If the cap fits… please feel free to laugh at Manchester United’s woes. Raucously if you like, for they have revelled in Arsenal falling away from contention in every competition over the years. I’ll enjoy it whilst it lasts, their current six-point gap to the top four is nothing really as Arsenal have proven down the years. Arsenal have overhauled bigger points gaps in the past decade so it would be no surprise if United did likewise. They have set about rectifying the lack of quality in their squad, Juan Mata for £37m if that transfer happens, improves the side immeasurably on their current players.
It displays the financial muscle which remains unharmed by their current woes. Only their egos will be hurt with their descent from the top three of Deloitte’s Football Rich List. They are still making money hand over fist, as are all the top clubs in Europe’s top leagues. Disappointingly yet unsurprisingly there are no images of pitchforks protruding from the red devils arsenal in this morning’s press. It’s an expected blip in their eyes with Ferguson’s departure is the rationale for the favourable press, combined with a legacy of fear which two decades of dark rule imbued.
The publication uncomfortably highlights Arsenal’s decision to raise ticket prices by 3%. In isolation, the size of the rise is only important in the sense that it is above the rate of inflation at time when austerity is still the political catchphrase but then when has football shown any sign of being in touch with reality. But the size of the rise is not the issue, is there a justifiable case for the rise. Arsenal will argue that they have rising costs, the fans want the club to spend on the best players, they have to contribute. It is all logical and commercially sound. Until you factor in that the rise brings a very small amount to the bottom line and is questionable with the increased revenues from kit and broadcasting deals. Based on 2013 revenues, it will bring in just over £2.75m; it’s a paltry amount in the bigger picture. In its base terms, it’s around £50k per week for a player; £35k per week in salary with the extra £15k paying social security and pension contributions. Or that contribution towards wages.
It is the overall contribution which makes the decision a high-risk strategy for the club. They are banking on the current goodwill lasting, that the season’s improved fare will result in Arsenal being there or thereabouts when the silverware is handed out. The Premier League is so close at the moment, it is impossible to say how the season might end with a title scrap or a dogfight for fourth equally possible. If the latter happens, the bald statistics will not note how near or far from the title Arsenal finish, it is still third or fourth. Niggles over ticket prices will be thrown into the equation if that is the outcome which is a real shame as the club has benefited from the investment in the playing staff. Indeed it’s the only slightly sour taste in an Arsenal love-in at the moment; Arsène loves Wojciech, Santi loves Mesut and social media is the preserve of the Gollum Appreciation Society with everyone wanting a piece of their precious. Huge adoring sighs and hugs all round.
There are comparisons to 2007/08, not least because it is the first time since then that there is a sense that Arsenal are genuine contenders for the title. It doesn’t matter what the media think, it is how supporters view the season which counts. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain believes that not being favourites will allow the club to go about their work quietly; if Arsenal get to the end of February still on top of the table, be prepared for a rise in noise about silverware. Even sooner if they manage to eliminate Bayern Munich. At this point in the season – 22 games in – Arsenal accrued 51 points but from then on, 2007/08 is painful to recall. Arsenal had led the table bar the odd week or two since September until that afternoon in the West Midlands. One Premier League victory in six saw the title slip from their grasp for reasons that we have raked over since that day. None disagree about the impact of Eduardo’s injury on the squad, the loss of their most effective striker. William Gallas as captain needed to show leadership, instead sat moping on the pitch in a reaction befitting a petulant teenager not the captain of Arsenal. Hopefully Arsène’s travels this week have been to spy on strikers. Some think he was watching Christian Tello in Barcelona before heading off to Gelsenkirchen to tie out negotiations for Draxler’s arrival this summer. News that Vucinic is available again means a trip to Italy. Annie won’t mind, these miles mean he has enough loyalty points to pay for the flights for the family’s holiday this year. More importantly, no-one will mind if he heeds the lesson of that season and brings home a supporting striker to cover injury to Olivier Giroud.
Back to the past. Form subsequent to that day did not recover bar for victory in Milan; that shows the quirks of human nature, of football. Arsenal in a slump domestically travelled to the home of one of European football’s foremost clubs and won. Couldn’t beat Villa, Wigan or Middlesbrough but AC Milan? No problem at all; you sense that this squad are capable of pulling out the results when they matter but more careful to avoid the slips. That is not to say they won’t happen, just that they feel less likely. Oh, look, you can find similarities with any season if you search hard enough. It’s just a quirk of fate and not a prediction of history repeating itself. It all sprang to mind because of these heady days of topping the table, how the blend of youth and experience in both squads is very similar. Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna bridge the squads, the seasoned professionals now but the youth, this time it seems more experienced, less callow. The squad feels that it has more mental strength, certainly leaders who would have clipped Gallas’ ears for his behaviour at St Andrews.
Which bodes well for the rest of the campaign.