In the past eight weeks Arsenal’s season has crashed to earth harder than a ballet-dancing Philippe Senderos, and they have taken about as long to pick themselves up again.
Arsenal competed bravely for two trophies this season, but faltered at the wrong time. In being eliminated from the Champions League by Liverpool, and stuttering in the Premier League before being put out of their misery by Manchester United last weekend, they showed their lack of strength in depth and lack of experience.
The fatal blows were delivered by Fernando Torres and Cristiano Ronaldo, the season’s two outstanding hitmen, both now reaching their peak at this crucial stage of the season.
Arsenal fans are wondering where their own executioner is.
There is not much that needs to be changed in North London, but for the first time is recent memory there have been murmurings among fans questioning the great man at their helm.
Arsenal are of course, victims of their own success, and not only this season. Last summer few fans expected them to challenge for the title; the pleasant surprise of seeing Arsenal set the season’s pace before Christmas was quickly replaced with a sense of expectancy after Christmas. It is a problem Wenger has brought upon himself.
By winning trophies so regularly over more than a decade at the club, and by playing some of the finest football ever seen in Britain, Wenger has raised a generation of new Arsenal fans accustomed to success.
The same fans drawn to Arsenal by the trophies are the fans now grumbling under their breath about their manager; anyone who watched George Graham’s teams grind out endless 1-0 scorelines twenty years ago will know better than to complain about Arsene’s Arsenal.
While the neutrals and the purists can enjoy the style without worrying about the score, some corners of the Emirates are now making noises about a little less style and a little more success.
Wenger has long been the purest purist of them all. His dedication to playing entertaining and attacking football is legendary; in the wake of Arsenal’s collapse this season he reiterated his commitment to winning "the right way."
This purism applies to matters on and off the pitch. Two years ago he labelled Chelsea’s endless riches "financial doping," a way of undermining the fairness of the league; and throughout his career has steadfastly refused to compete financially with Europe’s big clubs.
He has spent only occasionally, and usually on youngsters for the future. In the past Arsenal have not had the resources to compete financially but that is no longer the case.
Years of success under Wenger allowed Arsenal to make the expensive move to the Emirates, and spending was restricted for several years. Now the revenues from the two-year old Emirates Stadium are beginning to drip down; soon it will become a torrent.
Arsenal were named the fifth richest club in the world in the latest rankings by the accountants Deloitte; their turnover of £264.2m in their first season at the Emirates was a 50% increase from the year before.
The revenue from each home match tops £3m.
To put that in context, the club now make more money from the corporate boxes at the Emirates than they made from the whole of Highbury. As if that wasn’t enough, Highbury is now being converted into luxury apartments which will eventually net the club over £100m.
So there is money available for Wenger to spend: the Managing Director, Keith Edelman, has publicly stated that there is over £70m for new players. It is unusual for a football club to publicly announce the amount they can spend on new players, for fear of driving up the price of any transfer targets.
Though the board have faith in Wenger, it seems they are keen to let the fans know that any decision not to spend is Wenger’s decision alone. Wenger’s commitment to nurturing young players and growing teams, as opposed to buying established stars, is a noble pursuit.
What better way to win than with players schooled in the club’s distinctive style, moulded together through the youth teams, all while playing the most attractive football in Europe?
However, success brings pressure, and the hope of a trophy this season has brought the demand of one next year.
Arsenal fans love their manager, and the way he plays the game, but how many would dispute that if Wenger had spent the £20m plus on Fernando Torres last year (or a player of his calibre), they would now be preparing for a Champions League semi final rather than their summer holidays?
Wenger would dearly love to see his idealism triumph over the kind of pragmatism epitomised by Liverpool and Chelsea, but all fans want to win trophies, and Arsenal fans are no different. The point has come where Wenger must be realistic.
Arsenal were nearly good enough this season. They will be strong again next season, and their youngsters will be stronger for the experience of this season, but so will their rivals.
Their realistic challengers for next year’s Premier League are all playing Champions League semi finals this week; and they will certainly improve their squads this summer.
Until Arsenal do the same, competing with the top European clubs to buy quality and experience, they will continue to fall short.
Second place, no matter how beautiful, is still second.
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