Arsenal: Lukas Podolski, Robin Van Persie and the New Era, Part 5

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Arsenal: Lukas Podolski, Robin Van Persie and the New Era, Part 5
Photo courtesy of Arsenal.com

Most criticism of Arsenal is either reactionary or is a product of misinformation.  

Of the last, there are two types: one a product of genuine lack of knowledge and the other a child of bone-headedness. Of these two, the last is a hopeless case.

It is ideological and fundamentalist. Little or nothing can be done to affect a change in such. The general culture of hire and fire in football is a child of this. It reacts to the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. 

For example, many teams want Barcelona's success but forget that it is a product of 30 years of painstaking planning. Such success can't be achieved by merely adding to a faulty structure the frosting of a head coach or manager. 


Everyone wants to be instant Barcelona, much like instant coffee. Getty Images.

In this regard, one must laud the caretakers of Wigan Athletic who, last season, stuck by their manager when results refused to come the team's way. The problem, quite rightly, didn't come from the manager; it stemmed from the club's modest resources.

In contrast to this situation, the owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers followed the opposite route and fired the club's manager under similar circumstances. The end result for both teams was predictably poles apart, and here, there may be a moral for all.

The inconvenience of planning is, of course, circumvented by many clubs today, clubs that either borrow themselves into problems or find themselves a patron who can give them unlimited cash to spend on the biggest names in football. But this is a topic for Part 6 of this series where I shall also elaborate on the reactionary critics.

 

The Problem at Arsenal

One area Arsenal have drawn criticism pertains the current board of directors.

Some aver lack of ambition on its part, having apparently sunk into complacency and stasis. Indeed, availing herself the forum Twitter offers a year ago, Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, who left the Arsenal board in 2008 under an acrimonious circumstance, hinted as much

"They are passe. Have nothing more to give to the club at all. In time we will need a more dynamic pro-active, younger board, and a good directional leadership."

In the tweet, she advanced a sentiment that I'm sure has crossed the minds of many Arsenal fans: Is Ivan Gazidis, Tom Fox and Stan Kroenke right for Arsenal? The three are imports from America, or so it seems. Here's the tweet:

 


 

But let's deal first with the issue of dynamism, which is questioned in this tweet, the reason why she thinks the board should be replaced.

Three factors (and perhaps more) offer a persuasive argument in support of this thought. 

First, since 2007 when the first member of the raft of departures from the board left, Arsenal have seemed to lack direction insofar as trophies are concerned.

No decisive voice has spoken out with conviction regarding the situation, and certainly not in staunch opposition to the eruption of player-exodus that has occurred since then.

 

Good Cop, Bad Cop

The reader needs only recall the case of Luka Modric vis-à-vis Daniel Levi and Harry Redknapp last summer—when the player was adamant about leaving Tottenham Hotspur—to find a contrasting approach.

Levi insisted that the player see out the terms of his contract. At the height of the saga, then club manager, Harry Redknapp, played good cop to Levi's bad cop, empathizing with the player's plight

"It's a difficult situation for him and I understand where he's coming from. We can't kid ourselves..."

"The chairman has made his mind up that he's not going to sell him and there's no point this late in the window because it's hard to get replacements and that won't help anyone," he continued.

Let's be truthful, he wanted to go. He's had an offer and he knows what he could earn elsewhere and sees it as an opportunity to move....if someone came along and said they will treble your wages you would find it hard to say no, and that is the situation the boy is in. If someone offers you £150,000 a week instead of £50,000 or whatever it's not easy, and you are going to have your head turned.

A reverse of this situation occurred at Arsenal.  Under similar pressure and threat, it was the Arsenal manager who insisted that his duo of cherished players would not leave. For him it represented no ambition that the club sells its best players.

As it happened, Arsene Wenger was overruled on the situation, and, of course, it was the board that did so, choosing to cash in on the pair under question—Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas—rather than apply the letter of the law as Levi did at Spurs.

Naturally, there was a good rationale behind the board's decision.

Do you cash in and move on, potentially using the money to bring in players who'd be happy to play for you, or do you underscore your right to the players' services and then lose them for free (as would have happened in the case of Nasri)?

Even for fans who naturally would be critical of the board, the first option seems to be the wise one. After all, the club needs money not only to make new signings but to remain solvent. So as much as they might hate the board, common sense would indicate to them that this was the right thing to do.

Moreover, insisting on retaining the players in spite of their wish to leave held the potential for squad disruption. And here's where the genius of the Spurs' situation becomes apparent.

By playing good cop to the club chairman's bad cop, Redknapp—whose role it was to be in constant contact with the players—made sure that an appropriate atmosphere was maintained on that front. That is, he ensured that no impression was given to the player that he, the manager, was the hurdle in the way of player's ambition.

