Arsenal play Dinamo Zagreb tonight probably feeling fairly happy that for once, Arsenal won’t seem like the most dysfunctional club on the pitch.
Anger and incredulity all-round was the order of the last few weeks as the Gunners tried and failed, it seemed, to sign almost every big-name striker in Europe. When deadline day came, Arsenal fans clung to some vague hope that their side would manage to pull off the signing that was promised the whole summer – Arsenal directors were intimating that Wenger had £200m to spend if he wanted it – but as the day wore on it became clear that no one new would arrive. Rumours of Arsene Wenger in Paris were floated around hopefully, but the explanation is quite simply that sightings of Wenger in Paris were simply snaps of a Frenchman in Paris.
In the end, no one was signed and Arsenal ended the window as the only club in Europe’s top five leagues not to sign an outfield player.
It sounds bad. Indeed, it is bad. Arsenal’s team finished third last season, so to think they can win the league by adding only a goalkeeper – albeit a damn good one – seems optimistic. But things can always get worse, right? Just look at tonight’s opponents Dinamo Zagreb: Chief Executive Zdravko Mamic is not only being investigated for tax evasion, embezzlement and bribery, but he and his brother and club manager, no less, Zoran Mamic sent 11 nights in jail in July. They were released just in time to see their team play Luxembourg’s Fola Esch in the second qualifying round.
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The club’s notorious ‘ultra’ section of supporters, who call themselves the ‘Bad Blue Boys’ (now tell me that doesn’t sound like a gay porn troupe!), are at loggerheads with the club’s ownership.
Fan revolt and dodgy dealings at the top of a club who have won the Croatian League for the last ten years in a row.
Arsenal fans can barely muster a protest at two trophies in ten years, let alone ten league titles in a row.
But it goes to show what football is all about. It’s not simply about winning nor is it about money and great players. Dinamo are so big in Croatia that teams will set up to play against them simply by defending. Their team is so geared towards breaking down defences that they’ve forgotten how to defend themselves – something that might make them incredibly vulnerable to Arsenal this evening, even if Wenger lacks a top quality striker.
Instead, football is about a feel-good factor. Fans want to win, of course, but they want to feel good winning. Dinamo fans think their side is good enough to win the Croatian league without resorting to bully-boy tactics and brazen criminal activity. They’d rather win their league and build a club that can compete in Europe. PSG in France is another example, here’s a club who won the domestic quadruple last season, and yet their lacklustre performances in the middle of the season and their capitulation to Barcelona have made the fans unhappy. It’s not about winning as such, it’s about the feel-good factor.
So where’s Arsenal’s feel-good factor? Olivier Giroud has proven that he’s a Premier League goalscorer. I’ll agree that he misses a lot of chances, he was even booed off the pitch by French fans when they played Serbia in the international break. But the Frenchman has scored in and around the 20 goal mark every season since joining in 2012, and Theo Walcott – who brings something completely different to the team – has score 11 in his last 11 starts. We can argue all day about the true reflection of the figures, but surely that’s at least a promising pair of attacking options.
And yet there’s no feel-good factor. And that’s the problem. The absence of a striker’s signature over the summer is not necessarily a problem in itself. It may well be that Wenger has called this one right, and only time will tell if he has or not. But the problem was that, by not signing a striker, Wenger has neglected to address the feel-good problem that’s been at Arsenal since they last won the league back in 2004.\
A win tonight would go some way towards putting that right. Arsenal fans will need more than a Champions League group stage win to feel good about their current squad, but at least for a few hours, Gunners’ fans will see a club worse-off than their own. And they’ll see that it’s not just success and trophies that brings happiness, there’s much more to it than that.