Arsenal’s transfer policy has been a mystery to fans for years and has attracted widespread media derision this summer, but with the £42m signing of German playmaker Mesut Ozil, the main protagonist may have delivered a telling blow in the final act.
However, the tumultuous summer endured by the fans and the relative lack of success over the last eight years will not be erased by one signing. Current levels of Ozil-induced euphoria will naturally diminish and the spotlight will again shift to the manager, the team and ultimately, the results.
Nevertheless, there are wider issues for fans to consider. Reflecting on Wenger’s actions over the summer months and the direction the game has taken in general, generates some searching questions on how we view Arsenal as a football club and an institution.
What does Arsenal stand for and how truly does the club uphold the ideals of sport in general and the beautiful game in particular?
Irrespective of squad depth, league position, trophies accumulated (and we all agree this must improve), there are more fundamental reasons for optimism and pride.
Stagnation or Evolution – Wenger on the Precipice
Season 2013-14, the eighteenth of Arsene Wenger’s reign in North London, may prove to be one of the most significant in the club’s long and illustrious history.
Wenger’s overwhelming and obsessive desire to improve the club at all levels (a noble venture), has inadvertently diminished the first team. Most fans patience wore thin with this strategy a number of years ago. The manager has presided over a period where key players have routinely been sold, followed by a chronic lack of reinvestment.
Now that this trend appears to have been arrested with the managers overt willingness to pursue elite level players, the key question is this: will the insipid acceptance of fourth place be consigned to the past? Does the fire to be a champion continue to burn?
Arsene Wenger’s legacy is in tact, how much further he wishes to decorate it appears entirely dependent on this season. Should he succeed - and we can define success as a strong challenge for the title and the latter stages of the Champions League - it is entirely plausible that 2005-2013 will be remembered as a painful but necessary developmental period. Should he fail, those years are likely to be recorded as the beginnings of a painful descent into mediocrity.
Reasons to be cheerful #1 - The Welcome Re-emergence of Aaron Ramsey
The recent European obsession with African footballers in the holding midfield role can be partially explained by their physiological attributes. The prevailing stereotype has been for the muscular defensive midfielder but times change. Aaron’s early season form has been exemplary.
He’s not a holding midfielder, he’s a no 10 and he’s not physically imposing but he may be exactly what Arsenal need this term. A technically proficient all round midfielder, who can be nine of out ten in every department. He is perhaps the perfect foil for Wilshere, Ozil and Cazorla. As the Welshman explains, confidence is at the root of his revival.
“I’m enjoying myself and I’m very confident at the moment, the injury took time to get over mentally”
Reasons to be cheerful # 2 - Olivier Giroud
The Frenchman appears to have found his place within the team. He provides a different option, (an out ball)and his ability to bring others into the game will be important in the coming season.
Above all, he is a finisher, who can score all kinds of goals.
There were glimpses of this last season but as with Ramsey, he has built some early season momentum, a force which can never be underestimated. If he looks behind, and to the side, he will see a supply chain equal to almost anything in Europe. Expect 25 goals this term.
Reasons to be cheerful # 3
Victory over Spurs. Always welcome.
Is the squad really so weak? – Comparative analysis
“Our current squad are top quality players, you must never forget that” – Arsene Wenger
Arsenal fans are forever being told the squad is not strong enough to compete for the title or the Champions League. It’s not unreasonable to suggest this view is widely held within the core support either. Common criticisms are lack of experience and quality in key positions. Well, to this observer those criticisms can appear hollow.
|Team||Total no. in 1st team squad||Av. age of squad||Total no. int'l caps|
The table above shows that the key issue is not big game experience or quality, but strength in depth, an area where the vagaries of fortune have impacted adversely.
No one can deny that Arsenal have been disproportionately affected by injuries to key players, a trend which shows no signs of abating with the recent hamstring tear suffered by Podolski. With a slice of luck, the squad will remain intact through 2012-13.
While some might argue the squad should have been augmented to offset this possibility, we have to accept that the manager refuses to jeopardise the balance of the group by bringing in recruits for the sake of it.
Like it or not, this is his stated and incontrovertible position:
“If we can add players to who can integrate with our style of play we will do it…if we cannot we will not do anything stupid, just for the sake of saying we have done something” – Aug ‘13
Limitations of an Omnipotent Purist
The tsunami of dissent which emanated from elements of the support towards Wenger over the summer was predictable, understandable and borne of passion for the club.
However, most of it was illogical and a pointless waste of energy. His principled stance on team building, financial fair play, the style of play and the long term sustainability of the club is not going to change. Period.
It is fair to say he does not endear himself to a section of the support when he says “trophies are only one way to judge a club”, because most fans are unconcerned with balancing the books, shareholder dividends or emerging youth players. We demand success. Yesterday.
Wenger has a puritanical streak which can be self defeating, but his achievements and legacy are his own and have not been underwritten by sheiks, tycoons and oligarchs. In fifty years time, when the EPL bubble has burst, Arsenal fans will be extremely proud of this.
However these admirable qualities have limitations, which have manifested themselves on the pitch over the last few years.
Marcello Lippi a manager of strength and standing, hinted that a principled approach can always have a degree of flexibility when he said:
“I have no certainties but I have strong convictions”,
Wenger seems to think the opposite. He has only certainties, whether this be in style of play or his approach to the transfer market, making him appear inflexible and intransigent.
“Your actions must be dictated by your conscience, not opinion polls.”
His unfailing belief and adherence to a strategy that has yielded no silverware in eight years lead to calls from groups such as Arsenal Supporters Trust for his contract talks to be put on hold. However, the signing of Ozil and the pursuit of players such as Di Maria, Benzema, Higuain and Luis Gustavo provided the first indication of a slight change in club policy.
In May this year the journalist James Lawton suggested Arsenal were:
“A team geared to making a profit rather than reaching the peaks of the game”.
However, Wenger - who calls Arsenal the “club of my life” - takes his role as custodian for future generations extremely seriously. He has refused to risk the long term future of an institution he holds in high regard though the season 2012-13 is sure to reveal whether there is any truth to Lawton’s cutting assertion. Wenger will either achieve tangible success or the board will have a decision to make at the end of the campaign.
Were Arsenal to win the title this season, and that is admittedly a long way off despite the signing of Ozil, it would be one of the greatest achievements in the modern English game.
Those who suggest the manager does not understand the pain experienced by the supporters are surely labouring under a misapprehension. In the ‘Italian Job’ by Gabriel Marcotti and Gianluca Vialli he is quoted as follows:
“If we lose a game, I always look at the faces of our fans after the match as they begin to head home. And what I see in their eyes is above all pain and disappointment.”
The desire for success remains. The squad, while not the biggest, is high on quality. If Arsenal are in the hunt at Christmas time and can add a striker in January, the club with the most solid foundations of all might just find that success on the pitch and balanced books can co-exist in the modern global game.