Three weekends ago, football fans all over celebrated the return of the two most exciting leagues in the world: the Spanish La Liga and the English Premier League. Amongst several highlights, certain outcomes proved interesting- Robin Van Persie scored a brace of goals in Manchester United’s rout of Swansea, quickly bringing his total in this barely begun season to four goals in two matches; Cesc Fabregas was the virtuoso conductor of Barcelona’s symphony of destruction as they blew Levante to smithereens 7 goals to zilch and on Monday, Samir Nasri, Manchester City’s forgotten man was on target in his team’s 4-0 demolition of Newcastle. Apart from being very talented footballers, the other thing these athletes have in common is that they all once played together for Arsenal, possibly the world’s most overrated Champions League also-rans, winning nothing while they did. Interestingly, the trio went on to defy the ‘Wenger Curse’ and landed medals and trophies once they left the benevolent regime of ‘Le Professeur’ with Van Persie virtually deciding the direction of the title last season. And their ‘alma-mater’? After a farcical summer where upon declaring (for the umpteenth time) that they had the financial muscle to sign marquee names and have signed none, the Gunners lost their opening match to last season’s relegation fodder, Aston Villa, 3-1, and at the opulent Emirates stadium no less.
One can’t read much into that Saturday’s debacle but from this writer’s perspective, purely as a footballing power, frankly, Arsenal is in decline. They have since gone on to win two matches on the trot despite an injury ravaged squad: the 3-0 Champions League qualifier win at Fenerbahce and the 3-1 derby victory at Fulham. But discerning football enthusiasts know we’ve been here before. Arsenal is, as usual, flattering to deceive.
Once, football fans were divided into two: Arsenal fans and those who wished they were. Now, the squad can’t even win the Emirates Cup, a pre-season friendly tournament annually organized by the club. Yes, once in a while they can still kick it around like a poor man’s Barcelona and when their fourth place status depends on it, conjure up some form. There is no doubt that the club’s accounts are in rude health either. But apart from that, what greatness has the club achieved on the pitch in the last 8 years and counting? There are a couple of teams playing in the lower reaches of English football (Wigan, Birmingham and Portsmouth come to mind) who have won more than the ‘Pride of London’ in those years. Indeed, Swansea, a less fancied Premier league side won the Carling Cup last season playing the kind of football Arsenal vauntedly is an exponent of. And what is all these talk about Arsenal being the shining bastion of prudent financial practices? Bayern Munich are no prodigals yet claimed a historic treble including Monsieur Wenger’s Holy Grail, the Champions League, with a squad rich in talent, application and depth, gradually but wisely cobbled together over a period of time under Louis Van Gaal and the astute Jupp Heynckes.
Arsenal has also become, perhaps, the world’s highest regarded feeder club, buying diamonds in the rough and polishing them for onward sale to any club that will pay the price. The gob-smacking sale of Van Persie springs to mind and only delusional folks would argue that were Arsenal truly ambitious, the Dutchman would still have left. Assuredly, Robin stands to bring more value to his current employers than the 20million plus he was sold for. Not only is the regime at the Emirates Stadium, according to critics, seemingly penny-wise and pound foolish, it is proving to be the footballing world’s answer to the biblical, myopic Esau. Selling your best players is no way to build a winning team, period. Liverpool’s obduracy in the Suarez saga should prove instructive to Wenger. Is there any surprise that ambitious footballers who want to win things do not see the Emirates as attractive anymore? Perhaps as a stepping stone, yes. But no more. Higuain chose less glamorous Napoli. Luiz Gustavo headed for Wolfsburg, a team not in the Champions League. There are rumours that Arsenal hope to lure Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria from the riches, organization and trophy winning pedigree of Real Madrid to the fourth place purgatory which the London club has made home. Apparently, there’s a circus at the Emirates too.
Opinions are divided over what and who’s to blame for the nigh ten year slump. Some have opined that building the stadium and the rise to power of ‘moneybags football’ in the shape of Chelsea and Manchester City have vitiated Arsenal’s ability to compete for titles. The aforementioned cases of Swansea and lesser-heeled clubs winning things make those excuses moot. Others have blamed the board and even the owner, Stan Kroenke, for undermining Wenger, conveniently forgetting that time and again, the management has come out to declare the availability of a war chest for the manager to spend from while the Frenchman keeps insisting he can’t find quality at the right price. When he eventually does, however, he goes ahead and shells out on average talent like Andre Dos Santos on a largely misguided last minute spending spree, two seasons ago, after a thoroughly humiliating 8-2 defeat to Manchester United, a one-time rival who he then proceeded to sell his best player to the following season! Obviously, the Arsenal board cannot be found fundamentally culpable as they do make funds available whenever he identifies ‘talent’. Indeed, one should ask: in the days when Arsenal swept all before them in England, boasting the terrifying squad that became known as ‘The Invincibles’, who supported Wenger in building that squad? Did he pay for it out of his own pocket? In fact, who had enough faith in the Frenchman, bringing him from the footballing backwaters of the Japanese League, and handing him the reigns of the team? If anyone is willing to praise Wenger for the glory days, no-one should now blame the board for the lean years. If Wenger feels his legacy is in danger from the policies of his paymasters (and he is oh-so-handsomely paid, notching up one of the top three biggest manager salaries in the league), he has every right to resign. But he has refused to do so.
Whatever racket the Arsenal manager and the board of the club are involved in, they must remember that not all Arsenal fans, of which I am a longsuffering member, are swayed by their clumsy, seasonal Goebellian tactics. The Champions League places are no-one’s birthright and sooner or later, if the status quo persists, Arsenal will no longer qualify for those places as its rivals strengthen. It can only be downhill from there. No-one is greater than the club, not even Wenger. Hasn’t he read about his compatriot, Louis XIV?