Why Does It Feel Like Arsenal Are Still Stuck In 2012?
By Michael Ronald, Editor
With the impending sale of Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United, many Arsenal fans are left questioning the path their club has taken since selling Robin Van Persie to the same rival in 2012.
It was certainly supposed to be different. Arsenal would not sell their best players to their direct rivals once their debt to The Emirates Stadium project had been cleared. That was the resigned rigmarole floating around North London over the past 12 years. Loyal Gooners had to endure the sight of the superlatively talented members of their squad abandoning ship in a series of desertions. It was painful to see the likes of Ashley Cole, Nasri, Van Persie, Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song pitching up and move for pastures anew. Worse were their publicised reasons; Arsenal don’t compete for the top titles, Arsenal is not a football club conducive to accumulating trophies, they lack a champions mentality and so on. Finally, worst of all was the fact, not opinion but fact, that these players were proven right. With the exception of Adebayor, all the players who departed the Emirates have become winners of league titles; Arsenal are yet to win a title since 2004.
Supposedly, this phase of minimal spending and asset selling was concluded. With the purchase of Mesut Ozil in 2013 and Sanchez in 2014, Arsenal had turned the corner and were once again the destination for marquee players. They would challenge for the League and Champions League and become a force to be reckoned with again.
January 2018 lays bare all the empty hollowness of the above promises. Once again, Arsenal are in a position to sell their best player to one of their purported rivals for the sake of a few quid. Either Manchester United or Manchester City will prise the mesmeric Alexis Sanches from the Emirates, disdainfully chucking a $35 Million payment in return. One of these clubs broke the world transfer record to buy a player they themselves had let go. Another spent over $60 Million for a single defender. A player who can score goals, create them, cause havoc and panic in the opposition and who is innately a leader, a force of will is a steal for $35 million, regardless of his age. Arsenal’s only other world class player, Mesut Ozil, will, in all likelihood, leave Arsenal on a free transfer in the summer, probably to Manchester United and a Mourinho contemptuous of Arsenal’s lack of gumption.
All these player exits follow a pattern; refuse Arsenal’s contract extension and agitate to leave the club while the manager denies that such an exit is impossible. Then the manager admits that while the player ‘might leave’ , he can still sign the generous contract extension Arsenal have offered (they never do). As the days draw closer to a free transfer, Arsenal buckle and accept whatever is offered. Modus Operandi for Arsenal. Just another day in the office at the Emirates.
A more time consuming and wasteful exercise is hard to imagine in Football. As Arsenal have learnt to their cost, an unhappy player is a disruptive influence over the course of the season that he is made to play in an environment he wants to escape. Alexis Sanchez has been well below his best this season and has been accused of being a corrosive influence in the dressing room. That’s partly understandable, as this is a player who performs with his heart on his sleeve. He must believe in why he’s playing, the team and the trophies they are aiming for. When that belief dies, he goes through the motions, the way many regular folks show up reluctantly for work when they inherently know that they want to leave. Such a talent with high expectations isn’t a pleasant experience for his team-mates, many of whom will feel insulted that he wants to leave a team that, in his opinion (and many’s), is just not good enough for any substantial trophy.
All the while, the questions about his exit and the next possible destination bounce about. Wenger has hardly walked into a press conference this season without inevitably fielding a question about Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. A distracting and pointless exercise, the focus of the team and the whole is sacrificed upon the altar of a few. All this just to keep a player from doing what he wishes to do, which in this case is to leave.
Clinging onto a want-away player is a fruitless and negative exercise in futility. If someone has decided that you cannot give them what they desire, it is better to let them depart in peace. A bigger cheque is cashed, replacements can be found with meticulous scouting and timely integration and the team moves on together. Instead, a cut-price amount is collected (Manchester City offered Arsenal $60 Million in the summer), a player more desperate to escape the club than a prisoner does Alcatraz is relieved and a suitable alternative is hurriedly signed, if only to ease the betrayed anger of the fans. The time frame is too scarce to negotiate a better price, a young buck with ‘potential’ is brought in to replace a proven player and the manager and board of directors continue their bumbling work as before, congratulating themselves on a deal well struck which made them some money. Better than nothing, right?
Not according to the fans. Mention Robin Van Persie to a Gooner and he will ward off the evil eye. The memory of him being accorded a guard of honour at the Emirates to a league triumph he could not achieve with Arsenal summed up the malaise in North London in 2013. Piers Morgan, bloated piece of sanctimonious clap-trap that he is, hit the nail on the head by questioning the lack of Wenger’s accountability in selling their best player and captain to a hated rival. Now, once again, Arsenal fans are summoning up the willpower to tolerate or at least, peacefully hate the sight of Sanchez in the famed red shirt of England’s most successful club. This was supposed to be a relic of the tough times, apparently consigned to history. They’ve waited it out, suffering taunts and jibes at their team’s lack of decisiveness, their soft underbelly and the management’s haphazard efforts at building a successful football club.
The pivotal word here is ‘successful’. For in the eyes of the Arsenal board, they have been quite accomplished. The Premier League TV bullion has poured more money into their pockets and their net spend on players have been miserly. As a disgruntled Arsenal fan summed it up on the now-infamous AFTV, Huddersfield have spent more than Arsenal this year. Huddersfield, a newly promoted team with no actual ambition beyond staying in the Premier League have invested more in their squad than a team with apparent Champions League aspirations. The Board is happy with the way Wenger performs, as long as the cheques keep pouring in.
