The similarities between now and the end of Terry Neill’s tenure as Arsenal manager cannot be ignored. As then, there is a malaise about the club, confidence in the manager to effect successful change is at its lowest point. Last December, I noted that it felt like the end of an era; nothing since then has changed my mind. That I wanted Arsène to bow out on a high, to cock a snook as he walked away, has not changed either but at this moment that fairytale ending seems very unlikely. The Arsenal board are keen to offer him a new contract – probably will – but it will be based on the past, on the financial strength of the company. It won’t be based on football performance now.
Questions are being asked of the manager and the board. We’re so angry that supporters’ organisations are sending letters, the BSM and AST both making their observations public. There is nothing much to argue with about the content of either but the awaited response may be some time coming. Perhaps it will be delivered by horse.
I can see problems with the AST’s notion of an independent review of the club’s football function. Who will appoint this panel, how can they be independent when whomever nominates them has a vested interest in the outcome? Any compromise is politics defeating the object of the exercise. For the club, a simpler solution might be to appoint a Director of Football, one without the power to hire and fire the manager but someone to conduct the negotiations for the club in contracts and transfers. Someone to relieve Arsène of administrative burden, to challenge his thinking but to decide his fate on their own, to decree players who we sign? A recipe for disaster in both cases. Not that Arsène would buy into such an appointment.
Depending on whom you talk to, the letters reflect the views of most or a sizable minority of the support. Surely the composition of the squad is a concern for all Arsenal supporters? The transfer window has a fortnight to run but the same period will define our European campaign and we cannot add to the squad for those two matches. With the current run of injuries, the second priority of Arsenal’s season could be gone before the end of August. Three wins and a draw would make the world seem a brighter place but that is a tall order for a depleted squad.
As our hearts rule our heads, the media love a good crisis, garnering hits and advertising revenues for their employers. It isn’t a conspiracy; they are no different to you and I; maximising your employers’ returns is never going to harm your career so long as the methods are legal and if not ethical, not found out. The difference is that their business is reporting on Arsenal Football Club, offering opinions on what is happening, an institution that you care about. Some genuinely despise the club, you know who they are, but from a footballing perspective, most are ambivalent, some even admired Wenger’s style of play. As a group, it is a convenient target to blame so long as it covers up the manager’s tracks.
But who am I kidding, the fans are to blame for everything. It is our fault that players do not want to sign for Arsenal, we have created an unwelcoming atmosphere. Poppycock. The atmosphere is dictated by the club’s activities on and off the pitch over a sustained period of time; this isn’t a kneejerk reaction to a poor performance, it is criticism borne of a continued failure on many levels. We have cut and dissected Ivan’s words and Arsène’s actions in so many ways, with debates reflecting every conceivable viewpoint. No matter what claims are made to the contrary, none of us are any the wiser about the day-to-day workings, the politics and decisions taken by the club. It means this, like every other day, is an opinion piece. For some that means we have no right to discuss matters, we must sit back and let the professionals do their jobs; we are amateurs. The lines between the two are blurred, nowhere near as clear-cut as portrayed. The club is changing; no longer rich pickings for bigger clubs, with enough commercial strength to fight them off financially. We move in a different sphere for purchases with executives who have no experience of it. They cannot learn on the job, we need experience to navigate these shark-infested waters and deliver efficiently. It isn’t a myth, those people do exist.
For me this summer is too familiar. Not with two years ago – although the similarities exist – but January of this year. All of the noises emanating from the club are the same; the squad is strong, good enough to achieve their targets whilst acknowledging additions will be made if possible. Eight months later the squad is smaller, those shipped out have not been replaced. From that standpoint, the plan worked and failed in the same instant. Whilst releasing the players was necessary, the coherence between sales and purchases is still missing. Worse, we have flitted from target to target. If you follow the attempts to strengthen the strikeforce, the path is almost the reverse of what is expected. Arsenal started with their weakest option and graduated to the strongest. As that one fails, we move back down the list, the equivalent of a transfer alp: Jovetic > Higuain > Suarez > Rooney > Michu.
I understand Arsenal are in a limited market for players but frankly, this is not new territory. We finished fourth in the Premier League, marginally ahead of the fifth. We are not runaway champions year after year, defending a European crown; our market is not so limited that the squad cannot be improved. I have a problem with this notion, it is used as a hiding place to excuse the dilatory practices of executives and the manager in strengthening.
Arsène does not help matters, seeking to stifle debate. His belligerent responses to the media are seized on by his supporters. Any wishlist is derided as a demand for the club to spend recklessly. I don’t advocate paying over the odds but value is subjective and cannot be assessed until the player’s worth to the team is seen in their performances. Value for money is better described as living up to expectations; It is a smokescreen when trying to sign a player. You sense that for all of Arsène’s words, he is struggling philosophically with the new Arsenal, the one operating in a new financial sphere, one that he has consistently railed against. He barely disguised his contempt for the changes in the wage structure, to stop his socialist approach. It is one reason why I think the club struggle to sign players at the moment, he has not reconciled his differences.
Quite simply the manager is not comfortable with the concept of star players, he genuinely prefers to guide his younger charges, to fashion their careers. It isn’t that he spurns the older, experienced player, he values them as well but not the star, not the player with the Wow! factor associated with their name. He wants that to come from their actions on the pitch. Admirable as it is, that is a good way to perpetuate success. To get it in the first place, to put the club in a position where they are considered genuine title contenders each season, takes investment that the club can well afford and has failed to action this summer. I do believe they have worked on some deals for a while, those have hit the buffers and need something to clear the logjam. But equally, they will construct and complete deals very quickly in the next fortnight which will raise uncomfortable questions over previous inactivity. Can they achieve value for money when the more desperate the buyer’s circumstance, the higher the price? Arsenal right now, is a desperate buyer.