5 Reasons Arsenal Is Currently a Mid-Table Team: Part 3
Having taken the term literally, they'd have felt fifth position on the league table, the position Arsenal would have occupied with a victory at Everton, with Tottenham Hotspur just behind them in sixth place, represents a contradiction in terms.
I wasn't worried, though, about such a misunderstanding, since the spirit of my criticism is positive. I haven't joined the "sack Wenger" chorus or the one that wants "our Arsenal back," nor am I going to any time soon.
I appreciate Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. But for me, appreciation does not equal zero criticism, as some suggested about me last season, when in many articles I battled those who are quick to sing a new tune with every changing wind.
Arsenal's current state calls for objective scrutiny, but this doesn't mean that it should be done mindlessly, or without appreciation for the positive things that both Wenger and the Arsenal board have achieved.
In the past, Everton have only dreamed of becoming like Arsenal; are they about to overtake us? Getty Images.
On the other hand, it would be easy to carry the mid-table claim too far following the real result at Everton, the 1-1 draw. To do so would mean making the mid-table claim literal, but this isn't my intention.
As I explained in the second part of the article, my use of the term refers to Arsenal's form, not to any potential the team possesses.
I do not claim Arsenal will finish the current season mid table. Nor am I saying the current team can't achieve a top-four finish. If the reader understands me to be saying this, he or she has misunderstood what this series of articles is about.
I have addressed depth, loss of core players, continuity and missing pieces as part of the reasons for the current slump in Arsenal's form. Here I address what I call "Death of Inspiration," or the stagnation of vision.
Death of Inspiration
Inspiration or hope or dream is the ideal that is always ahead or that must be kept in front of the mind's eye as a guiding beacon. When this fails, life has failed in the general sense. The college student's hope or vision of himself or herself is what keeps him or her burning the midnight oil.
Ideal is the principle that guides a person, a society or an institution. Getty Images.
In terms of Arsenal, we can say this is what Arsene Wenger brought to Arsenal when he began his managerial career at the club in 1997. He brought with him a very developed sense of how the game ought to be played and how it ought to be managed.
Wenger's conviction has always been that if the effort and the practice come any closer to the ideal of the game as he conceives it, then there is no reason why Arsenal could not go on a sustained winning streak at any time.
This is the reason he claimed Arsenal could go an entire season unbeaten and was soundly mocked by the British press, only to do just that a season later.
When people say Wenger goes about things in an obstinate and unchanging manner, I suspect the reason for this is because his eye is guided by the ideal which he sees clearly before him.
Do I believe, then, that Wenger has lost his mojo? Absolutely not.
Given the right resources, even the highly-acclaimed Pep Guardiola could not show Wenger anything in terms of trophies and the sheer aesthetics of the game. This is why many clubs and national teams would be happy to have Wenger as their manager at the drop of a hat.
How the game should be played and how it should be managed are the twin factors that gave Wenger his tremendous success in his first decade at Arsenal. He was firmly on the path to knocking Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United off their perch, much like Ferguson has done to Liverpool.
(By the way, this notion of knocking Liverpool off their perch is a version of the ideal or vision to which I refer. In other words, Ferguson knew clearly what he wanted to do at Manchester United and, of course, he knew how to do it, and he had the resources and the space to do it.)
In recent past, Arsenal had several world-class players in the squad. Getty Images.
In terms of management, Wenger knew the French League in and out at a time in which many English managers had little clue about French football. If they did, they took no stock to the potential that lay therein.
This is why he brought in many quality French players at what has to be considered bargain prices: Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, etc. Couple with this, he had a broad knowledge of international football.
This yielded players like Nwankwo Kanu, Robin van Persie, Freddie Ljungberg, Marc Overmars, Jens Lehmann, Kolo Toure and Yaya Toure (who would have been an Arsenal player but for work-permit issues), among others.
In addition, Wenger brought to Arsenal the ability to bring the best out of potential and dormant talent. He is credited with prolonging the career of some of the old guards he inherited from George Graham.
He took an average Ashley Cole and made him an elite left-back, one of the best in Europe, if not the very best at some point in this Englishman's career.
Players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Kanu Nwankwo and Robin van Persie found new leases of life under Arsene Wenger. Others, like Gaël Clichy, Alex Song and Bacary Sagna, were given their chance by Wenger.
In terms of how the game is to be played, at the peak of his powers, Wenger's Arsenal were the best in Europe. We are talking about the time when Real Madrid assembled their famous Galácticos, a time when Alex Ferguson was taking England by storm and a time when this same club was way ahead of Arsenal financially.
Wenger's Arsenal (especially his Invincibles) had no equals when it came to sheer beauty on the pitch. Even Barcelona couldn't compare, because Arsenal added to their fluid passing speed and potent counterattacking football.
Even the legendary Johan Cruyff often cooed in admiration. For him, Arsenal represented the manifestation of his own vision.
...and then the stadium happened. Getty Images.
Problem at Arsenal
So what changed at Arsenal and in Wenger?
First, Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho happened at Chelsea. In little over two seasons, Mourinho spent on the Chelsea squad a great deal over what Wenger had spent on Arsenal in an entire decade.
Even the financially strong Manchester United felt the impact of this injection of sudden cash, which quickly affected the balance of things in the league. Suddenly, from two vying clubs at the top of English football—Manchester United and Arsenal, with the likes of Liverpool tagging and panting behind—now there were three.