"I understand where he's coming from," Redknapp said, as opposed to the chairman's insistence and cold business-mindedness. I imagined Redknapp and Levi giving each other high fives in private.

The chairman, as I saw it, was willing to take the blame for the situation, be the person in the way of the player, and properly so, since he had no day-to-day dealing with the players.

I thought Arsenal should have done the same, at least in the case of Cesc Fabregas since it was clear that the club manager wasn't willing to sell the player even if he understood why the player had to go.

In the light of this, it is heartless and quite stupid to blame Wenger for the departure of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri when he clearly stated the importance of keeping the duo.

But even in the case of Fabregas, a majority of the fans see reason with the board's assent to the player's wish.

Commenting on the situation, Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith said: "It is obvious he wants to go. You cannot keep a player when his heart is not in it."

The situation now repeats itself in the Robin van Persie saga.

Should the board put its foot down this time and insist that the player honor his contract or should it cash in and move on? I have stated my opinion on this in Part 3, but I'm not unmindful of the other side of the argument.


Arsenal keep losing players in their prime. Getty Images.

The second factor that appears to indicate that the board can no longer cut it lies in the club's apparent lack of ambition when it comes to transfer purchases. No marquee signing has been made since 2007, and for many fans, the result of this cannot be divorced from the club's seven-year trophy drought. 

 

The Truth about Marquee Signings

But, what many don't know (or perhaps choose to forget) is the fact that the ostensible marquee signings of the past—with the possible exception of Dennis Bergkamp—weren't at all. But, even in Bergkamp’s case, he was signed when the club had little or no financial struggle, certainly not the obligation to service the debt for a new state-of-the-art stadium.

(I have always maintained that the club's financial situation will return to this in the future, when the stadium debt would have ceased to factor significantly—or not at all— in Arsenal's finances. At this time, Arsenal would be able to make any signings it chooses.)

List any of Arsenal's marquee players of the Wenger era, and you'd see that they were bought on the cheap.

Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Nicolas Anelka, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri (and he is less marquee than the others) Cesc Fabregas, Marc Overmars,  Fredrik Ljungberg, Jens Lehmann and so on. All of these were cheap signings.


In truth, then, Arsenal have never been a buying club as far as ready-made players are concerned. What has been the case involves Wenger's extraordinary eye for quality players, players other major clubs were oblivious to—at least ostensibly—at the time.

The global explosion of the game has changed all this.

It has brought every potential player to the fore of popular consciousness, so that no player is hidden any longer, not, at least, the above-the-average talented ones. Just think of the Mario Götze situation—for whom every club was immediately in the hunt—and you find a good example.

As a result, Wenger has had to re-calibrate, focusing instead on younger and relatively unknown talents in the hope of grooming and making stars out of them.

The problem against this has arisen in the mega-rich clubs, such as Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG, who now can offer exorbitant salaries to these same young players as soon as they emerge as major players.

This is exactly what happened in the case of Samir Nasri.

We are seeing the repeat of the situation in the Van Persie saga. It is a situation whereby a player has just risen to the peak of his powers, but instead of enjoying the fruit thereof, Arsenal are again being forced to part with the player.

 

David Dein and Players

Concomitant with the present idea is the notion that David Dein's departure from Arsenal has led to this ostensible dearth in marquee signings. In other words, were Dein here, Arsenal would have signed more expensive players.

This notion does not stand under proper scrutiny, especially in the light of the above. So with the exception of Dennis Bergkamp (who even at the time was affordable), Arsenal haven't been a big signing club at all, and this held steady at the time when Dein was still at Arsenal.

In regard to this, Lady Bracewell-Smith states

 

Here, as the reader would notice, the idea is that it was Dein who was responsible for the so-called marquee purchases of the past. Lady Nina debunks the notion while locating Dein under his proper role at Arsenal.

 

These purchases, she states, were the brain children of Arsene Wenger. Dein, she observes, was not a scout.

 

An offshoot of this is the idea that Dein should return to Arsenal, or that were he to return things would turn around rather swiftly.

I have no problem with the first of the two sentiments. I have no quarrel, as it is, with David Dein. His return or not makes no difference to me. I, however, believe this is highly unlikely.

 

Dein and the Boardroom War

I observed in my five-part series on van Persie and money that Dein was at the center of the boardroom war that culminated in the advent of Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov at Arsenal.

I showed that it was Dein who introduced Kroenke to the Arsenal board and encouraged him to buy shares, a development that angered fellow board members who at the time had no intention of selling their club to a patron, no least an American that knew "sweet FA about football," according to Peter Hill-Wood.

In the ruckus that developed, Dein was forced out of the board but then made a swift turnaround and sold his shares to Alisher Usmanov, Kroenke's rival, when he could have easily sold to Kroenke. I do not therefore see how Dein could return under the present atmosphere.

