Wei Lun Lim writes about Arsenal and their failings in the transfer market.
Arsenal Football Club is probably best defined by the man himself, Arsene Wenger, in the modern era. He is the epitome of Arsenal, a club built on humble backgrounds and frugal spending to become the modern powerhouse they are today. For a major part of the English Premier League era, Arsenal had formed part of the traditional Big Four clubs alongside Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Yet, the dominance of these “so-called” big clubs have started to wane. Following the emergence of Manchester City as a financial superpower and Tottenham Hotspur as merely more than just “the next best club in North London”, the Big Four are starting to find life difficult in the Premiership. And for the first time in a long time, Arsenal, failed to find a definitive spot amongst the Top 4 in the just concluded 16/17 season. From the notion of challenging for the league title, to just about clinching a Champions League spot every season, Arsenal are a shadow of their old self. Now, they are merely more than just a sleeping giant. They are a club in free fall and much is to be done to arrest this slide.
The root of Arsenal’s problems stems right from the very top. Being managed differently from other clubs, Arsenal Football Club is owned by a parent company, Arsenal Holdings plc. American Stan Kroenke is the majority shareholder, staking 67.05% of the overall shares, with his major rival Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov owning 30.04%. That said, Mr Kroenke, however, has never really gotten himself involved with the club’s affairs. Throughout his tenure as the majority stakeholder of the club, he has only given one media interview, thereby obtaining the nickname ‘Silent Stan’. “Arsene Wenger is just an unbelievable manager,” said Kroenke. “I think he’s a tremendous person and he is just as good as there is. You can’t judge a manager on one game or on one stretch of games. You judge him over time.” Aside from that, Kroenke has also only stood up to defend Wenger when extending his contract in spite of his side’s failings on the pitch. This was the most basic thing an owner can do to protect his manager in the spotlight. Casting an eye at his Manchester City and Chelsea counterparts, he has pumped in considerably lesser amounts of money into the club. This is particularly worrying for Arsenal as it prevents them from being competitive on the pitch, which might have improved their fortunes in the longer run. Currently, Kroenke only focusses on the short-term benefits and only wants to keep Arsenal competitive away from the pitch. Year on year, Arsenal continues to be amongst the elite teams in terms of the Deloitte Money League Table, finishing 7th in 14/15 and 15/16. Yet, the same cannot be said about the English Premier League Table, which is definitely all the more important. For the 20 years running, Arsenal have cemented their position in the Top 4, never failing to clinch a Champions League spot in Wenger’s time at the club. However, many could say that they have saw it coming as in the 16/17 season, Arsenal finished below the Top 4, placing 5th. Worse still, it is a certainty that such a dreadful position would have severe repercussions on the economic side of football. Would Kroenke finally be stirred into action? It is a waiting game still to be played out.
As Kroenke continues to shy away from the glares of the media, Wenger comes under close scrutiny. From the failures to keep up with the Joneses, to the annual thrashings dished out by European superpowers F.C. Barcelona and F.C. Bayern Munich, Wenger is starting to feel the heat of the media. This has heaped immense pressure on the 67-year old man, rendering an already difficult job all the more impossible to accomplish. However, it would have been unthinkable to see Wenger in such a tight spot a little more than 15 years ago. In 1998, his first full season at Arsenal, he won the league and also lifted the FA Cup. He then went on to do the exactly the same in 2002 before winning the FA Cup again in 2003 and 2005. However, it was in 2004 when he led the team to the Premiership without losing a game, forming the “Invincibles” team that till today, remains an unfathomable concept. Yet, it was this same “Invincibles” team that caused Wenger to lose his plot in the future, and potentially his name in folklore. During the 03-04 season, Arsenal had already virtually wrapped up the title, and was in the latter stages of both the Champions League and the FA Cup. The opportunity for a treble was in sight. Alas, Wenger let his chance slip and that missed opportunity would come back to haunt him. Wenger opted against rotating his squad for the last few months of the campaign, in order to continue their winning streak, in spite of the strength of the opposition. Wenger then went on to lift the Premiership unbeaten, yet he lost the chance to lift the Champions League, an ever elusive trophy in the Arsenal trophy cabinet. That faithful year, the chance was there for the taking and yet it was let slip. An opportunistic man jumped upon the chance and got his hands on the trophy and that man was none other than Jose Mourinho, a man who left Wenger to be a specialist in failure. And till today, Wenger has still failed in the eyes of many.
