This season, we are trying yet another new angle with the Twohundredpercent pre-season previews. Constraints of time mean that we are starting our pre-season previews very early this year, and this means that, in no small part through necessity, we will be trying to approach this from the perspective of the clubs as institutions – last minute transfer gossip will have to wait for another time. We will be covering all twenty Premier League clubs, as well as writing up previews for the Football League and the non-league game, and all of these plus a little more will be available in a swanky PDF, which will be available at the start of the season.
If we are to look at the changing role of football throughout recent history through the prism of class, then the changing face of Arsenal has arguably been more dramatic than many, if not most. There used to be something of the establishment about Arsenal – it was surely the only Premier League football club to retain two double-barrelled surnames on its board of directors until well into this century, and Highbury was a home of elegance and art deco stylings. The famed marble halls and the bronze bust of Herbert Chapman in the entrance to the East Stand, for example, would, perhaps, not have seemed quite as appropriate at any other English football club.
Times, however, change. The original of Chapman’s bust remains at Highbury, with a replica sitting at the Directors Entrance at The Emirates Stadium, the shiny new stadium for which Arsenal departed Highbury in 2006. And that shiny new stadium has increased expectations at Arsenal, expectations which have made the club’s six year’s wait for a trophy difficult to swallow for some. Yet the question of whether the last half-decade or so represents anything like a “crisis” remains something of a moot point. It has been well over a decade since the club last failed to qualify for the Champions League and seven years since they last failed to get through the group stages of that, after all. To describe Arsenal’s situation at present as being anything like a “crisis” requires a leap of logic of Fosbury-esque proportions.
This perpetual cycle of almost-success, however, puts Arsenal in a curiously tricky situation. If supporters of the club felt that it had perhaps arrived at a crossroads with its move to The Emirates Stadium, it appears from the outside that they are still waiting at it with the traffic lights perpetually on amber. The level of expectation that surrounds the club is now for serious exhortations towards regaining the Premier League championship while, in Europe, they always seem to falter a game or two away from the games that could rewrite the history of the club. While losing the League Cup final to Birmingham City last season was difficult to swallow, it feels as if winning a domestic cup trophy would only provide the most transient of scratches to an itch that requires the calamine lotion-like relief that only success in the pursuit of their two main aims can bring.
Last season, much was made of the team’s shortcomings on the pitch, to the extent that criticism of Arsene Wenger’s team has sometimes felt as if it was at the point of descending into parody. At the heart of all good parody, however, there often lies a grain of truth and such issues as Wenger’s reluctance to spend money on a proven, trusted goalkeeper or how lightweight their midfield is remain, to some extent at least, a mystery to most. It is this sort of apparent myopia that has led to the first hints of criticism amongst the club’s support if a manager whose position should be amongst the most secure in world football. If the grumbling against him grows to a greater crescendo, what might have been considered unthinkable two or three years ago may start to seem considerably more plausible.
In the transfer market, this summer has been more traumatic than Arsenal supporters would like. The loss of Gael Clichy to Manchester City seems far from a mortal blow to the playing squad but the apparent desire of two key players – Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas – to leave the club have been a blow to the notion of Arsenal being more competitive at the top of the table than they were last year, and the arrivals of Gervinho, Carl Jenkinson and Joel Campbell hint at more than a grain of truth in a criticism that has been levelled at Wenger in the past – that he sometimes seems more preoccupied with building a team for three or four years’ time rather than for the coming season. When, some Arsenal supporters have spent the last few months asking, will the club start spending something approaching the sort of money the status of the club merits? Laudable though Wenger’s principles undoubtedly are, push seems to be coming to shove for an increasing number of Arsenal supporters.
It’s hardly as if the club is insolvent at present, though spending levels are unlikely to be extravagant if the cheque book is pulled out. There are straightforward reasons for this which include (but are not limited to) underwhelming commercial deals signed several years ago, an expansive existing wage budget and debts that still need to be serviced, but it is important to bear in mind that transfer fees are far from the be-all and end-all of a club’s financial clout these days. Spending money smartly is more important than merely spending money, and Arsenal’s reputation for sound financial prudence in recent years hints that any new signing that may be made over the next few weeks being, at the very least, that players brought in that the manager wants and on the manager’s terms. Wenger may not be quite as invincible as he may have recently seemed, but the stability of his leadership of the playing side of the club will likely continue to be a considerable benefit to the club in a broader perspective.
Increased debate over Wenger’s tenure at the club, however, will (if anything) only be likely serve to damage this stability, and this isn’t the only front upon which the next nine months could be choppier than recent years. Stan Kroenke completed the increase of his share-holding in the club to 63% in April (a figure which has since increased to 66.64%), but Alisher Usmanov continues to lurk on the side-lines and, whilst the Arsenal Supporters Trust have also urged the minority shareholders not to sell and to stick with their Fanshare, Usmanov recently increased his share-holding to just over 29% – within 1% of the figure at which he can launch a take-over bid for the club and will have access to their books. Some supporters whole-heartedly support Kroenke, whilst others are suspicious of his relative silence since taking the club over and others support Usmanov.
The man himself, meanwhile, has been pushing and prodding in the pursuit of the hearts and minds of the supporters. “If the role of a board member is to oversee a trophyless period while making significant personal profits and asking fans to pay inflation-busting ticket price increases then, no, I would not want to be on the board”, he told the late News Of The World in June, which could be interpreted as, “Support me, and I will spend a lot of money on new players”. Support for him seems, anecdotally, to be growing, too – the recent Arsenal Supporters Trust annual poll showed 70% agreeing that he should have a place on the club’s board of directors. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect more politicking of this sort if things do not go well on the pitch next season.
There is, then, a greater air of unease hanging over Arsenal this summer than in recent years. The stability that served the club so well at the start of the last decade certainly feels more brittle than previously. Perhaps even more significantly than this, one could argue that Arsenal benefitted last season from the chaos that engulfed Liverpool during the second half of 2010 and a Spurs team distracted by its first crack at the Champions League. Arsenal’s qualification for this season’s Champions League seldom seemed in serious doubt last year, but next season may not be as straightforward. Liverpool spent much of the second half of last season regaining their poise and swagger, whilst Harry Redknapp will be unlikely to give as much attention to the Europa League as he did to the Champions League last season.
All of which is brings us back to the crossroads at which Arsenal find themselves. Cesc Fabregas is, of course, being strongly courted by Barcelona and has been, it rather feels, for as long as he has been at Arsenal. Samir Nasri, meanwhile, is interesting Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. These four clubs are amongst the clubs that Arsenal consider to be their peers at the top table of European football, and these two ongoing transfer sagas demonstrate the fix in which the club finds itself. Usmanov and the carrot that he is dangling may offer an opportunity to join this set in terms of spending power, but even this doesn’t guarantee success (there is no such thing in guaranteed success if the bar set involves winning the Champions League or Premier League year after year), and the notion of custodianship has become part of the very fabric of the club. It’s not a crisis, but it is a dilemma that may need to be resolved one way or the other over the next few months or so.
With thanks to Stephen Bradley.
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