Arsenal at Crossroads: The Demise of Ambition at the London Club

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Arsenal at Crossroads: The Demise of Ambition at the London Club
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When Manchester City won the Premier League last season in dramatic fashion on the final day of the campaign, it was, for Manchester United, a calamity of universal proportion.

I imagine that, had that most preeminent of England's song-makers been alive, the naturalized Englishman, Handel, United would have commissioned him to write a lamentation, something akin to the one the composer wrote for the funeral of Queen Caroline.

Even now I can hear the first accents of the lamentation: "The ways of Zion mourn," or rather, "The fans of Devils mourn."

Right after City's triumph, there was talk of taking "our title” back the very next season. For Manchester United, their very name is synonymous with the Premiership title to the extent that any thought of not winning it every season is anathema.

That's the color of ambition.

When the Glazers waltzed into town and muddled things up for a while, the crisis for United fans wasn't just that the club might run into financial ruin, it was more the thought of not winning titles again, a most distressing thought.

As long as title winning would continue, the fans, I suppose, cared less who the owner of the club was. It could be anybody: an American entrepreneur, a Saudi prince, or a Russian oligarch. You name it, it mattered little. What mattered, again, was the title.

Thus it was that as soon as the Glazers got their priorities right, putting money where their mouth was, the din about who owned what at United had died down.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
The Glazers dipped deep to bring a new hero to Manchester.

And why not?

Wasn't it the Glazers who dipped deep into their pocket to finance the Robin van Persie deal? The importance of the title was such that an immediate response had to be given to the upstarts down the street.

The noisy neighbors had to be silenced.

To do that, Sir Alex Ferguson searched far and wide for a potent striker, someone to give them a harvest of goals, a necessary move to forestall losing the title ever again through goal difference.

Having scoured the four corners of our planet, and since there was no way they could get the planet's two best strikers (Messi and Ronaldo) to come to their rescue, they settled for the next best thing, the darling of their rival in the south: Arsenal. And just like that, Robin van Persie was gone.

As I tell the story, Manchester United sits comfortably on the summit of the Premiership table. The neck-to-neck race of last season has yet to commence, and unless United fumbles, it is unlikely to be run at all.

The instant response has been given. And as to the question regarding who the real master between the two clubs is, the immediate answer is there for all to see. What's more, United already have avenged their last season home loss to their city rival.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Fine building...but what's next?

Now contrast the foregoing with Arsenal.

Immediately, a cloud of distress descends among the fans, for the ambition the fans thought would be evident this year isn't evident at all.

Let's recall the story:

Last season, Arsenal had their worst start in ages, a near calamitous beginning that threatened to cost them their seasonal top-four finish. The distressing beginning to the season that included an 8-2 mauling at the hand of Manchester United prompted their hesitant manager to make a flurry of last-minute purchases on the last day of the transfer window.

Those purchases averted the disaster to which the club was clearly headed. As events would have it, Arsenal managed to finish third in the Premiership table, and in doing so avoided being notched down  and out of the Champions League slot for the coming season by Chelsea, who, against all odds, had gone on to win the Champions League title.

Having redeemed the season, it was clear to the fans what needed to be done at Arsenal: consolidate the squad by making key signings to add strength and depth to the squad. They knew that only in so doing would Arsenal build upon their achievement in the just concluded season.

Robin van Persie needed to be retained first of all. But when the Dutchman made unreasonable demands, the fans got behind the club management and didn't cast blame when the Dutchman was sold. If there was any complaint, it was that he was sold to our bitterest rival.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Ferguson headed for triumph yet again in the league.

The story is known to everyone.

Sir Alex Ferguson made a special phone call in his attempt to sign the Dutchman, a phone call which, they say, led to the deal being completed between the two clubs.

Despite the Van Persie sale, Arsenal fans were still hopeful. Why, Arsenal had just acted decisively in the transfer market by signing three important players.  And with both Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby returning from injury, Arsenal looked to have one of the strongest (if not the strongest) midfields in the league.

Yes, Van Persie was gone, but with a midfield like it promised to be, the goals were bound to come.

Then something happened that represented the writing on the wall for this writer. Out of the blue, Arsene Wenger and the club turned around and sold one of the most productive players of the just concluded season—Alex Song—and then relaxed. No attempt was made to sign a replacement.

Amidst the chatter that followed, it was clear to this writer that the ambition that he was hoping to see, the turning point in the ongoing story of Arsenal—a story that had a great deal to do with economizing for the sake of the stadium—would not be forthcoming.

I didn't have to be a soothsayer to know that the team would yet again struggle rather than push for something significant as the fans had hoped.

