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The regression of Arsenal

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For the last few years I’ve been engaged in a long-running dilemma over how good Arsenal are. Ever since the generation of players that helped them to the unbeaten Premier League season in 2003-04 has left, I’ve always had a niggling feeling that the players that have made up each squad have been somewhat weak and feeble, and definitely inferior to their rivals. And yet they still managed to finish inside the top 4 each year.

Basically, it means one of two things – either I have underrated most of those players, or I have underrated Arsene Wenger’s ability to get the most out of them and they have overachieved relative to their respective abilities. The resulting evidence is unclear – whereas Cesc Fabregas doesn’t look out of place at Barcelona and Robin van Persie has proven pivotal for Manchester United this season, Samir Nasri, Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy do look out of place at Manchester City and Emmanuel Adebayor has never hit the same heights as he did at the Emirates Stadium in 2007-08.

Similarly, it’s hard to judge the band of misfits and journeymen that Arsene Wenger currently calls his “squad”. There is no doubt that the vast majority on their day are brilliant players, but how often are those days? Defensively, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny have not lived up to their potential, while Bacary Sagna has regressed rapidly and Kieran Gibbs looks no better than any other average English full-back in the top two divisions. In midfield, there are no senior defensive midfielders, Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky are injured more than they are fit, Mikel Arteta will be 31 next month and has probably already peaked, and Aaron Ramsey’s form nose-dived after the death of national manager Gary Speed and hasn’t recovered. In attack, Olivier Giroud is adequate but not Champions League standard, Gervinho is unreliable, and Lukas Podolski looks like the Podolski of Bayern rather than the Podolski of Cologne and Germany.

Alongside them, the squad remains peppered by players that you can’t believe are still contracted to the club – Andrei Arshavin, Sebastian Squillaci and the out-on-loan bunch that includes Bendtner, Chamakh, Andre Santos, Djourou and, believe it or not, Denilson. Why are these players still hanging around, taking wages, instead of leaving and earning at least some money for the club? If money was such a big deal, this is what would have happened – this is why Arsenal fans cannot play the money card, not to mention that wage bill…

Of course, I’ve glossed over the better players in the squad – I think Szczesny is one of the best young goalkeepers around (sure, he makes mistakes, but so does Joe Hart and that doesn’t stop him being claimed as the Messiah), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere have more development to come, Nacho Monreal seems like one of Arsenal’s best signings of recent years, Santi Cazorla is one of the best playmakers in the Premier League and, yes, Theo.

But this is half the point, isn’t it? Those Arsenal fans who defend Wenger (and I’m aware I’m building a straw man here) remain clinging to these small morsels of hope – the hope that Wilshere will lead them to glory like Steven Gerrard at Liverpool; the hope that Theo Walcott will turn into something other than a sprinter who can control a football; the hope that Serge Gnabry and Chuba Akpom will appear from the youth ranks and be the saviours of the club despite such claims being made many times before and coming to nothing. “Imagine the team we’d have…” never works because things always happen that you don’t expect – injuries, not living up to the hype, other teams getting better, the manager deciding to sell the best players to rivals…

Many others have gone into the details of why Arsenal have ended up in this situation in terms of the finances so I don’t want to repeat what they have said. But I think it’s a good idea to look back at what constituted a “good” Arsenal side compared to the mess they have now, and to try and find out when the rot set in.

In the short term, you can look to the League Cup Final defeat 2 years ago. Arsenal looked like challenging Manchester United for the title, and had their chance to pick up a rare trophy, one that would have been derided had they won it as pointless but one that they couldn’t afford to lose. And they did lose. Not only that, but they lost in calamitous fashion. After that, they never looked the same team and collapsed to finish 4th again. Then, in the summer, Wenger sold Fabregas, Clichy and Nasri, two of the club’s long-term servants and one of the brightest young stars, and didn’t replace them until Deadline Day (after that 8-2 defeat to United, yeah?), when he made a bunch of panic buys which were enough to get them through one league season but are going to prove the downfall of them this season when they finish 5th and get dumped out of the Champions League at the first knockout round. That’s basically how we got to where we are.

But, like most things in life, it’s more complicated than that. Let’s go back 5 years, to 2007-08. This was their second season at the Emirates, but more to the point it was their first in some years without Thierry Henry and Fredrik Ljungberg, who had been sold in the summer. Wenger also sold Jose Antonio Reyes and Jeremie Aliadiere, bringing in Eduardo, Bacary Sagna, Lukas Fabianski and Lassana Diarra (who would be sold to Portsmouth at the end of the season – another of the “more trophies than Arsenal since he left” crowd). Back then, the squad contained most of Arsenal’s recent familiar faces, but also reminders of some of the past failures – Alex Hleb is there, for instance. It doesn’t look all that impressive a squad bar a few promising individuals – Adebayor scored 30 goals in all competitions, while they could still boast the likes of Fabregas, Van Persie, Gallas, and Gilberto Silva.

