The 200% Premier League Pre-Season: Arsenal
So it begins again. Between now and the start of the season, we’ll be writing up all twenty of the Premier League clubs before it all kicks off again. If you’re here looking for transfer gossip, you’ll likely be disappointed. Quite asides from anything else, it’s the start of the second week in July (a necessity borne of the fact that these have got to be written around work commitments, amongst much else), so most of the transfer rumours circulating at the moment are the result of the fevered imaginations of the sort of fifteen year olds who spend their lives on Twitter pretending to be agents. Others will be along in the coming weeks to fill you in on that sort of thing.
Bayern Munich’s end of season Champions League win against Borussia Dortmund may well have marked the crescendo of a fussball-fest love-in which lasted at least as far back as those two clubs’ semi-final wins against the Spanish goliaths of Madrid and Barcelona, but there was one small corner of North London that may have been forgiven for sitting in the corner, its arm meekly in the air and audibly clearing its throat. Seldom in recent times can so much have been taken from a defeat. When Arsenal were comfortably beaten at in the First Leg of their Champions League quarter-final in March, a familiar sense of gloom settled over The Emirates Stadium. Already knocked out of the FA Cup by Blackburn Rovers and the League Cup by Bradford City, the possibility of Arsenal ending their eight year run without a major trophy ended for most beyond most reasonable doubt that night, but the story of Arsenal’s 2012/13 season had a sting in its tail yet.
In the return leg in Germany, the selected Arsenal team played to something approaching the summit of its capabilities, and while it couldn’t quite overhaul Bayern’s first leg lead on the night, the club only bowed out of the competition on away goals only. As if to confirm the value of the concept of ‘playing for pride,’ the team then went on to set the Premier League alight in the closing weeks of the season, ending it all in fourth place in the table and with half-remembered dreams from the mid-winter of demanding the head of Arsene Wenger on a pike resembling nothing so much as a series of dreams so lucid that those who dreamt it can now barely remember whether they happened or not. Following that win in Munich, Arsenal won eight and drew two of their remaining fixtures in the Premier League, quite a turnaround from a team which, in the weeks prior to that defeat, had lost at White Hart Lane against Spurs in the league and been beaten at home by Blackburn Rovers in the Cup.
So it was that Arsene Wenger survived another season during which, for much of it, the sound of knives being sharpened had become practically audible. At the end of it all, though, something quite unusual happened when the three clubs that had ended the season above them in the league table all found themselves hiring new managers. This has had the effect of instilling a little confidence into a support base that has become increasingly fatalistic as recent years have passed. There is a sense though it is hardly being shouted from the rooftops at the moment, that the coming season could be one during which Arsenal get back to doing something that they were very good at doing until quite recently: challenging for the title at the very top of the Premier League.
It has never been quite as simple as to say that Arsenal don’t have the resources to he able to challenge Manchester City and Manchester United at the top of the table. Rather, it has been a matter of the club’s apparent wariness of displaying that largesse in the transfer market. Those ticket and season ticket prices leave little room for manoeuvre for the club’s directors in the event of a lack of silverware and the manager’s occasional – and, if press reports are to be believed, self-imposed – reticence to spend a lot of money in the transfer market. In the past, not overspending on players had come to be accepted as part, by extension if nothing else, of The Arsenal Way. Recently, however, this parsimony when it comes to both the buying and selling of new players has come to regarded by many as miserliness on the parts of those running the club.
Perhaps it has been a reaction to this which has seen the club tentatively dipping its toe into the choppier end of the transfer market this summer. The club’s pursuit of the Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuain has taken on the “Will he, won’t he?” feel of a Richard Curtis romantic comedy, to the extent that the player might well turn up on the pitch with a floppy fringe, and affectedly posh English accent and stammering something about a revelation that has made him come to his senses on the first day of the new season. Last week, the player’s father was telling the world – and by “the world”, we mean, of course, people who are happy to feed stories to the tabloid press in return for a small renumeration and a signed picture of Jeremy Clarkson – that talks between his son and the club were at an advanced stage, but the tone of conversation concerning this particular transfer seems to have cooled again over the last couple of days or so.
This morning, meanwhile, it was being reported that the club had bid £30m to bring Luis Suarez to The Emirates Stadium from Liverpool. Of course, this story is either true in essence or false in essence. Either Arsenal are very interested in Suarez or they aren’t. And notwithstanding the small issue of the original reason for Suarez’s apparently imminent departure from Anfield being due to the excesses of the British press – a story which raised plenty of eyebrows at the time that Suarez went public over it all – the small question of whether Arsenal’s supporters would want the now-considerable baggage that carries in his wake is not a question that is easy to answer. He’s talented, of course, but, well.. there are issues. Of course, the whole (non?) story might well be just part of a manoeuvre to try and leverage themselves a better position over any prospective transfer regarding Higuain and Real Madrid, but if this is the case then the sheer volume of people that have suggested exactly this in recent days would tend to indicate that it’s a plan that has been carried out with the greatest of subtlety.
At this early stage in the pre-season, though – the transfer only slid back open seven days ago, after all – we’re not going to dip into matters of which specific players will be arriving at and departing from The Emirates Stadium above beyond these two names, who may, in a general sense, represent an idea of where Arsenal may or may not be headed before the start of the new season. Should the club end up not spending much money this summer, though, the supporters will know where to place the blame – the directors of the club. Unlike many other Premier League football clubs Arsenal have been prudently run from a financial perspective in recent years (if at several different costs), so the huge increase in television revenues from the start of next season may be a welcome addition to the club’s bank balance, but it is not the proportionally huge windfall that it is for other clubs. Arsenal has had the money to be able to spend if they wanted to in recent years, and the club has opted not to do so, and for many supporters the line between sound financial custodianship and mere penny-pinching was crossed some considerable time ago.
With so much managerial upheaval elsewhere, there is an opportunity for Arsenal to at least close the gap on the clubs that finished above them in the Premier League at the end of last season. It is worth remembering that the club, even though its final total points haul of seventy-three for last season was in line with the average of sixty-eight to seventy-five points that the club has now managed in seven of the last eight seasons, only ended last season two points behind Chelsea and five behind Manchester City and, whilst those of sort of numbers give an indication of the scale of the task required just to make a decent grab at Manchester United’s coat-tails, an improvement on the form of most of the last few seasons certainly seems more likely than not, especially if the team can the heights that it reached in the Allianz Arena or during its five-two mauling of Spurs in November last year, a result which itself came off the back of a run of just two wins in their previous seven league matches.
This skittishness has been the curse of Arsenal in recent years – although some might ask with justification how much of a “curse” not having finished below fourth place in the Premier League table since 1996 actually is – and it is the one thing that must change about Arsenal if they are to get closer to challenging at the very top of the table. The Champions League will likely remain beyond them for another season – it’s worth remembering, when considering that performance in Munich, just how unexpected it was at the time following their supine capitulation in the First Leg of that tie – but improvement on last season’s near-miss with the Europa League and a more serious shot at a domestic trophy will surely be something approaching the minimum that Arsenal supporters will be expecting in return for the lavish amounts that their season tickets continue to cost them.
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