What is it with Arsenal and this obsession with fourth? We’ve even finished in that position in the table of spend by Premier League clubs on agents fees. And agents tie in with this week’s playlist. Not in the theme, simply that the title of Shake That Rat seems fitting, as well as being a fine Nick Lowe song. You can find it in the right sidebar on Dad’s Jukebox or here in your browser. The archives are here.
It’s not the best of times to be Arsène Wenger at the moment. The fight for a top four finish will be clarified beyond doubt tomorrow, with the expected Leicester victory over Swansea ending every argument about Arsenal being in the title race. Not even Wengernomics can make a ten-point gap close with just nine to play for. Forgive me the arrogance of assuming we’ll match their result.
Arsène’s fully aware of that but bizarrely chose until this week to continue the public theme of Arsenal being in the title race, flying in the face of every reality including alternative ones. His focus is on a top three finish – not four – because of the curtailed summer he faces. Euro2016 finishes on 10th July, meaning that the usual four-week holiday for some of the squad won’t see them return to training until early August. The start of the season is a salutary warning for him on that front.
Wenger believes that avoiding the Champions League play-offs will be vital in preparing properly for the Premier League. That means not losing at The Etihad, as well as matching their other results. Not an easy task given our propensity to drop points at will.
The inconsistency has led to many criticising the manager, not just supporters but former players as well. Whilst Paul Merson’s vulgarity chose the populist route – and whilst I loved him as a player, I have no time for him as a pundit – whilst Alan Smith and Andrei Arshavin both pondered the wider causes. The latter a more recent player, questioned whether Wenger’s innate conservatism was now hindering the club. There’s certainly evidence of that anecdotally with his valuation of players open to question.
It’s not questionable in the sense of him viewing a player as having a certain value but habitually being lower than the market values raises questions. There is an obsession within in football on calculating resale values but with players at their peak or approaching it, this is something which should never factor into anything.
Suarez was worth more than £1 over £40m to Arsenal and when you get into negotiations for such players, you go the whole hog on the matter. Now, the negotiations on that front were not down to the manager but he should have placed the board under such pressure that they had to pursue the deal. He didn’t because Suarez didn’t arrive.
This summer will be tough for Arsenal with the short close season so Arsène knows he has to direct his energies in many directions. Going to international tournaments with broadcasters has worked before with Sanchez signed through contact during that time; maybe this summer will be as productive. But if Arshavin’s concerns are correct, Arsène has more to contemplate than players.
Tactically, football has moved on from tiki-taka but we’re still veering toward tippy-tappy. The Germans were crowned world champions using a style of football more suited to the English game but Wenger, having built a squad more suited to the Barcelona / Spanish tactic, can’t immediately march to the Teutonic beat, even if he is so inclined.
Alan Smith, meanwhile, took a different but intertwined tangent on the situation. Like George Graham’s reign, Smith questioned whether things had become stale. With the turnover of players at modern clubs, you would think comparison to eight years of Graham holds ground. It does with Arsène because key players have been at the club several years and not seen any sustained improvement in the club’s fortunes.
The FA Cup is a great competition for supporters when you win it, bringing with a romanticism and the players will have been happy to win but in the way that the League Cup is disparaged, the FA Cup means nothing when attracting new signings or keeping existing squad members happy. How many players signed new deals or joined new clubs because they are FA Cup holders? The reality, as we’re always told, is the Premier League and Champions League are all that matter at this level. We don’t compete for either. We’re in the competition but not a threat when it comes to winning.
It seems at every turn the pressure is growing on the manager. Some flip flop between positions, criticising him and then using the incoherent logic of “be careful what you wish for” when warning of the future. Arsène himself hinted at that the other day, wondering if we’d be happy without the consistent top four finishes. Perhaps we’ll find out one day but I’d rather see overt ambition to try and challenge for the title than be content with the numbing fourth places we’ve become accustomed to.