay but with him being injured for most of the season it had been a disappointing campaign.

2007-08 got off to the worst start possible for Arsenal fans as Henry departed for Barcelona.

The departure of Henry meant that Arsenal lost not only their captain, record scorer and league’s top-scorer but also their talisman.

It was in the 2007-08 season that the Gunners, despite the loss of Henry finally looked like becoming champions again as with William Gallas leading the defence admirably- until a certain visit to St Andrews- Fabregas banging in goals from midfield and Emmanuel Adebayor dispelling rumours that he was a clumsy oaf, things seem to click into place.

However it all went Pete Tong towards the end of the season as Fabregas’s goals dried up Gallas spat his dummy out and Arsenal became draw specialists.

Despite eventually finishing third, there were a lot of positives for Wenger’s men- or shall we say older boys- to take from the campaign. with the emergence of not just Adebayor and Fabregas looking like world-beaters but also the likes of Bacary Sagna, Hleb and Flamini who all performed admirably throughout the season.

It is here where Arsenal may arguably have lost their best chance to finally regain the title as the summer departures of Hleb and Flamini robbed the Gunners of half of their starting midfield at a time when they seemed on the verge of achieving great things.

2008-09 was not a season to remember for Arsenal fans as they finished a staggering 18 points behind champions United and were beaten home and away in the Champion’s League by their former title rivals.

This season, injuries rather than departures cost Arsenal any chance of success although the summer losses of Adebayor and Kolo Toure hardly helped. Although most Arsenal fans will claim Wenger cashed-in on the pair at exactly the right time, you could argue that had they stayed then that just might have helped cover some of the injuries which according to many Gooner’s cost them the title.

The point I’m making is that over the past six title-less years for Arsenal without the number of top-quality players departing Arsenal very well could have been the most dominant team of the era.

Had Vieira, Cole, Henry, Flamini, Hleb, Adebayor and Toure not departed at the times they did then Arsenal could well be basking in the glory of being the most successful club of the decade rather than lamenting five trophy-less years.

While all the top teams have seen departures- Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Arjen Robben- none have come close to seeing the sort of exodus that has occurred at the Emirates over the past five years.  As Wenger himself has admitted the club are now a selling club, the question is will this stop them from ever again achieving the sort of heights they did in 2004?

Read more of Justin’s work at his excellent blog ‘Name on the Trophy’