As the members of the “Invincibles” team start to learn that age is not just a number, Arsenal had to start planning for the future. It was definitely silly to think that it would be an easy task to replace the “Invincibles”. And so it proved, it was a tough ask of Mr Wenger to replace his title-winning side of 03/04. Ultimately, it proved to be the catalyst for his and Arsenal’s downward spiral. Manuel Almunia, Phillipe Senderos, Johan Djourou, Denilson, just to name a few. These players arrived at Arsenal virtually unheard of. Yet, the board of directors and fans alike gave Wenger the benefit of the doubt as they had believed that he knew what he was doing given his superb track record of turning uncut diamonds into polished stars. As time passed, the “Invincibles” team was no longer there. They had been convincingly replaced by stars, handpicked by the man himself, Mr Wenger. Yet, it was with mixed success. With only just the one FA Cup victory in 2005, Mr Wenger was staring down at failure, and greeted with failure staring back at him. Perhaps, Wenger was forced to go through a period of forced parsimony, given that Arsenal were relocating to the Emirates Stadium and had to cut expenses in order to increase revenue and keep the club afloat. In order to fund the move to the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal were forced to become a selling club even as recently as 2012, when they were forced to sell their talisman Robin van Persie for £24m to arch-rivals Manchester United and it was the same man who won the title for the rivals and came back to haunt them for 2 years in the running. Maybe, just maybe it is not Wenger’s fault. Perhaps, it is just a procession that every club has to go through after dismantling a title-winning side and building a better one for the future.
No, I would say. Looking over at Arsenal’s more successful counterparts in the form of Manchester City, it is evident that the fault lies with both the board and the manager. Even since Sheikh Mansour took over at City in 2008, he has over seen 2 Premier League titles, 2 League Cups (now rebranded EFL Cup) and 1 FA Cup. Given that Mansour had pumped in billions of money into the City Football Group, much is expected of the development team at City to put the money to good use and revamp the team. Bringing in Txiki Begiristain, Roberto Mancini, and today, Pep Guardiola, City Football Group has come a very long way in rebranding Manchester City to be the superpower we know of them today. Yet, it was difficult initially as Manchester City were only just starting out on their road to establishing themselves as a superpower. They faced difficulties in attracting up and coming stars to the club. In coming were players whose powers were on the wane and never looked capable enough to carry the weight of the City jersey. In addition, there was no particular style in which the City players could adhere to as the players all came from different backgrounds and it was difficult to put a finger as to what kind of a side City actually are. From the signings of Robinho and Edu, to Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane, Manchester City are improving leaps and bounds, and are no longer a small club of yester years. Well we could say that Arsenal Football Club did make some great signings in recent years, with the purchase of Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny going on to establish themselves as mainstays in the team for years to come by. Yet, why is it so that for every Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding, do we have a Yaya Sanogo and Nicklas Bendtner, the self-proclaimed Lord of football in the wild mind of his own? Working on a ‘tight budget’, Wenger always fancies himself to pick up a bargain or two from the transfer market, prioritising quality over quantity. Yet, just how many of the signings have been quality signings? Even then, the squad is in need of world-class talents alongside the youngsters to inject a non-existent vibrancy into the team. With only Alexis, Ozil, Cech and possibly Koscielny the only world-class stars at Arsenal, it is no surprise that the side is incapable of challenging for the top honours. And it is definitely painful to watch this side in recent years. For many years, Wenger has fancied a pass-and-move, possession-based kind of game, emphasising on the aesthetics side of the game. Picking style over substance was Wenger’s way to go in every match. Giroud is the perfect epitome of Arsenal, oozing with style, but never with class, barring a moment or two. Yet, Arsenal now play a very languid way of football, unwilling to run and fight for the ball. Which in this case, fits the description for Mesut Ozil. And it is with heavy hearts to say that Arsenal would not go far with such a focus.
