Would that Sky had put a microphone near to where Mario Balotelli’s fuse was lit; life would have imitated art as the Liverpudlian accents dominated the air, “Calm down, calm down…”
The international break is upon us and I am sure that the players spirits when they arrive at their various destinations will be a lot better than the last ten-day interruption international football cast across the domestic calendar. Back in November, Arsenal’s defeat at Swansea was not quite the nadir of the season – that was the first game back – but it was on the fast-track to it.
Spin through the clouds of time to now and the talk is of titles despite being seven points behind the leaders who also have a game in hand. Such chatter isn’t even idle, it’s beyond that and utterly ludicrous.
Of course it’s part of Arsène’s job to be vague whilst appearing informative, positive when privately he has given not a second thought to the question hanging in the air unanswered. It’s the Bond film that everyone forgets, cast in the same pigeon-hole as the original Casino Royale, but Wenger’s mantra of Never Say Never is just PR-speak.
Loic Remy’s late goal ought to kill off any hopes with a touch more certainty than Juan Mata’s double against Liverpool did. Steven Gerrard’s determination to destroy his legacy, compounding last season’s title-crushing slip with yesterday’s Champions League maiming stamp.
United’s win at Anfield puts Arsenal in firm control of their own destiny. A draw would have been a better outcome for Arsenal, leaving the fourth and fifth placed teams more worried about each other but the top four rope bridge is frayed to the last strands and Liverpool’s own Indiana Jones is the one furiously hacking away at it with the machete gleaming in the sunshine. Never underestimate the innate stupidity of footballers.
The Premier League’s return brings Liverpool to The Emirates for a season defining match. Victory will all but guarantee Arsenal a top four finish, the only factor to be decided is 2nd, 3rd or 4th. The current run gives hope of the former but City have just the Manchester derby to face whilst Arsenal still have three of the top five to face. That six point gap to fifth could quite easily disappear if we return to our wretched ways in the big matches, something the symmetry of three wins, draws and defeats in the nine meetings so far this season hints at being repaired.
On the cusp of confirming another season’s Champions League football, on the cusp of a return to the FA Cup final. This Arsenal squad is, as most of us agree, on the cusp. Whether they step further forward, progress, is another matter, one that will be heavily influenced – but not decided by – this summer’s transfer activity.
The business of football rather than the football business has become tedious. I’m fairly sure that was the original intention behind FFP; to bore everyone into submission to the point where we no longer care about who has contravened the regulations. When Chelsea are held as paragons of FFP virtue, the stench is so bad that even leaving the windows open won’t freshen the place up. It was recently suggested that Chelsea were on the verge of having a £100m splurge this summer, the basis being that they used their rolling loss allowance in one transfer window and then carried on with their one in/one out mantra.
To paraphrase Pete Townshend, meet the new football, the same as the old football.
It’s the same for Arsenal; significant cash balances at the half- and full- year reporting cycles, accompanied by a star player leaving; it’s 2009 – 2012 all over again. Well, not quite. The club is in charge – or more in charge – of players destinies than it was five years ago. With the money flowing into the game, salary demands can be met if they so desire to do so.
Theo Walcott’s contract drama will once more be taken to the wire. Arsène made no secret that he finds the brinkmanship tiresome shortly before it was announced that talks were put on hold until the summer. Things have changed from the last negotiations. He wanted a more central role then; now he wants any position so long as he is playing.
Is Arsène punishing his charge for not signing or is he convinced that the current XI is playing well enough that he doesn’t need to use the England international? No-one but Wenger knows the answer to that but I doubt anyone would argue with the view that there is an element of both in the mix.
Three years ago, the Arsenal web was in full meltdown at the prospect of Walcott leaving. Panic-stricken at times even. Now, it’s more phlegmatic. Not quite nonchalant but nowhere near as alarmed. Of course that reflects the fact that we did well enough without Walcott whilst he was out for a year, or more accurately, managed to keep up a top four position and won the FA Cup forged on his torment of Tottenham in third round.
But it’s a new era for us as supporters. No longer – or at least not for the next few seasons – will a desire to sell at the maximum profit dictate a player’s value to the club. Commercial deals have – or should have – put paid to that desperation. The mentality of the club won’t change in some respects but when push comes to shove, they won’t sell unless it suits Arsenal, as opposed to the players.
That’s the theory anyway. Players still hold the whip hand and have little compunction in forcing a move to whichever is the latest team they supported as a child. However, Arsenal can pay handsomely if they so desire. They could before but a socialist wage structure in the arch-capitalist environment was never going to work. That was the path chosen, it didn’t work and now we fall into line with the rest of football.
What is going to change is the frequency with which the club sells quality players; it is bound to happen as the overall quality of the squad improves and for us, the supporters, it will require a change in mentality. We used to be bound to players, idolising them. I’m not sure whether it’s age or the rapidity of increase in the wages gap but I feel less of a bond to any footballer now – probably going back to the inception of the Premier League – than ever before.
When they leave, it will be a blow to the club but the expectation is that you transfer out when better is available. It is likely to lead to ‘favoured’ players departing and the increased rarity of the ‘homegrown’ star. It’s the changing face of football and the ‘meh‘ attitude exposed to the latest Walcott contract shenanigans is going to surface much more freely and readily in the future. The changing face of football indeed.