The fans think differently. They work hard all week, with an eye on the weekend games to demonstrate their love for Arsenal and feel a part of the community. They pay considerably higher ticket prices at the Emirates, becoming in the process the most fleeced supporters in England, if not Europe. They then watch their team wither and fall away, repetitively, with numerous humiliations and unexpected losses. A defeat is a terrible thing to take into office on Monday, and for those Gooners who have seen the glory days of the ‘invincibles’, this current team has about about much resemblance to an Arsenal team as David Moyes did to an actual Manchester United manager. Arsenal have not been in the Title race with anything more than the remotest chance of success since the mid 2000’s. These fans save their hard earned money for a few hours of happiness every weekend and consistently, over 13 years, have been let down by Arsenal’s board, their manager and their players.
Consider the regular fan at The Emirates. He (I’m averaging out the sex here) has seen Title collapses as early as February, witnessed ignominious performances against Europe’s best and disgraceful reverses to their biggest rivals over the past 13 years. He has seen Chelsea, another neighbour, steamroll ahead with their cheque books to capture repeated League titles and even a Champions League crown. He has a wary, albeit scornful, eye on the more immediate chaps next door, Tottenham, making significant progress under a youthful manager with new ideas, as Wenger himself once was. All this was endured with the promise that Arsenal would once again compete at the top, sign better players than Bendtner and Yaya Sanogo (What were they thinking!) and win something of note. Winning three FA Cups over this spell, which, for all intents and purposes, is not a major trophy unless you’re a mid table team. Which is exactly what Wenger has turned the ‘Invincibles’ into.
Who is accountable for this let down of promises more suited to an Indian politician? Accountability, another key word, is a mirage at The Emirates. We would have thought that with the failure to qualify for Europe’s top league last year, the time had finally come to let him go. As easy-going as the Arsenal Board are, even they couldn’t ignore such a failure of achievement. Top Four is the minimum yearly goal for a big club, which Arsenal still kept up the gamely pretence that they are. The tired ‘But he gets us into the Champions League every year’ rationale (if you could call it that) spouted by Wenger-In loyalists – both amongst the fans and the Board- for years get silenced. Arsene gets thanked for his years of service, celebrates a great send-off and maybe a statue happens one day in the future. Incredulously to the rest of the footballing world, he was awarded a further two-year contract, at an increased salary, to top it off.
Consider this for a moment if you will. It is you, failing to achieve the objectives set at the beginning of the year, being offered a promotion instead of being shown the door. It is the clap on the back from the boss, with a hearty laugh and an attitude more interested in keeping the status quo than in taking the company forward. Arsenal, in May of last year, became football’s government job, where any failure, short of corruption or embezzlement, was perfectly understandable. And why would Arsene need to embezzle when he gets paid top dollar?
Louis Van Gaal was sacked after two seasons from Manchester United despite winning the FA Cup and finishing in fifth place. Wenger received a contract extension and a bonus for doing the exact same thing, having been at the club for a previous 20 odd years. When this author pointed out the disparity in the way two clubs treated managers with the same achievements, i.e. Manchester United and Arsenal, he received the usual vitriol and litany of excuses from Arsenal fans. The lack of progress did not bother them, because Wenger ‘changed football’ and they are ‘loyal’, unlike the feckless United fans. The fact that Wenger still had such stalwart defenders was a surprise but it shouldn’t be.
For the accountability begins with them, the Gooners. For more than a decade, they sat back and accepted that their team were also-rans, with the lack of money being mourned as the reason. ‘You need money to win the Title’, they said. Leicester sure proved them right. Then it became about the treacherous players who left, those snakes, ‘Cash’ley and Van Persie. That had absolutely nothing to do with Arsene’s man-management or his complete inability to make these players believe in a future vision or plan. Those players were just greedy mercenaries. There was minimal responsibility on the manager for the tired, tactical nous which is repeatedly let down at a higher level. What about Arsenal’s shambolic record in the Champions League since 2006 that they so fervently qualify for? Never the managers fault in the least. How can they compete with Barcelona & Bayern Munich? They also lost to AC Milan and Monaco during this wretched run, but let’s brush those aside; It’s the 10-2 aggregate loss to Bayern Munich that sticks out in their head. Obviously they didn’t have enough money to compete in it. When you give someone complete license to embarrass you and humiliate you for years, accepting their half-baked apologies and trifling excuses, it’s a bit incongruous to suddenly expect them to change. As one fan on AFTV put it, ‘We’re in a bad marriage where we’re just staying together for the kids’ . This is completely faulty and more than a bit flattering for the fans. You’re in a bad marriage cause you’ve let it become one, accepting terrible justifications and more than your fair share of complacency. Their belief in their own helplessness and irrelevance to the powers-that-be at Arsenal are symptomatic of a victim’s mentality. ‘We can’t do anything’ or ‘We protested didn’t we?’ and ‘let’s not forget that plane!’ are just pitiful excuses for accepting substandard fare for THIRTEEN YEARS! Stage mass walkouts, repeatedly, game after game, to let the club know that without the fans, the cheques stop coming in. Organise sit-outs outside the merchandise store, refusing to let business-as-usual occur. Believe that the power of football ultimately flows from the fans and you may just get a result. A few wan attempts, a clever gimmick with a plane and feebly attended protests to get rid of a man who has turned your club into a soap opera treated with derision and scorn across the world will never be enough.
This season, an Arsenal fan assured me (or more likely, reassuring himself) Arsenal would be different. They would not sell their best players and look at the way they fended of City’s $60 Million bid for Sanchez in the summer, he said. Would the Old Arsenal have done that? Perhaps not. But the Old Arsenal would have sold their best player in order to make some money. The New Arsenal isn’t much different.