 

Lady Bracewell-Smith confirms that Dein was the cause of the unrest that resulted in the boardroom shakeup.


 

I do not take Bracewell-Smith's meaning to be all in the negative, not in the sense of implying that Dein didn't have a positive impact at Arsenal. She clarifies this:

 "Dein loves the club and although sometimes personalities fall out his contribution at Arsenal has been immense."

That Dein brought Stan Kroenke to Arsenal is a fact, and that he then turned to Kroenke's rival in an alliance of sorts is also a fact. So, again, how could Dein return when there is a silent war (and not-so-silent war) raging between Kroenke and Usmanov?

Furthermore, it is not clear to me how Dein would change things at Arsenal financially (as far as they relate to transfer signings), not unless Arsenal were to abandon their current model, a move that would be extremely foolish.

When I said that the return of Dein or not makes no difference to me, it is to the extent that I believe we do need a Dein-like personality at Arsenal—but not necessarily Dein himself—a person with a bias towards the playing aspect of the club.


David Dein, seen on the left, is unlikely to return to the Arsenal board. Getty Images.

 

Accordingly, the third factor that seems to indicate that the Arsenal board has lost it has to do with its apparent neglect of the playing side of the club's project. Consequently, it appears as though the seven-year trophy drought does not bother the board, that is, if utterances by the club chairman are anything to go by.

Reacting to the idea that the current board needs to resign for a younger crop, he states:

It would be good to have some young people on the board, but it is not as easy for young people who have full-time jobs to do that now as it was when I was a young man. However I do not think there is anything different we can be doing in the running of Arsenal.

What I’d like the reader to note is the idea that there isn't "anything different we can be doing in the running of Arsenal," a sentiment that seems to imply that the current status quo is satisfactory and acceptable. But this clearly isn't the case, not trophy wise.

About transfer purchases, he states:

"We give the manager as much money as we possibly can, and all we can do is continue. We have run the club sensibly, and we haven't done badly; it's not as if we have been relegated."

Unless properly digested, it is not clear what Hill-Wood means by giving "the manager as much money as we possibly can." One reading of this would perpetuate the mistaken notion that there's money out there for signings, and that it is only Wenger's stinginess that hampers this. 

This, of course, is not true, as the informed reader knows.


The glory days are fast fading. Getty Images.

The fact is, Arsenal's ability to buy players is hindered by the need to service the current stadium debt. Hill-Wood’s statement should be read with emphasis on the "as much money as we possibly can," which means that such monies are severely constrained.

The most disturbing part of this last statement, however, is the flippant: "it's not as if we have been relegated."

It is clearly a strong reason why many fans feel that the current board is in the state of stasis. The reason Lady Bracewell-Smith feels a new dynamism is needed at Arsenal. And this isn't the only flippant statement Hill-Wood has made in recent times.

Last season, at the height of the troubling possibility that Arsenal would not qualify for the Champions League, Hill-Wood said not qualifying wouldn't be disastrous:

From a financial point of view, not qualifying for the Champions League is quite a blow. 
We have been planning for not qualifying every year, so it is not a disaster, but it would be nice if we could.

Properly considered, none of these statements is bad or stupid or any such thing. At the same time, what seems to emerge is a troubling lack of tact from the chairman, who seems oblivious to the fans' angst.

Where diplomacy is required he employs bluntness, and where good PR is called for, he seems to damn the given sentiment.

This, needless to say, does not help the current situation at the club, nor does it endear the board to the fans. The board, I have observed in the past, has done a fabulous job in positioning the club for a successful future, but the board isn't doing a proper job of educating its fan base.

This is the main reason why many feel it is out of touch with the current environment, not because it hasn't done a good job at managing the club, but because it has failed to appreciate the real gravity of going seven years without a trophy.

Yes, the club has done well in relative terms, and, yes, the club is poised very well financially as far as the immediate future is concerned. This is all well and good, but when you fail to educate your fan base, and when you allow the fickle media to drive your narrative, you certainly aren't doing yourself a favor.

One result of this leaves the manager taking the brunt of the criticism that ensues from the situation. Secondly, the fans start targeting other equally wrong people for criticism, people like Ivan Gazidis.

 

What about the Americans?

This leads us back to the question regarding the appropriateness of the Americans at Arsenal. This I will address in the following part of the series.

For now, if the reader is wondering what the second of the six things—which I highlighted as expedient for the New Era at Arsenal—is, it is that, indeed, we need a Dein-like person on the board, someone biased toward the playing side of the club's project.


I will clarify this in Part 6.

 

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Many thanks to the readers for continuing to follow the series. Please tweet the article or prop it if you like it

The big interval between this part and the preceding owed to time employed addressing pressing matters. I plan to write the following part quicker than this part has been.

As usual I welcome and covet your contribution to the conversation. 

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