Arsenal’s season opener was typical of its summer – filled with early promise, touched by controversy, but in the end pointless and embarrassing.
This is still, in fact, a good Arsenal team which will ultimately still contend for the top four come the Spring. It is in fact a team which had beforehand accumulated more points in 2013 than any other Premier League side. Yet the horrendous lack of strength-in-depth was demonstrated by the fact I myself am considering putting myself forward for the bench on Wednesday…
Arsene Wenger’s defence of his failure to sign was like the man, not entirely unreasonable but somewhat lacking in adventure – namely that he will only buy players who demonstrably improve the team. However, it is becoming thinner. Two of Villa’s goals were scored by Christian Bentheke – should he not be at Arsenal improving things? Higuain? Gustavo? Mignolet? Fact is, each and every one of those would have improved matters.
It was Gary Neville on Sky Sports, fast maturing into the best pundit out there, who said in May that Arsenal had to move fast. You cannot afford – in any sense – to be left scrabbling for players come August. The ones going are gone. Frankly the appeal of Arsenal – as a Champions’ League team on the fringes of title contention given form in 2013 – has already been shattered in one game; it could be destroyed altogether by Thursday morning.
Unfortunately, Arsene Wenger himself cannot be entirely devoid of blame for this. Yet you cannot but feel there is something deeper wrong with the club. Two things stand out.
Firstly, since David Dein left the club has never been at the centre of things, transfer-wise. The commonality in the signings of Bergkamp, Platt, Vieira, Henry and even Wenger himself is David Dein. It is hard to think of a really exciting new signing since. It is not just that the scouting system (admittedly Wenger’s responsibility) turns out duds like Squillaci, but that the club simply doesn’t seem to be at the stock market when the shares are being allocated. There is something very wrong there.
Secondly, the club is run by people who want to make money out of it – in other words, as a business not a football club. In business, this would be a good thing. In football, it isn’t. Clubs which win things have owners who are quite prepared to lose millions in return for the kudos and glory of owning a club which wins things. For all the chat about Arsenal having 70 million to spend this summer, Manchester City has lost (not just spent) that much on average each and every season for the past seven seasons – and even that has delivered a relatively meagre return of one Premier League and one FA Cup. On the other hand, the best way to turn a profit (as Arsenal has, uniquely in the Premier League, over that period) is to qualify consistently for the Champions’ League group phases – going much beyond that on a consistent basis requires spending huge money but in fact does not generate much of a return; qualifying for the Champions’ League consistently is the happy middle between having to spend huge amounts, and not; and between getting a good return in terms of advertising, and not. In other words, trophies get you glory, Champions’ League qualification gets you profit – Arsenal’s owners want the latter; most – such as Manchester United’s, Manchester City’s, Chelsea’s and even Wigan Athletic’s – want the former (almost regardless of the price they have to pay for it).
Ultimately, therefore, it doesn’t much matter whether Arsene Wenger stays or goes. For as long as Arsenal is owned by people who put profit above glory, trophies will only arrive by happy coincidence. Perhaps getting trounced on Wednesday wouldn’t be such a bad thing…