A litte under four days to go as I write this. A not unfamiliar feeling is in the air, a pall over the manager’s head waiting to descend. Not for Arsène the frisson of a new signing but a defensiveness surfacing against the accusations of inactivity, of lethargy and indecisiveness. He knows them well, they are not new adversaries.
It has, as seems to be an annual occurrence, put him on the back foot this summer. It may do so this winter as well but that’s another time, another place; not something to be bothered with now. Arsenal have a team of people working non-stop on deals, with Arsène available at any time for their call. Presumably he has many them telling him that deals are no go. Television money has empowered a lot of clubs, certainly those in Europe’s major leagues, and as Chelsea are finding with Everton, as Manchester City with their ludicrously desperate pursuit of Kevin De Bruyne, selling clubs hold the power.
That means fees are rising as the window draws to a close, sellers know they can ask for and in most cases, receive, a king’s ransom. Arsenal are not a club versed in paying such moneys for players; for a financially conservative club, they are an anathema. Yes, money was spent on Özil and Sanchez but I contend those fees weren’t exorbitant; the players have the talents to justify them. De Bruyne and Stones? That’s market forces, so beloved of football when broadcasting deals and ticket prices are on the table, at work.
It is the downside of leaving business so late. Many times in recent years, we’ve heard that Arsenal wait for clubs with greater financial power to do their business, an utterly negative perspective. The selling points the club has to offer surely breed more confidence in the marketplace?
There is still plenty of time for the last-ditch scramble on Arsenal’s part, filing paperwork after the deadline just to wind up rivals. Despite what you may think, I do have sympathy for Arsène. It is a difficult part of his job but one where the over-riding feeling is that he doesn’t help himself with his pronouncements and more to the point, being well remunerated, he is expected to deliver. I just don’t have confidence in him or the club doing so.
A virtue he possesses is a willingness to defend the players publicly, something the squad appreciate. He does so sometimes by deflecting attention away from the point. Which in the case of Francis Coquelin isn’t that the player is not very good – far from it, I haven’t seen anyone denigrate his contribution to last season – but that Arsenal’s squad lacks depth in the defensive midfield role; there’s no competition or cover. Neither Flamini or Arteta provides the same barrier to the back four; if they did, Coquelin wouldn’t be the first choice in the role, especially when one of the players in question is club captain. Nor would Arsène have sanctioned Flamini’s sale, a move to Turkey rejected by the player.
A robust defence of his players is what they would have wanted, well aware of what Neville has said. Wenger wants television to educate, to help people love the game – more on that later – but it misses the point, romanticises just about every level of the game. Arsène may see it that way but television has an alternative view; attract viewers and generate more advertising revenues. It’s about money for them primarily, not improving society on any level. I am sure the artistic types who make the programmes hold altruistic values but ultimately, they know the rules of the game.
There is one telling point. Arsène asked that opinions be backed by research, that pundits, former players, anyone, not shoot from the hip. Gary Neville openly stated that Arsenal can’t win the league with a midfield based on the axis of Coquelin and Cazorla; it’s up to the players to prove him wrong otherwise next May, he will be painfully accurate in his assessment.
Fortunately, Arsène had some small respite in the form of the Champions League draw and the trip to Tyneside tomorrow. Whether either is a welcome relief is open to debate. Familiar foes, one and all, even down to the final matchday trip to Greece; plenty of scope for the traditional cock-up in that fixture although hopefully, we will have secured second spot by then. Bayern will be a pleasant change; not a knockout tie but one which historically hasn’t served Arsenal badly in the group stage with a win and draw to counter two defeats. OK, so that’s the same as the last two years so we might get a valuable point or three out of it. Or not, we shall see.
The mundanity of the draw, the sheer repetitiveness of fixtures, comes as a result of the rich getting richer and the same teams qualifying over and again. That Olympiakos remain in the competition is baffling given the investigations into match-fixing but innocent until proven guilty and all that malarkey holds sway. And this is football; FIFA leads the way in letting the corrupt remain in situ; why would UEFA be any different?
Arsène wants people to fall in love with the game but this is a sport overrun by an obsession with making money. It’s an industry and the clubs are businesses, so why expect anything less? On the Champions League draw, he bemoaned Arsenal’s relegation into the second pot of seeds, having been in the first for a number of years. Yet why were Arsenal in the top pot when their performance for a decade since Paris has pretty much been that of a team in the top sixteen of Europe, not the top eight? Surely we are in the position we merit? One can only assume he supported what is best described as ‘seeding doping’? Oh for the days of a free draw.
The Premier League returns tomorrow and with a fortnight’s break awaiting, a thankful relief.