Three games in to the new season Arsenal float adrift of the title contenders, not just in points and goal difference but in class and expectation. Manchester United destroyed Arsenal with a team without many established stars and with an average age of just 23. Manchester City have evidenced their ambition and their ability. They are potential champions. Chelsea have strengthened and will challenge, as always. The top three are already defined, just the order remains to be seen. The coveted fourth spot, and entry to the lucrative Champions League, already appears to belong to Liverpool – the early indications suggest that their investment has paid off.
For Arsenal the dream has been reduced to ashes. The concept of developing a team of young stars who would mature together has been destroyed by a failure to win trophies and the lure of bigger wages for their key players offered by clubs with bigger ambitions. In 2006 Arsenal were arguably unlucky to lose the UEFA Champions League Final to Barcelona. There was little to choose between the teams. Had Arsenal won...subsequent history might have been different. Had Arsenal become Champions of Europe, had they become established as Europe’s best, would the lure of Barcelona have been quite so strong for Fabregas?
The comparative demise of Arsenal has been long in the making. Firstly the emergence of Chelsea, then the entry of Manchester City – both have redefined the landscape in terms of transfer fees and wages. Arsenal maintained their model of financial prudence, investing in young talent where the wage demands were less whereas their key competitors invested in established stars. Progressively Arsenal slipped behind, clinging to fourth place but unable to bridge the divide between contenders and champions.
The defeat to Birmingham in the Carling Cup Final is seen by many as a watershed, but perhaps that watershed came in the previous season. It was then that the team needed strengthening with genuine world-class talent that would have enabled the team not just to defeat Birmingham but push on and claim two or three titles – they were so near, and yet so far... Fabregas gave up, Nasri was unconvinced, Clichy sought greener pastures. The belief had gone. To strengthen this season was just too late.
Arsene Wenger stands accused as the architect of this demise – too stubborn, arrogant, blinkered, wedded to a flawed concept and unwilling to invest in players of the required experience and quality but is this either fair or accurate? He tried to sign Juan Matta who has made an immediate impact at Chelsea. By all accounts Matta was keen to sign, but Arsenal failed to pay the monies required under his release clause within the timeframe. The fee was apparently not the issue, the player wanted to sign, so what was the problem? Perhaps it was the personal terms?
It’s open knowledge that Arsenal operates a strict wages structure. It’s equally well known that this means Arsenal cannot compete with their primary competitors. So where does this leave Arsene Wenger? There have been rumours that Wenger has called for a revision of the wages ceiling to 150k to enable the club to sign better quality players but that this has been refused by the board. If this is the case can Arsene Wenger fairly be held accountable?
As things stand Arsenal will be among the top choices for any exceptionally talented young player wanting to gain first team experience at a high level. Arsenal will also be high on the list of clubs targeted by predatory competitors who will cherry-pick the best talent once they gain experience and develop to a higher level. Arsenal will be a staging-post not a destination, a training ground rather than a theatre of dreams.
The result at Manchester United was important because it put the situation beyond doubt. There is no question now that Arsenal needs to strengthen, that they need both quality and experience, that they need steel to add to the art. There is no question that to acquire such players Arsenal have to compete with their primary competitors, and to match or better the wages they offer. Once they do this then it will be fairer to assess the ability of a manager who has in the past proved his ability to deliver winning teams.