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Guest Post: Arsenal, at a Critical Crossroads?

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Guest Post: Arsenal, at a Critical Crossroads?
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In today’s post, Saloner, a regular contributor on Stone Cold Arsenal shares his thoughts about the Gunners’ elusive road to success.

He feels that one way lies a realistic attempt at honours; the other way lies the spectre of fan revolt. The choice, of course, contingent on the players’ efforts over the remainder of the season. What do you think?

This guest post, a response to Darius’s kind invitation allowing me a column on this excellent blog, is the first in what I hope will be a long, educative, and entertaining exchange with its readers.

Writing in the aftermath of the Liverpool game, I’ve decided to commence with a summation of the zeitgeist as I see it.

Being six points behind the league leaders, with arguably a relatively kinder run of games going forward, is heartening. The coming run of games will be a litmus test of the team’s character.

The Gunners have been the object of contempt from their rivals, the press, and sections of their own fan base; yet, given effort and luck, they have the chance to set the record straight by launching a serious assault on the title.

One, I imagine, can scarcely hope for greater motivation. This isn’t unfamiliar terrain either: Arsenal clawed 11 points back after the loss to Chelsea earlier in the season.

That brings me to my biggest frustration with regard to this team: inconsistency.

Through every season in the course of recent development, Arsenal put together neat little unbeaten runs, most crucially when chasing down and then over taking Villa for the fourth spot last season. They have also undone all that good work with numerous abject performances.

Perhaps putting together a determined run in a hunt for the title, regardless of outcome, is just the psychological boost the Gunners need to free themselves of this malaise. We’ll see.

Taking the longer perspective, there are issues about Arsenal that hearten and worry me in equal measure.

It is wonderful that in a time of global economic troubles, we are a business that is in the black; more so as we’ve moved to a new stadium as good as, if not better, than any in the business.

Over the same period, we have also rebuilt a team from scratch while ensuring crucial Champions’ League revenues every season. That’s to juggle three balls, a fact not sufficiently appreciated by those already calling curtains on Wenger’s time.

Yes, we last won a trophy in 2005. The fact that we can yet stretch the title chase down to the wire this season, without needing a benefactor to “convert debt to equity ” (please consider what that implies), or requiring fresh bond issues on the back of mortgaged stadia, to juggle our debts, is commendable.

There’s one thing, though, that worries me about our current situation—the time yet allowed to see this Wenger project through to completion.

The biggest determinant of that, in my view, is financial. The investment in our stadium, and by extension our brand, is a bet on one thing: The ability to sell seats, TV programming, and merchandise, without resorting to discounting.

Arsenal aims to achieve this financial balance by offering football that not only makes for a great spectacle, but is also contending for honours both domestic and European. A season without Champions’ League funds might not be a disaster.

However, given the increasing number of credible contenders, quite a few not constrained by the need to balance books, once we fail to qualify, getting back into the Champions League might not be all that easy.

Every season without European action definitely means financial strain, compounded by the fact that the marginal “customer” might well not be willing to turn up forcing us to discount our offerings even further. There’s every risk that this will be a negative spiral.

A related issue is player morale: With every season that passes by without honours, the temptation for our most valuable players to consider other options becomes the stronger. It isn’t a question of just a player’s personal loyalty; it is a question of the motivation of “advisors”, agents, and the like, encouraged by “enquiries” from other clubs, having more ammunition to sway a player’s mind.

It’ll be tragic to lose players at this stage of the team’s progress. Life won’t end; but it will, at least in the case of the critical players, be a blow.

Much is made of the long waiting list for season tickets, among other things. But I believe that the loyal support which you can count on to turn up isn’t remotely sufficient to support the financial requirements of a club with our ambitions.

I’m willing to wager that over the past couple of seasons, those waiting lists have grown shorter in proportion to increasing disillusionment, right or wrong, about the team’s progress.

Football today, is a spectacle, and a substantial part of the revenues, perforce, arise from “customers” (as described last week by Darius ) happy only to bask in the glory of success. It is tempting to wish that they take their custom elsewhere, but the financial impact might well be crippling, if not fatal.

Staying in the Premier League will not be the problem; jostling for space at the top of the table will certainly be.

Do note that these worries are contingent on football remaining detached from financial realities for some time to come. I do think that sooner, rather than later, painful reality will prick the bubble and bring club management, especially the benefactor backed ones, back to earth.

Until such time, one is constrained to deal with the situation without hopefully being consumed by the recklessness of it all; something Arsenal has admirably managed to do so far.

Coming to the team itself, the pace of our defensive development, both psychological and tactical, has been far too slow for my taste. It is the more disappointing aspect as barring Almunia, we have staffed our first choice defence very well.

I’m tempted to say, and often do, that Wenger doesn’t drill this aspect of the game enough. But that’s just opinion.

Given that Eboue, Toure, Senderos, and Flamini could go a good 1000 minutes unbreached in the 2006 Champions’ league campaign; given the tidy spells of unbeaten runs we’ve put together in patches every season since that 2006 campaign; and given that the first choice back four today are man for man, at least as good, if not better than that 2006 Champions league line up, we should, given a little application, be doing much better.

I think it is a question of instilling the responsibility to defend, from right up top, into the entire team. I’d be surprised, especially after the disappointments of this season to date, if Wenger hasn’t already taken a hard look at the issue. I back him to sort things out.

As for buying players, a first choice goalkeeper is a must, if only to buy time for the development of Fabianski, Mannone, and Szczesny. In my view, Almunia doesn’t cut it. I’m not even hoping for the Buffons of this world; just a steadier hand on average, a la the Jaaskelainen’s of this world, will do.

Much has been made about the need for a proper centre forward to cover for Van Persie. That’s a trickier question. Injuries have wrecked havoc with Eduardo and Bendtner. Given we have Walcott and Vela as understudies, the risk of over staffing that part of the team is significant.

What’s the answer? I don’t know and I’m glad I don’t have to figure it out. Chamakh on a free might well prove tempting, even given the wage bill.

Given Djourou’s unfortunate injury record, it would be prudent to have another centre half to back the first choice pair up. Depending on a sustained run from either Campbell or Sylvester isn’t prudent in my opinion.

Gallas and Vermaelen remaining available, virtually always, has been one of the blessings of this season. I don’t want to further tempt fate on that front.

All of these make the remainder of this season crucial in very many respects. Pull through it well, and Arsenal will buy time. Fail and I think a general clamour will arise forcing action on a lot of fronts starting with Wenger’s position at the club.

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