Welcome to the first of our annual pre-season previews, this year starting with the Premier League and therefore, Arsenal. For those of you stopping by for the first time, there’ll be no in-depth tactical analysis here, and no hard and fast predictions for how teams will do over the next nine months. Consider these previews a taster of the deluge of previews that will be coming your way over the next few weeks and an overview of the state of your club, and you shouldn’t be too disappointed.
Eventually, they managed to hold it together and they scraped through by the skin of their teeth. Arsenal clung onto their Champions League place at the end of last season, and enjoyed a small end of season bonus when their rivals Tottenham Hotspur missed out on a space at that particular trough thanks to Chelseas unlikely win in Munich. This summer, however, has not been a particularly easy one for the club, with boardroom machinations reaching fever pitch and the player that was most responsible for last season’s revival giving the impression of not wanting to spend too much longer at the club.
The Robin Van Persie saga has already been one of the most protracted of the summer and there remains an outside chance that it might last for much of next season as well, although the players imminent departure from the club now seems more likely than not. His decision to seek to leave Arsenal has been an instructive lesson for all football supporters on the subject of the loyalties of the professional footballer. Much as supporters of all clubs like – perhaps need – to believe that the players are just like them, the truth of the matter is that they’re not. Much as our minds may boggle at the idea of somebody not being happy playing in a largely winning team in front of crowds of sixty thousand people every other week whilst earning millions of pounds for the privilege of doing so, Van Persie has this summer become the latest in a long line of professional footballers to prove that this might not always be the case. The Dutch forward evidently sees his future elsewhere and we can only speculate as to what the precise reasons for this might be. Does he think that he can double his salary with a move now? Possibly. Does he think that his chances of winning silverware would be significantly improved by leaving The Emirates Stadium for, say, The City of Manchester Stadium or Camp Nou? Likely. Does he really care about what the supporters think to the extent that will change anything other than what he says to the media on the subject? Probably not.
Such has become the concentration of power at the top of European football that the perception of what constitutes ‘the biggest’ has shifted a little further to the right again, and for players who consider themselves amongst the elite the number of clubs deemed worthy of their services has continued to shrink. At the time of writing, we don’t even know whether Van Persie will be starting the new season with Arsenal or elsewhere. We can, however, reasonably guess that this summers vocal discomfort carries a clear message to the club – something along the lines of ‘I know I’ve only got a year left on my contract, you know I’ve only got a year left on my contract, now let me go and fill my boots somewhere else whilst you can still cash in on me to some extent or else.’ Perhaps one of the key questions to the new season for Arsenal supporters is that of what the ‘or else’ in the above hypothetical question might consist of.
Over the last few days, the signs concerning his future may have become clearer. The club may have claimed that Van Persies absence from the clubs pre-season trip to the Far East was related to reasons connected to his fitness, and but few have been convinced by this explanation. This has been widely interpreted as confirmation that he will not be starting the new season at The Emirates Stadium, as has the fact that new signing Lucas Podolski has not been allocated a shirt number for the new season, and with the presumption being, of course, that Podolski is holding out for the sought after number ten shirt that Van Persie had made his own in previous seasons. That Podolski has signed for the club is, of course, proof in itself that to suggest that Arsenals status as a club has somehow been diminished by Manchesters dominance of the Premier League last season is clearly wide of the mark. The prospect of losing a player that became as uniquely talismanic as Robin Van Persie did last season is, however, somewhat difficult to frame in a positive light.
Meanwhile, as has become familiar over the last few seasons or so, the summer for Arsenal has also become defined by a state of near civil war between those that own the club and those that would seek to own the club. It should go without saying that Alisher Usmanov should be treated with at least a degree of caution, no matter how tempting the idea of having him in control of the club and spending his money might seem on the surface. Usmanov may well have professed his ‘love’ for Arsenal, but it is worth asking the question of whether he loves Arsenal more than he loves money, because it may take a lot of the latter to get the former competing on an even keel with, say, Manchester City. In any case, thus far the current majority shareholder Stan Kroenke has remained quiet on the subject of Usmanovs ongoing machinations, but the threat to the stability to the absolute inner sanctum of the clubs management structure should be clear.
Perhaps Usmanovs most enthusiastic cheerleaders are right. Perhaps he has genuinely fallen in love with the club. But then again, perhaps this is little more than a line being spun to get public support on his side. It is impossible to say what the effect upon the wellbeing of the playing side of Arsenal FC might be should this battle for control of the club continue in the public arena. We do know two things though. Firstly, as with the Robin Van Persie situation, it’s difficult to cast this sort of power struggle in a positive light and the best that Arsenal supporters can probably hope for is that it has no effect on the team. Secondly, regardless of what might happen in respect to Usmanov reaching the thirty per cent shareholding that would allow him full access to the clubs accounts, Stan Kroenke remains the majority shareholder at the club and there are unlikely to be any changes to its ownership struggle without his agreement.
To a point, where Arsenal finish next season may depend on the fortunes of other clubs. They finished nineteen points behind Manchester City and Manchester United at the end of last season and that is a huge gap to have to bridge if Arsenal are to challenge for the Premier League title, especially if Chelsea, who have occasionally looked this summer as if they are competing in some sort of transfer market equivalent of Supermarket Sweep, improve – as they surely should – upon last seasons patchy league record. The upside to all of this is that the familiar question mark that comes with any new managerial appointment hangs over Stamford Bridge, as well as over two other clubs that might have Champions League ambitions for the end of this season, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. To this extent we could argue that, while the veneer of infallibility has slipped from Arsene Wenger as Arsenals run without a major trophy has become longer and longer, but the stability that having had a manager for this length of time brings does carry some benefits.
What is the prognosis for Arsenal this season, then? There is no easy answer to this question, but the route to further success might come – as it might have done this time last year – through winning a cup or two, domestic or otherwise. The Champions League would remain the ultimate goal for Arsenal, but to start a season expecting to win this competition would seem unrealistic and winning the Premier League will require bridging that gap. A realistic aim might be to stay in touch with the Manchester clubs to see if they crack under pressure and to seek to break that seven year run without a major trophy. Whether that will be enough to pacify the regulars at The Emirates Stadium and deflect attention away from the Usmanov saga, however, may be a trickier business than lifting a piece of silverware can cope with. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the traditional values of custodianship that the club has fiercely guarded are under scrutiny like never before.
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