The Premier League is almost upon us, and as usual money has been splashed around like it spouts from bottomless wells and managers have been given their targets for the season. One of the surprise top shoppers of the off-season have been Arsenal.
If the English Premier League was a class of 20 students, Arsenal would be that kid who’d always have fun, never really seem to put in too much studying, but still manage to be in the top 4, to the amazement of others. Sadly, their parents would expect them to put in some extra effort, and get some resources and top the class because they knew the potential was there.
That Arsene Wenger has managed to drag Arsenal into the top 4 of the Premier league is an outstanding feat in itself. In isolation, Arsenal fans should be overjoyed that their team finished 3rd last season, despite that nightmare of a start to the season. But the beauty of success is that it is simply never enough. Once you taste success, you’re addicted to it. Nothing less ever matches up, and indeed, the expectations are only higher every time. In a sense, Arsenal have been victims of their own scintillating success in the early part of the last decade. Going an entire league campaign undefeated and being labeled ‘Invincible’ only served to set the bar so high that the weight of expectations has become almost a burden. A burden that has been thrust upon a squad that seems to only get younger by the season. The Gunners just can’t seem to finish building their team.
Selling Club Syndrome
Arsenal have firmly cemented their place as a perennial selling club. Arsene Wenger takes great pains to nurture the talent at his disposal, and also buy the best prospects for the future. Only problem is, the ones that he really counts on, see their future elsewhere (I’m not taking names but the Etihad and Camp Nou are popular destinations). However the popular perception seems to be that he’s been that way for years and the players are to be blamed for wanting more money. One anecdote commonly heard from passionate fans is that when a star player once asked Wenger to buy other star players to keep him company, the coach’s stern retort was to say, “You weren’t a star when I bought you!”. I cannot confirm the authenticity of the story but even if it isn’t, the sentiment behind it is clear. Arsene Wenger doesn’t buy great players, he makes them. It is a fine philosophy but needs to be tempered with a bit of realism and a lot of honesty.
A look at Arsenal’s general starting line up in the ‘Invincibles’ era reveals that the average age of those players, when signed by Arsene Wenger was around a ripe 24 and a half. That assumes a starting 11 of (cue foggy eyed, nostalgic flashbacks for Arsenal fans) Lehmann-Cole-Campbell-Toure-Lauren-Ljungeberg-Viera-Gilberto-Pires-Bergkamp-Henry. Truly, what astounding talent that team possessed. But the point is, most of them were in their early to mid-20s when they signed. Their talent proven, they came into a squad who was used to winning and commanded the respect of all who faced them.
Fast-forward to 2011 and a frantic Arsene Wenger dumping in his shopping cart whatever he could find, just seconds before the store closes. It was a sign that the astute Frenchman had realised that he would need to sacrifice his total idealism. But in the years since that unforgettable season, Wenger’s policy seems to have shifted towards only signing players who can’t yet grow a beard. The average age of a starting line-up of Szeczeny(ignore the spelling, you know who I’m talking about)-Sagna-Vermaelen-Koscielny-Gibbs-Song-Arteta-Walcott-Ramsey-Gervinho-Van Persie, was 21 years when they signed. Take the 29 year old Arteta out of that line up and it drops to 20.5 years. Whether you like it or not, league titles simply aren’t won by those kind of signings any more. The drop in average age is partially because Wenger has consciously bought younger players, but also because he hasn’t been able to lure the more established, experienced players to the Emirates.
This is where the club need to be honest about their status as a top club. They are, with the advent of the oil money from Abu Dhabi and Russia, not realistically expected to win the the league. They might challenge for it and come close at best. That seems to be the perception the players have as well. Painful as it may be for the fans, it isn’t far from the truth.
Arsenal’s frugality in the transfer market coincided with the embarrassing riches of Chelsea and Manchester City, enabling the spending of enough money to buy a few small countries. The competition was increased and Arsenal were left by the wayside to pick up the pieces and stutter across the line in 3rd or 4th. The “Selling Club Syndrome” began setting in when Viera left for Juventus and was confirmed when club legend Thierry Henry left for Spain, in what was widely described as a quest for the Champions League. Ashley Cole, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy all followed and Arsenal’s status as a serious contender for the League title was put in very serious doubt. Robin van Persie too has said he wants to leave.
Is Robin the Dark Knight?
The coming season is crucial. The summer signings of Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla with the talk of M’Villa and Sahin too being signed, look extremely promising. Cazorla and Podolski have a fair bit of experience and will grab the opportunity to prove that they truly are world class. It signals intent and has already made people take them a lot more seriously than in the recent past.
This is where it seems that Arsene Wenger will have to use all his experience. Robin van Persie must stay. Even as a move to Old Trafford of all places seems increasingly likely, the manager has confirmed that he does not intend to sell his talisman. Hopefully, he’s not just being diplomatic about it. Arsene may not like it, but he needs to take a leaf out Sir Alex Ferguson’s book here. A couple of seasons back, Rooney had expressed his desire to leave the Red Devils. As is now customary for any player wearing the number 10, Man City immediately quoted an obscene amount to try and sign him. Ferguson apparently sat him down, convinced him to stay and brought the fans back on his side, and Rooney responded by turning in some great performances that year on the way to winning the Premier League and getting to the final of the Champions League.
Wenger is faced with an almost identical situation. He needs to talk to the Dutchman and integrate him into the side. The advantages are two-fold. Not only do they get to keep a player of exceptional quality, they also convey an image of a strong club. A club whose players see it as a genuine force in England. A club that is no longer just an incubator of talent, waiting for the real big money, high profile move.
The effect of star players and dressing room mentors departing is adverse on the younger members of the squad too and the return of Van Persie will inspire confidence within the club as well, not to mention the rich dividends he can pay if he puts in a full season of effort matching that of last year.
While its true that Arsenal may never get a better price for him than right now, the long-term gains and the change of perception of the club his stay would bring, far outweigh the short term financial benefits of his sale. Arsenal are one of the few clubs who are fairly well placed financially so they can take the hit even if he does leave for free next season. But they must aim to inspire him to rise above his grumpiness and lead them onto glory. Much like Christian Bale in *that* movie, except without that awesome flying thingy with auto-pilot and what not.
Bottomline is, Arsenal have a real chance of ending their trophy drought, if they can turn Robin into Batman. (Sorry, couldn’t help it).