I could write 2000 words easily as a preview of this season for Arsenal and God knows I’ve written far more than that just over the summer, but let’s face facts: there’s just not a lot more to be said. There’s time yet for one more player to come in (or not) who might seriously change the calculus, but in all likelihood the squad for this year and the spirit and ethos of the team are set and unchanging except for some few of the names on the shirt-backs, as they have been for several years now. Almost everyone who follows this team, even those who merely glance at it from afar, sees the same things: in attack, majestic and among the best in the world; in midfield, unreadable and varying wildly depending on health and positional assignments; in defense, disorganized and undermanned; in goal, solid and largely dependable. On paper this team is a title challenger and on the field they’re injury-riddled and lacking in confidence, simultaneously more and less than the sum of their parts. Very little has changed in the last several years for all the talk that it has.
Wenger has been quoted today as stating that “The team we have now gets there, and by that I mean it wins the championship”, and of course he may be right. Two out of three of the other serious title challengers are a great deal weaker on paper having lost players who they proved unable to replace, and while some might say the same of Arsenal the fact is that Cristiano Ronaldo or Xavi Alonso are each worth five Adebayors at minimum. Arsenal have arguably the best player in the entire league now in Andrey Arshavin, one of the few players able to steal points and games entirely on the basis of his own unique genius, and the value of such a player is very difficult to overstate. We may yet find that over 38 games the foibles and flaws of this team aren’t fatal when a player of his caliber is present to make up for them. Arshavin, present last year, never allows Tottenham to escape from attacking pressure to come back in the 4-4 game, never allows Stoke or Hull to spend large chunks of those humiliating losses waiting to counterattack and feeling wholly unthreatened by patterned and predictable Arsenal possession, never allows the team to look as listless as they did in the early loss to Fulham. If the question is “can this Arsenal team win the league?” then the answer is: Yes.
And yet, and yet, and yet. This team relies on one or two players far more than is healthy, and if Arshavin or Fabregas miss any serious time the blow may be fatal. The question remains as to how far the manager even trusts Arshavin following the FA cup semi-final debacle from last year, an issue thrown into high relief by the manifest failure of the various cogs and wheels in Wenger’s proud machine to function without the spirit of an Arshavin to drive them. This team has never yet proven able to succeed in the clutch against top opposition; the last truly great and historic game played by Arsenal, the 2006 Champions League final, featured only three players who will be present in the squad on Saturday, five if you count the unused substitutes from that game. In the years since the memories are of Birmingham and Rosicky’s knees and Eboue booed off at home, not of big games or big victories. To expect this club to win at the highest level this year is to expect them collectively and for the most part individually to do something which they have never done before. And that’s possible; but the odds are long.
I don’t think it makes any real sense to bother guessing a league position specifically for Arsenal this year. There’s too many variables at play from the inevitable injuries still to happen to transfer dealings in this window or the next to whether the young players will develop like Alex Song or devolve like Abou Diaby. I would guess, at this point, that the percentages chances for various finishes are about 15% 1st, 15% 2nd, 30% 3rd, 35% 4th, and 5% fifth. Past performance is always the best guide to future performance, and the reality is that this team, assembled mostly of these players, has never finished higher than 3rd in the current era and three years in four has finished 4th. When little has changed, then… little has changed. The same great strengths and same weaknesses are still there. The attacking football is still often brilliant, the defensive lapses are still often glaring. 3 defensive midfielders left the club two years ago and have never been replaced. The only thing different is Arshavin; and therein lies the real interest this year, both on the pitch and off it.
The transfer for Arshavin represented something new in the way this team was designed. Last year, prior to his arrival, the odds were greater than they’d been since the 05-06 season that Arsenal would finish outside the top 4; it’s impossible to say for certain what motivated the purchase of the Russian, but it’s also hard to imagine that the desperation to avoid that fate and the financial implications thereof was not a major part of it. And so, for the first and so far only time since the initiation of the youth policy, Wenger went out and bought a superstar in the prime of his career: a 27 year old dynamo whose value was not in what he might become, or what he might be resold for, or how he fit into a carefully designed blueprint- but in what he did, on his own, on the pitch, right now. Arshavin has been described as a Wenger player and so he is in some ways- small, quick, technical, attack-minded. And yet the transfer to get him was not just an exception to but the negation of the policy which Wenger has chosen and claimed for years to have followed at the club, the purchase for big money of proven quality in order to save the home-grown youngsters from disaster. I don’t happen to buy into the idea that Arshavin was forced on Wenger by Gazidis or anyone else; I DO buy into the idea that Arshavin was forced onto Wenger by Wenger himself. Last year forced the manager to look, finally, at his team and what they really were away from the training ground and in competition. More than anything else I think that’s the crucial and under-discussed importance of Arshavin: he’s the first and perhaps only crack in the story of Wenger’s Arsenal youth policy.