From the bid to knock Manchester off their perch, Chelsea delivered a breath-sapping punch to Arsenal and Wenger. The effect wasn’t unlike what has occurred in the balance of things by the swift rise of Manchester City through the sudden boon the club has received from Sheikh Mansour.
Second, Arsenal decided to look to the future. Manchester United's financial dominance, and now Chelsea's through an oligarch, would continue for decades to come unless Arsenal found a solution for it.
The solution had to be a bigger ground. (I can imagine the board meeting in which Peter Hill-Wood declares, "we’re gonna need a bigger boat.") Chelsea had arrived, and Manchester United’s advantage continued; it would be a fool who didn't do something about it.
The rise of the nouveau riche like Chelsea and Manchester City has meant Arsenal have needed "a bigger boat." Getty Images.
The Emirates Stadium, which many an uninformed fan despises, is the investment the board decided to make. If you research the account of this effort, you cannot but commend Peter Hill-Wood for his vision and doggedness.
Arsenal encountered many obstacles at the planning stage of this project, even outright opposition from the club's own fans. This is a shortsighted obstinacy that dated back to even the Highbury years when Arsenal sought, under the guidance of David Dein, to expand that old ground to make it more financially viable.
Thus, it is that when I hear such shortsighted fans complain, I do not take it to heart. For these kinds of fans are like the Biblical Esau whose only vision is for the now, the soup that can be had at once, even at the detriment of what can be stored up for better future prospects.
As I pointed out in one of the parts of my van Persie and money series, as soon as the stadium was built, Arsenal suddenly jumped from a financially middling club to one of the richest in Europe.
However, the loan taken out to build the stadium had to be accounted for, and this is what has led to the lean years, which have produced no trophies in almost seven years.
The stadium in and of itself isn’t a curse to Arsenal; it is rather a big blessing.
It is what has made Arsenal an elite club in Europe, but this doesn’t mean there have been piles of cash lying around unspent. There is money in reserve, yes, but that money is still tied to the stadium debt. Moreover, that reserved money has only accrued over the last two or three seasons.
But beginning from a season ago (or even the one before it), Ivan Gazidis, Peter Hill-Wood and even Arsene Wenger began claiming there is money to spend.
The question is, if this is the case, why hasn’t the money been spent? If your parsimony in the transfer market isn’t caused by dearth of money, why, then, do you find it difficult to buy reinforcement for the squad or give substantial pay rise to players who deserve it?
If, as Stan Kroenke declared at the last meeting with supporters, he and the board haven’t said that there isn’t money to spend, why, then, was there need to sell Alex Song? Arsenal clearly didn’t need the money since, according to these managers, there was money to spend.
If there is money to spend, why is the club still haggling over Theo Walcott’s wages?
I’m not saying the club should give to players every of their demand, but £15,000 difference in weekly wages, where there’s truly money to spend, makes little sense to me when this leads to the loss of an important player, a player Arsenal have nurtured and invested hugely in over several years.
This difference, if spending means there’s a chance that this can bring stability to the squad and stop the bleeding in talent that has beset Arsenal over the last few seasons, would seem justified to me.
(After all, isn’t it in this light that Manchester United's huge investment in Robin van Persie can be accounted for?)
Other clubs spend extra to ensure that their legacy and their dream is sustained. Getty Images.
When I began the series on Podolski and the new era, it was because of my understanding (based on the aforementioned proclamations) that the worst of the lean years were behind Arsenal. That now Arsenal could spend a little more money, even if still not comparable to what the powerhouses of the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea could spend.
My sense is that many Arsenal fans understand Arsenal still cannot compete (at least not at the moment) with these three clubs. However, they also believe that if indeed there’s now a little money to spend, it should be spent.
Such monies should be used to buy replacements for players like Alex Song, where it has been necessary that this player, for one reason or the other, had to be sold.
If there’s money to spend, it makes no sense to cling stringently to penny-pinching when there’s clearly the need to upgrade the squad both in making sure that senior and core players are retained where this is possible and in bringing in quality signings.
In this latter sense, Wenger did well in the swift purchase of the three new players over the summer. Where he failed is in allowing Song to leave for pittance and in failing to buy a replacement for him, gambling instead on the unfortunate Abou Diaby, a great player, but who seems to be cursed by injury issues.
By “Death of Inspiration,” then, I mean a situation where Wenger appears to have forgotten why he came to Arsenal in the first place—to knock Manchester United off their perch.
Yes (and I have acknowledged it), the building of the stadium, while all along making sure that Arsenal isn’t bankrupt, was the right move to make. Yes, sacrifice has been needed to achieve this goal.
My question, however, to both Wenger and the board is, if indeed the worst of the years are now behind us and there is money to spend as they’ve been claiming for a while now, why does Wenger feel the need he has to continue pinching pennies?
I do not say we should go and spend as wildly as Chelsea and PSG have done even this last summer; everyone with sense knows we still cannot compete with these sort of clubs.
At the same time, though, there is no reason why we should not spend a block of money, where it is necessary, for the sake of giving us realistic chances of competing with our opponents.
If you have money and you don’t spend it to patch up the obvious holes that everyone (including Wenger himself) can see, then I wonder what this vision (the ideal that has led us well) is turning into. I’d say it is fast becoming an end in itself.
This, needless to say, is very dangerous.
The time has come for the current ideal to yield to the original vision. Getty Images.
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