All told, it’s hardly vintage Arsenal, and yet they still finished 3rd with 83 points, only 2 behind Chelsea and 4 points behind Manchester United. Or, to put it another way, they nearly won. It defies logic. It’s not like you can put that down to one individual – Henry was gone, Vieira was gone, Van Persie only played in 23 matches. Is it really all down to Cesc? My memories of that season are fuzzy but I doubt it.

Whereas seasons before that you could argue were based around individual brilliance, this first post-Henry season marks a shift away from that. Or does it? You could possibly even trace that back to the previous season. Interestingly (and I hadn’t realised this before checking), Henry made just 24 starts that season, 1 less than Van Persie and 8 less than Adebayor. Does £16 million represent good value for a player that started around half your games that season? Of course.

I’m starting to think the end of 2005-06 was crucial here – that Champions League Final defeat has been cited as important because it was the last major final Arsenal were in. But few have gone on to explain that further – that this was the last major match for a bunch of Invincibles-era players. Look at that starting line-up: Lehmann; Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Pires, Gilberto Silva, Fabregas, Hleb; Ljungberg; Henry. Subs: Almunia, Senderos, Clichy, Flamini, Reyes, Bergkamp, Van Persie. That summer, Bergkamp retired, Campbell and Pires were sold, Reyes was loaned out in exchange for Julio Baptista, and, in probably the key move, Ashley Cole went to Chelsea as a part-exchange for Gallas.

For one, you’ve just lost some of the key figures of the previous few seasons who had built Arsenal up into this Champions League-contending European giant (yes, football was invented in 1992). Who replaced them? Arsenal’s summer signings in 2006 were Alex Song (18 years old), Tomas Rosicky (probably the only genuine statement of intent), Julio Baptista (on loan as a part-exchange), William Gallas (29 years old, not good enough for Chelsea, and a part-exchange) and Denilson (18 years old and shit). There’s no Bergkamp replacement there. There’s no Cole replacement there. Pires was sort of replaced by Rosicky but not really as Pires was a winger and Rosicky isn’t. The Campbell replacement was not good enough for one of their key rivals. Baptista wasn’t good enough for Real Madrid.

There’s a clear lack of ambition even at that stage, typified by selling Cole. Not only did they sell the player who would become the best left-back in the world (if he wasn’t already by that point) to one of their biggest rivals, but they got just £5 million and Gallas for him.

This is the moment it all becomes clear – this is the moment it becomes obvious that the owners are resting on their laurels, assuming Wenger can just do the job without them needing to reinvest. I have seen a similar scenario unravelling at Torquay this season – after a great season last year, the owners assumed that Martin Ling could perform similar miracles the following season and gave him no money to spend, while key players left for big sums which were then reinvested only in the club’s facilities; the result is we’re now in a relegation fight. A manager can’t keep performing miracles forever.

Was 2006 the turning point for Arsenal? Possibly, but I think the beds were already made by that point. As with Torquay, the moment to act wasn’t when Pires, Campbell, Bergkamp and Henry were over the hill. It was when they were winning the league – the Invincibles season, Arsenal’s greatest triumph, may also be their downfall.

It takes a brilliant manager and club to make the most of your high points, to stay at that peak, to be proactive. Look at Barcelona, the team they competed against and nearly beat in that Champions League Final – they are brilliant now, but more to the point, they will be brilliant for a long time. Why? Because they haven’t just sat back and watched this golden generation of players keep going until they drop. They have been preparing the way for the next generation – Fabregas is the future replacement for Xavi; Song is the future replacement for Mascherano; Alba replaced Abidal; and there are plenty of youngsters coming through the academy, like Thiago, Cuenca, Tello, Montoya and Bartra who are talented and are being used wisely. Arsenal used their golden generation for as long as possible, and failed to replace them adequately; the back-ups Wenger brought into the side mostly weren’t up to the task.

Ultimately, despite the claims otherwise, Wenger hasn’t just done a bad job this season, or last season and this season, or even over the last three seasons. The situation that Arsenal are in now is the result of poor management decisions made over the last 10 years. It’s the result of continued complacency by him and the board, and the board’s continued faith in a manager who was destroying everything that he had built up. If that isn’t a reason to sack a manager, I don’t know what is.

To say now “Arsenal can’t sack Wenger, it’s disrespectful to everything he’s achieved” is totally missing the point and is exactly why they are in this situation now – he is the destructive influence, and will continue to be the destructive influence until he has gone, so to keep the faith with him guarantees they will be a further step down from the pinnacle to which they aspire.