This year will likely determine how far that crack spreads. Last year Wenger fought against it; he pulled Arshavin from that cup semi-final and trusted his policy, and lost. This year he still seems determined to do so, and so it’s two players out and one in at the Emirates and a lot of talk about a 17 year old. Maybe that’s where it ends: maybe Wenger’s Arsenal + Arshavin for a full year is good enough to win it all; maybe it’s not, and the manager, having cracked once, is determined not to do so again and so all the quotes about needing to prove something and judge me after the season will be recycled next year. Either one of those outcomes ensure status quo at the club, one more or less happily, the other not. But it’s the other possibility which intrigues me- that this may be the year when, in the end, everyone who cares about this club has to look, really look, at what’s going on. Because there are a lot of games being played and a lot of lies being told right now, and sooner or later these things must come to a head.
Who runs Arsenal? Who owns it? Hill-Wood, Lady Nina, Usmanov and Kroenke, games-players all. A resolution there is brewing. Diaby, Denilson, Song, Rosicky, Eboue, Silvestre, Nasri, Djourou, Senderos if he sticks around; shown up for what they are by the brilliance and maturity of Arshavin as undependable, undeveloped or simply dross, how many of them will follow Song’s lead and begin to show themselves capable of developing into serious parts of a contending team? Is there even half a season of football left in Rosicky? Does Nasri have an actual position or the ability to show more than on-and-off flashes of brilliance? Is Denilson anything other than a walking argument against taking current stats seriously? And how long can such questions be asked until the answer is: bring us some players who don’t come with these questions. Bring us some men who know their business. Bring us a Patrick Vieira, a Thierry Henry, a Robert Pires, a Tony Adams; bring us the players who used to make this club great, or bring us a manager and an owner who can. Every year this team is riddled with injuries, and the talk is of bad luck and ill fortune; maybe this is the year when fans and decision makers alike look at that phenomenon and take it seriously, plan for it and correct for it in the team and stop using it as the weakest of all possible excuses. It’s the first game of the season tomorrow and already 5 or 6 squad members including 2 certain starters are out injured, some for months. How long can such things persist before someone looks? For two years now the club has been without a serious defensive midfielder and now they’re attempting to play like Barcelona, without the defensive anchor and ball-winner on which that style partly depends. How long can this pass without notice? Another transfer window seems destined to pass by with more stars sold and incomes exceeding expenditures, an essentially unique pattern of business among top level clubs. How long can this go on before the questions about it are asked directly and not just whispered about?
Most importantly, is this the year when everyone who cares about this club looks at the recent history, the statements and attacks and defenses of the policies enacted, and addresses them with a serious grasp of perspective? Nothing else could be as great a boon to the club as that, because so much of what’s gone wrong with Arsenal right now is based on a total lack thereof. Wenger tells the lie that no one has any patience with him, and no one with influence looks at it long enough to say: wait a minute. You’ve had 4 years with a free hand and little criticism, marches in the streets and banners hung in support of you, and the sternest rebuke you’ve faced directly is some pointed questions at a meeting. Some fans tell the lie that Wenger is stupid or that the club is a complete disaster, and because the fan base is so fragmented there’s often few of the rational ones there to say: wait a minute. The club’s long term potential remains incredibly strong, and the fact is that whether his current policies are correct or defensible or not, Wenger is one of the great managers of his era and deserves better than to be called a cunt or an idiot as he so often is on some sites. At the deeper level, there’s all too often a tendency to be caught up in the next game (or the last) and believe that a good win cures a long-term flaw, or a bad finish tars a sound policy. You lose the ability to step back and look at the long game: the need to establish a track record over the span of years, to notice the changes in the sport, the evolution of individual players and leagues and the sport as a whole.
So here’s the bottom line as I see it: this season marks five years since Arsenal’s last trophy, and at Arsenal winning is the measure of success. Five years is long enough to judge a President or a Prime Minister; it’s long enough to judge a policy and a football manager. If Arsenal win something this year that is not a blanket vindication of the policy any more than not winning something 2 or 3 years ago was a blanket condemnation of it, because what matters is the capacity to win or at least contend over time and the ability to field a team with the attributes and attitudes of a champion. If Wenger’s great experiment wins the league, or the Champions League, or even the FA cup this year then he’s proven that it has a chance to work- not that it’s the best policy, not that it can succeed consistently, not that it’s sustainable- but that it has a chance to. That buys him time, another season to do things his way. But if the end result is failure again for a 5th straight season then this thing is over. It will become impossible to hold onto players like Arshavin or Fabregas; it will be difficult for the new owners, whoever they may be, to continue justifying uncritical support of a failed policy and a manager no longer meeting his own standards of success. Most importantly perhaps, it may even become impossible for Wenger to fool himself any longer, to ignore the gulf in class between Arshavin and Denilson, between Arsenal 6 years ago and Arsenal today. In the end he may have to look, really look, at the reality of things.
More than the league or any given trophy, that’s what’s at stake this year.
2269 words; what can you do.
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