Friday, 23 August 2013

Survival of the Fittest: How a lack of evolution has confined Arsenal to the shadows

It is ten days until the 2013 Summer Transfer Window shuts and so far Arsenal’s transfer arrivals, typically, amount to a little known 20 year old French striker. This despite big promises at the beginning of the summer that the club could spend what it liked to ensure the big names could be lured to the Emirates. On the face of it, it’s easy to see why many Arsenal fans are now calling louder than ever for Wenger’s head.

Time is running out for Wenger

So far this summer Wenger has seen both Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Gustavo slip right through his fingers. It cannot be stressed enough how much these two types of players in particular, an enforcing centre midfielder in Gustavo and an pure goal fiend like Higuain would improve the current Arsenal side. I’ve no idea why Gustavo chose Wolfsburg over Arsenal but apparently the Higuain move broke down due to Arsenal’s unwillingness to meet Madrid’s asking price for the player – roughly £30m (what he ended up going to Napoli for). This would of course smash Arsenal’s current transfer record which, surprisingly in this day and age, still stands at the £15m paid for Arshavin in January 2009 – lower than Leeds, Everton and Aston Villa’s respective club records.

The sheer stubbornness shown by Wenger in his refusal to pay the going rate for a world class striker is one of the reasons the club has stagnated in recent years and even the fans, who were once so loyal to their messiah, are now turning on him.

I began watching football around 1997 and at this time Arsenal were just coming into power so to speak. They wrestled the league title from United’s grasp in 1998 as part of an historic double and could easily have repeated the feat 12 months later but, famously, the footballing gods were smiling on United in 1999. Then followed a lull where United ran away with the title a couple of times before Arsenal blitzed them in 2002 and claimed another double. They would have repeated the feat in 2003 but for an inspired Ruud van Nistelrooy. In 2004 they managed to go to whole season unbeaten as Wenger claimed a 3rd Premier League crown in six seasons. Since then there has been one lucky FA Cup win in 2005 and eight barren seasons.

Feeling Invincible in May 2004

Can you imagine telling the Arsenal fans seeing their team celebrate complete an unbeaten season in May 2004 that nine seasons later their players would be dancing with jubilation on the pitch at the end of the season, delighted to have secured 4th place? Unthinkable.

Where has it all gone wrong so? How have Arsenal gone from being the dominant force in English football to Premier League also-rans content whose aim is just to be at the top table but not to eat from it. I’m a fan of Wenger personally but unfortunately he has to take the blame. His unwillingness to evolve at the same pace the game is evolving means Arsenal are now years behind the likes of United and City. The transfer market is where the Manchester clubs have really left them floundering, even plundering them for their best players year on year. Nasri and van Persie both left North London under a cloud, feeling their best chance of winning silverware lay in Manchester. Both were proved right in the form of League title medals within 9 months.

The last eight years haven’t been all doom and gloom for Arsenal. There was a real sense of optimism around the club around 2007 when the famous group of youngsters reached the final of the Carling Cup, disposing of the Liverpool and Spurs first teams and giving Chelsea a good fight in the process. Looking in particular at the 6-3 demolition of Liverpool at Anfield in January that heralded the coming of a new young squad:

Ø  Of the sixteen man squad that night only three remain at the club. Johan Djorou, Theo Walcott and Abou Diaby.
Ø  These three, along with Denilson and the already well-established Kolo Toure are the only players to have regularly nailed down a first team place at the club.
Ø  Only one, Cesc Fabregas, has gone on to be truly world class. Not even the most biased fans can claim Theo Walcott has. Not yet anyway.
Ø  Only Kolo Toure, a member of the Invincibles of 2004 has an Arsenal honour to his name.

Bear in mind this is a group of youngsters that many people were talking about as if they were going to dominate English football for years to come. The fact that only a third of them made it as far as the Arsenal first team doesn’t exactly provide a glowing endorsement of Wenger’s philosophy in recent seasons.

To be fair to him, his policy has born some fruit in the form of Robin van Persie. Had the Dutchman not spent around 70% of the time injured between 2005 and 2011 who knows what both he and Arsenal could have achieved in that time. Buying him for under £3m pounds and transforming him into a Golden Boot winner and one of the world’s leading strikers deserves at least some recognition. Particularly when you consider around the same time, Chelsea were buying Adrain Mutu for £18m.

Robin's decision to leave is justified

In 2011, Arsenal fans had to endure one of the most frustrating summer’s in recent memory. Cesc Fabregas finally got his dream move to Barcelona. Samir Nasri announced he wasn’t renewing his contract and got a move to Man City. Gael Clichy did likewise, joining former team-mates Adebayor and Toure at Eastlands, both of whom had made the big switch two years earlier. To add to the worry of the fans, Wenger did basically no transfer business until the final week of the window. Even then his signings amounted to Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker. Neither cost more than £10m and, with all due respect to both, were definitely a class below some of the  big names they had been linked with that summer.

Arsenal lost four of their opening seven games in the 2011/12 season. Thankfully for them, Robin van Persie found his best form sometime after that and fired them to a rather impressive 3rd place finish given the circumstances. Then he too decided his best chance of winning silverware was not at Arsenal and defected to United. Another Golden Boot followed, this time accompanied by the league championship he really wanted.

Back to the present day and it’s the same old problems for Arsenal. Wenger won’t invest in established stars. Karim Benzema is being heavily linked with Arsenal again as he was in 2011. Arsenal fans know that the chances of him turning up at the Emirates before September 2nd are pretty much zero. Real Madrid’s asking price is £40m. Personally, I think Wenger would rather see his team relegated than compromise his ideals and nearly treble the club record transfer in one go for a player they really need. That is how stubborn the man is.

Another example of Wenger’s stubbornness: Arsenal bid for Yohan Cabaye this week. A surprisingly low £10m. Well below the asking price and because of this he may well go to PSG for around £15 - 18m. A fair enough price for a very talented midfielder. I seem to recall a similar case in 2012 when Gary Cahill was available. Wenger refused to up his bid of £5m and a few days later Cahill signed for Chelsea for a hardly excessive £7m. Four months later he was starting and playing brilliantly in a Champions League final.

Arsenal are a huge club, 2nd or 3rd biggest in England. They have guaranteed Champions League football this year, something Liverpool and Tottenham have not. In theory they should be able to attract the big names to come and play there. I’m sure Benzema and Angel Di Maria among others would much rather be among the main men at a title-contending Arsenal than warming the ever more luxurious bench at the Bernabeau.  

A question that sums up Wenger’s transfer ideals: Who would Arsenal fans rather sign: Benzema or Thomas Ince from Blackpool? And which of the two are they more likely to get?

To sum up, football is changing and Arsenal FC are not changing with it. In nature, the animals that can adapt best to the changing environment are the ones who survive. This is where Sir Alex excelled at United and why he was so successful for so long. Wenger has been given a lot of time to adapt, justifiably in respect of what he has achieved at the club. But unless he is willing to accept the obvious fact that his philosophy isn’t working, I’m afraid it’s time for him to leave. Arsenal need a manager to lead them into the modern day and he just isn’t that man.

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