When major football stories break, Twitter is always the place to be to read the instant reactions of millions of fans around the world. Robin van Persie’s statement on his website, where he announced he would not be renewing his Arsenal contract, was another opportunity to observe reactions, and one of the best tweets likened the Arsenal captaincy to a ‘For Sale’ sign. For the fourth season in a row, the Arsenal captain seems certain to leave. Admittedly, Patrick Vieira was a little past his peak, Thierry Henry had given years of goal-laden service to the club, and Cesc Fabregas was returning to his spiritual home. This time, van Persie is quite blunt in his assessment that Arsenal do not seem to match his ambition. The Dutch are known for their straight talk. Not for them the platitudes and niceties that come with image management. While it may have bruised many an ego in North London – not least the manager that backed him over and over again during lengthy injury spells – the simple truth is that there is a fundamental disconnect between what the fans want, and the direction in which the club’s management want to go.
Arsenal is beginning to look a lot like Udinese and Porto, who sell their best players but find clever ways to remain competitive in their domestic leagues, and even punch above their weight in Europe. They rely on their excellent scouting networks to spot good players, and sell them after three or four seasons for many times the initial investment. The only difference is, while it has become almost club policy at the Friuli and the Dragao, Arsenal’s fans continue to harbour dreams of silverware when it is clearly a secondary consideration for those running the club. Arsene Wenger’s early success was built on a defence and goalkeeper that he inherited, who had intimidating reputations. Sol Campbell, Lauren, and Jens Lehmann were equally fearsome, while Henry and his excellent supporting cast provided the attacking spectacle.
The strategy since 2003/2004 has been built around investing in players and hoping that loyalty is returned, but an inability to turn potential into trophies has led to a situation where Arsenal is seen as a stepping stone instead of a destination. It is getting harder and harder to convince people that the Wenger project involves silverware, and van Persie must have been green with envy seeing Manchester City win the Premiership with the last kick of the season, with several of his former team mates in their ranks.
In the end, that’s what it’s really all about. Trophies. Alan Shearer must be wondering how different his career would have been if he had accepted to join Manchester United as he approached his peak. Roy Keane has no such regrets. Gazidis and Wenger are clearly not prepared to break their financial discipline in order to mount a sustained title challenge, but the margins for Champions’ league qualification are getting tighter and tighter. Tottenham ended up in fourth place, but were denied by an improbable victory in Europe by Chelsea.
Roman Abramovich is now presiding over the dismantling of the old Mourinho machine that made that victory possible, and is bankrolling a spending spree that makes them title contenders yet again. Manchester City’s limitless resources has taken them from tenth place to champions in four seasons. Alex Ferguson’s ability to adapt to his opponents on the pitch – and the fiduciary constraints off it – make his team difficult to dismiss. Then, there are other questions: what will be the impact of talented managers like Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas at their new clubs? Can Newcastle continue to buy well and march forward under Alan Pardew?
In theory, Arsenal might be competing with up to three other clubs for fourth place, but the reality may be rather more straightforward: Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski could fill the goal gap left by Robin’s departure, but the addition of Yann M’Vila might be even more crucial. He is a solid defensive presence in midfield that can cover for Thomas Vermaelen’s forward runs, which are effective and reckless in equal measure. Only Newcastle conceded more goals in the top 8 last season, and it was their worst since 1994-1995, when they played 42 league games. A repeat of that would surely spell disaster. It is also forgotten that Arsenal’s run of seven wins in a row which began in February, and put them in pole position for third place, coincided with the return of the team’s recognised full backs from lengthy injuries. Just keeping players fit can do wonders.
On arriving at Arsenal, Lukas Podolski said he wanted to win trophies, the same reason for which van Persie is leaving. Aside from the irony of that, Germany’s most recent centurion will find that life in England is a far cry from battling relegation with Cologne. However, if those he signed for want anything more than Champions’ League football, they are not acting like it.
Wenger’s own words on July 12th last year say it all:
Imagine the worst situation – we lose Fabregas and Nasri – you cannot convince people you are ambitious after that. You talk about Fabregas leaving, Nasri leaving. If you give that message out, you cannot pretend you are a big club, because a big club first of all holds onto its big players and gives a message out to all the other big clubs that they just cannot come in and take away from you.