Which brings us to our next point. With an apparent lack of world-class stars, Arsenal have had to make do with a bunch of stars who are merely trying to punch above their weight. With the inability to constantly attract top stars to the club, Arsenal have had no choice but to search from within and keep the core of players already present at the club. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the board and the manager himself is making concerted efforts to keep the club together. As things stand, the club has been left in tatters by the uproar over Wenger’s inability to build a team to challenge for the title and the contractual disputes over both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil’s contracts. It had been widely reported that the club is unwilling to break the wage structure already present at the club in order to keep both players. Even though it is common knowledge that no one player is bigger than the club, I dare say that Ozil and Alexis both are bigger than the club. Without Ozil and Alexis, Arsenal would not have picked off the FA Cup as easily as 3 in 4 years. Without Ozil and Alexis, Arsenal would not have been in the Champions League year on year. Should both Ozil and Alexis opt to leave Arsenal, it could be the last of world-class stars we see turning up at Arsenal Football Club and that would inevitable signal the beginning of the end of Arsenal. Furthermore, Mr Wenger is open to selling his British core of players, the core that he had painstakingly spent his time building, starting with the sale of perhaps the next best player of last season after Alexis Sanchez, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain. It is definitely not easy to understand what Wenger is cooking up there at Arsenal but should it continue, 5 years down the road, Arsenal would be little more than just a club mired in the relegation battle. Signing Paddy Kenny to be in between the sticks. Buying John O’Shea to organise the backline. And, getting Nicklas Bendtner back to be the Lord of football that he never was and never will be. I am pretty sure no Arsenal fans would want that to happen.
Aside from the buying and selling of players off the pitch, the movement of players on the pitch is equally, if not more important. Tactics form the soul of the team’s performance on the pitch. Without tactics, players would only be moving around aimlessly, not knowing when to release the right pass, make the right tackle or even when to score. At Arsenal, tactics are often not dissimilar from the one utilised in the previous game, aside from certain personnel tweaks. The 4-2-3-1 formation has been in place for such a long time that it has become almost synonymous with the manager. Often utilising two defensive midfielders to protect the backline, and a creative trio just behind the striker to form the arsenal for Arsenal, Wenger focusses on a slick pass-and-move game, which has occasionally threatened to allow the game to pass by them easily. Thereby, the players are easily bullied off the ball by more physical players, often ceding the advantage to the opposition. Furthermore, with a psychological barrier threatening to be the undoing of Arsenal every season, it has effectively ruled the game in favour of the opposition. Aside from that, tactical naivety on Wenger’s part is also preventing Arsenal from achieving their true potential. Favouring style over substance, Wenger often prefers Giroud, who is famous for his out of the world heading and hold-up play, to a more speedy and agile forward such as Lucas Perez, or Danny Welbeck. All this boils down to Wenger and Wenger only for he is the man responsible for keeping players in tip-top condition for games ahead, especially major games. Should the man himself be unable to handle the heat that comes with the games even after adapting to the Premier League, it is certain that his players would be unable to as well.
Arsenal is a club with endless potential and possibilities, but only with the right man to steer the ship and the right policies to paper over the seismic cracks left by the man who rocked the boat. For a very long time, Arsenal have let down their fans and players alike. With players and fans starting to turn against one another, Arsenal would no longer achieve their motto of Victoria. Concordia. Crescit (Victory through Harmony). There is an urgent need for a change. Starting from this very moment.
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