There is no doubt that Arsene Wenger was once a great manager who led Arsenal to the top of English football. But he is also the reason why they have declined. What does the future hold? It may be too late to save their Big Club status in the short term, even if they sacked him tomorrow. Whoever takes over as Arsenal manager after Wenger has to sort out a massive mess, whilst also living up to the inevitable high expectations of Arsenal fans – whoever it will be is doomed from the moment they take over. I envisage a similar situation to Liverpool – the destructive manager and the lack of ambition from the spineless owners, followed the slide down the table, and eventually ending up with the delusions of grandeur and the pathetic claims from the fans that “we can be big again”. To a certain degree, it’s already at that point, but it may get worse. It will almost certainly get worse before it gets better for Arsenal fans.

Rebuilding Arsenal FC will take a long time – and I genuinely think it needs to be called a rebuilding job, because there is so much work to be done. But the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging its existence…


Written by James

February 19, 2013 at 18:09

Club Profile: Aston Villa

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This will hopefully be the start of a series of brief articles looking at various British clubs, their history and their current position and standing. Nothing too innovative or exciting. Just a way of looking at the “bigger picture”, to use an overused cliché – from a broader perspective, to see where they have come from and where they could go in the future.

Is Aston Villa the smallest of the big clubs or the biggest of the small? It’s a difficult question. Largely pointless, but difficult.

They’re the English club that won the European Cup that you can never remember. We all remember United winning it and Forest winning it with Clough and Liverpool winning it loads. We all remember that many other large important clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea and Torquay haven’t won it. But everyone forgets that at the end of that great run of English success in the 1970s and early 1980s, Villa were officially the best club in Europe. No one remembers poor old Peter Withe and his contribution to the English game.

It is also often overlooked how much of a history of success they have, something that rivals the biggest clubs in the country. They were the Football League’s most successful club from 1899 to 1953, and there are only four clubs with more titles than them. They are also second only to Liverpool for League Cup wins with five, while seven FA Cup wins puts them behind only Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham. Overall, they are fourth in the English honours table, with 20 pieces of silverware – that’s more than Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton, Newcastle, Blackburn, you name it. Not to mention the fact that only Everton have spent more seasons in the top flight than them.

They also have one of the biggest grounds in English football. It used to be one of the most beautiful too until the gorgeous brick façade of the Trinity Road Stand was torn down in 2000. Ideally located next to the M6’s Spaghetti Junction, it puts the club in a great position of strength – there’s always going to be potential there to attract fans and grow the club into one of the biggest in the country. But that’s not to say it’s a white elephant stadium at the moment – there’s no doubt that they are the biggest club in the West Midlands.

But at the same time, you cannot put them in the same bracket as the Manchester and London clubs, not only on recent form and wealth, but also the distinct lack of success at Villa Park in recent years. The 1981 success which put them into the European Cup prior to them winning it is their most recent title success. Their best performance in the Premier League years was in the very first season when they finished 2nd to Manchester United. The top 4 has evaded them since 1996, which was also the year of their last trophy success. Not since the heady days of Dublin, Merson and Joachim in 1998-99, with John Gregory at the helm, have they looked like genuine title contenders, and even then they slipped away rather dramatically in the second half of the season. 2002-03 and 2005-06 saw skirmishes with relegation danger. The “renaissance” under O’Neill was still limited – they remained, and still remain, some distance from the leading contenders.

O’Neill’s departure seems to have been a turning point, with the team having regressed under Houllier and even more so under McLeish, to the point of them facing a similar slide towards relegation as the Scot’s previous club last season. The sale of key players can’t have helped, but it’s not as if the revenues of the sales of Downing, Young, Milner and Barry – £60m+ in total, over less than three years, from just four players – have been fully reinvested in the playing squad.

Look at the League Cup final side of 2010, and compare that to the current squad – it’s clear to see that the key players that have left have not been replaced, and the squad has not been strengthened. How is Randy Lerner expecting them to progress as a club and challenge for European spots by selling the big names and only coming up with the money to replace them with Darren Bent and Charles N’Zogbia, or hiring a manager who had just relegated their local rivals? For me, it’s a competition between him and Abramovich for the title of the daftest owner in the Premier League.

Villa are stagnating, taking their status for granted and in danger of slipping into the Championship as Newcastle and West Ham have done previously. Even if they survive this year, Lerner needs to seriously invest in the playing squad (and, ideally, a new manager) to avoid even more of a struggle next year. A club of their history and stature does not deserve this, but in the Premier League, history counts for nothing.

But beyond mere survival in the top flight, they have the potential to do so much more. There’s arguably more untapped potential with Villa than with a club like Manchester City. They are the biggest club in one of the most heavily-populated regions of the country. They have history. They have a massive list of honours to their name, including the most important trophy in club football. They have a large stadium situated next to one of the main transport arteries of England. Why is this club not one of the giants of the English game right now? With the right management, they certainly could be.

Written by James

March 12, 2012 at 01:02