Yes, Abou Diaby was coming back, but Diaby has had a terrible history with injury. It amounted to foolishness to sell one of your best players in the hope that he would be replaced by Diaby, a world-class player if fit, but sadly a player (through no fault of his) unable to stay fit.

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It is not ambition to groom a players for years only to sell him at the flimsiest of excuses.

I could only put Song's sale down to one thing.

Presumably, the management had asked the manager to sell the player in order to recoup some of the money spent in buying the three new players who had been brought in. Couple that amount with the one from the sale of Van Persie, and one sees that the club had not really been willing to spend any money at all, not really.

In other words, the management wasn't at all ready to incur any financial pain. To buy, Wenger had to sell.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but that’s the only way I can explain Song's sale. The flimsy reasons given for his sale were just that. If it was a forced sale, why wasn’t a replacement bought? Common sense would demand that, one would think.

Having recounted the above, though, I should like to draw a few conclusions.

First, this season was clearly the turning point for the club in terms of the stadium years and consolidation. This is so because Ivan Gazidis and even Wenger have insisted on countless occasions that the club has money to spend.

This has meant that the club is crossing the bridge between not being able to spend and doing so within a reasonable parameter.

One therefore expected the club to spend in the summer, and spend it did in the purchase of the aforementioned three players. In doing so, one saw a glimpse of nascent ambition from the management and the manager.

However, the sale of Song soon revealed the true color of things at the club: No bridge had been crossed, and statements about money to spend where simply a PR stunt. Things, apparently, would continue in their conservative manner in the foreseeable future.

Second, in terms of the above assumption that the club was crossing a bridge to a new era, the cash in reserve lends some support.

Yes, that reserve is still for the stadium, but that we have the reserve means that we cannot suddenly collapse financially. It also means that any extra cash can be put into the maintenance of a strong squad.

Practically, this means that the sale of Song was unwarranted. It also means that we could prevent any more high-profile departures from happening.

Third, I have cited Manchester United's reaction to losing "their title" to contrast that with how things are at Arsenal at present. Currently, we have no one jealous for footballing matters. Gazidis might make pronouncement, but at heart he seems merely to be a business man.

Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Once, the color of ambition was very clear at Arsenal.

In the days before Kroenke—the days when Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith was still on the board, the days before the death of Danny Fiszman, the days of David Dein—we had Englishmen and women, Londoners, local people extremely jealous for the club. Arsenal was not just a matter of business; Arsenal was about the now and the future, as well.

This jealousy led to planning for the future. But I doubt that were Fiszman still alive, this apparent turn to merely business in the guise of planning for the future would continue. Pride would not allow it. There is the pride of Londoners (southerners) against Northerners (the Manchester clubs), and there is the pride in terms of the control of the city.

It is such pride that leads a management to go the extra mile to do what is necessary to improve a club's chances. This pride seems to be gone.

It cannot be recovered because the owner, for example, isn't a footballing man. He cannot react to the sport the way he would to an American sport, say baseball or college football, something rooted in the culture itself.

For him, soccer is merely business. I can't see that he'd be distressed about Arsenal losing to any of its rivals, whereas for a true footballing man, it is a thing of pride, a thing of tradition, never to lose to that “other” club.

It is such pride that led Manchester United to react to City winning its first Premiership title the way it did. Because of this pride, Manchester United can do anything to stop City from repeating the feat. Such a pride would prompt Arsenal to react to Chelsea being the first London club to win the Champions League.

As it happened, what was the management's reaction? Weakening the squad, simply so that the club could recoup its money.

Having said all this, I should say that I am still a believer in Arsenal's vision, but only to the extent that it is a vision at all. I have a sense that the vision has been high-jacked. I doubt that those at the helm at the moment still have the vision before them.

Clive Rose/Getty Images
Football needs to regain focus at Arsenal.

If I'm wrong, the onus is on them to prove otherwise.

Arsenal need to rise.

If we have put the stadium years behind us, then we need to act appropriately. We need to buy decisively even if still wisely. We need to consolidate our squad. We need to be a little more brutal with unproductive players.

We need to react on the side of caution rather than on the side optimism. For example, assume that Diaby will get injured and get an additional player rather than gamble that he will not and be sorry.

Refuse to sell a player you've groomed for years and have no need or compulsion to sell. Compare your best XI with that of your rivals and see whether or not man-to-man you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. If not, you must act decisively to remain competitive.

Finally, I'd advise Arsene Wenger to push a little more for the footballing side.

He has been a faithful servant to Arsenal and its vision, but if indeed I'm right that we are putting the stadium years behind us, then we have to start acting like it, and this applies first and foremost to Wenger. He has to push for better players.

In doing so, Arsenal will not only revive, he, himself, will safeguard his legacy at Arsenal.

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