Arsenal’s decline: An inescapable truth?
Arsenal’s poor performance in their 2-0 home defeat to Swansea at the weekend has led to many fans openly voicing their disapproval of the direction their team is headed. While blame must be shared among all participants, this decline has been a long time coming. However, this decline in fortunes on the pitch should be seen with a certain sense of perspective.
In 2003-2004, Arsenal achieved the unthinkable in modern football by staying unbeaten throughout the season. While this has since been achieved by Juventus last season in Serie A; to reach that level of performance in the Premier League was unheard of. Not only were Arsenal unbeaten over the course of that season, but they also produced some of the most mesmerising football ever seen on these shores. Their win was one for the purists.
But now, with Arsenal in 10th place, and with their worst ever start to a Premier League campaign under Wenger; the time for reflection over this steady decline has come. The dearth of any trophy since 2005 has weighed ever more on players’ and fans’ minds as their form continues to deteriorate.
Wenger has been the target of many critics for his role in Arsenal’s fall from grace. Indeed, his faith in many players who have failed to perform over the years has been a constant source of irritation among fans. His stubbornness in particular has confounded many of his admirers.
There is an argument to be made that Wenger was lulled into a false sense of expectation after the 2003-2004 season. With an ageing side at his disposal, and a new stadium in the works, the French manager felt vindicated in his decision to put faith in youngsters. After all, players like Van Persie, Fabregas, Cole and, to a lesser extent, Flamini and Senderos (among others), had displayed superb potential while following the new tradition of exquisite football.
The future was looking bright for Arsenal, and fans and manager alike rejoiced in the possibilities of this young core of players. But Wenger had faith too soon; with the retirement of Keown and the departures of mentors like Vieira, Pirès and Henry, the young generation had no one to turn to. Wenger bravely protected his young team from criticism but, by doing so, arguably limited their ambitions.
For years Arsenal fans were told of the day when these young players would add steel to their play and would go on to dominate the Premier League. Except that a combination of injuries and limited development curtailed these aspirations. The failure of highly-touted players such as Vela, Denilson and Djourou was emblematic of Wenger’s misguided confidence in his young players.
Perhaps Arsenal would have been in a better situation to compete had Wenger been given some funds. But with the construction of the Emirates Stadium, which totalled £390 million, and a reported salary cap of £70,000 a week, Arsène has been restrained by his hierarchical superiors for several years.
Boardroom unrest has also caused uncertainty over the amount of money Wenger actually has at his disposal. With both Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov vying for control of the club, the Gunners’ manager has long been left without any help within the club. The void left by the departure of David Dein looks bigger every day for Wenger.
This has in turn meant that Arsenal’s manager has become the target for the fans. His undoubted loyalty and reluctance to ever air his displeasure in public has worked against him, much to the delight, surely, of the board members and Ivan Gazidis, the beleaguered Arsenal chief executive who awarded himself a huge pay rise despite limited success on the pitch.
Wenger has long appealed for patience and for fans to be reasonable. Indeed, with Arsenal still able to mount a challenge for the Capital One Cup, the FA Cup and the Champions League, it seems once again that many have rushed to conclusions.
A certain sense of perspective should therefore be kept in mind when considering Arsenal’s situation. With Financial Fair Play coming into play soon, Arsenal will once again be competitive thanks to its outstanding finances.
And Arsenal fans, while fearing a decline, should not worry about the future. Thanks to Wenger’s perhaps frustrating management, the club will manage to survive for years to come. The same cannot be said of clubs like Chelsea and the Manchester clubs who are all at the mercy of foreign owners and unsustainable decline. Were Abramovich to leave, Chelsea would be in dire straits and in risk of financial meltdown. This possibility is unthinkable at Arsenal.
Calls for the removal of Wenger, who holds the club together, are therefore wide off the mark. His actions both on and off the pitch have guaranteed future success for the club in the long-term.
Baptiste Reynaud, Football correspondent