In the increasingly polarized world of Arsenal support, it seems that there is only room for unrelenting positivity or cataclysmic doom. But I’d like to suggest that there’s a third option. Perhaps it is possible to question some of the decision making at the club, without implying that Arsene Wenger is some anachronistic fool who’s lost his understanding of the modern game and the people controlling Arsenal FC are all avaricious monsters hoping to destroy everything good at the club. I don’t think it’s necessary to be so intractable.
At this point, I am ready to concede that the club have made some egregious mistakes this summer. The club have failed to deal truthfully with the fans, and once again left crucial transfer business to be done far too late. On the one hand there are issues where Arsene is choosing sporting concerns over pecuniary realities, while simultaneously ignoring certain other sporting deficiencies in the name of financial considerations.
When you add up all the facts, there’s simply no avoiding the conclusion that the people controlling Arsenal are in the midst of bottling this pivotal transfer window much the way their players recently bottled the Carling Cup Final. If we’re going to be critical of the players for such transgressions, we should be allowed to be equally critical of the leadership at Arsenal.
Consider the following questions:
- Will Cesc stay at Arsenal? If he does, when will he be ready to play? What can we expect from him? If he’s sold, how will we replace him?
- Will Nasri sign? If he doesn’t, will he be sold? If he is sold, will he be replaced? Would we let him leave for free?
- Will we buy a central defender? Will we go into the season depending on Gibbs and Traore at left-back?
- Will Bendtner, Eboue and Almunia be sold?
- Without Bendtner, and with Chamakh’s dip in form, do we genuinely have enough quality at center-forward beyond van Persie?
Arsenal knew that it faced virtually every one of these questions at the end of last season. And with less than two weeks until the start of the new season, none have been answered. Maybe we shouldn’t expect to have every answer. A few can only be provided in time. But it’s unconscionable that we should be asking the same questions on August 3rd that we were asking in May.
It all starts with Cesc Fabregas. Last summer there was endless speculation that he would leave for Barcelona. Arsene was clear that Arsenal had no intention of selling him. However, there was no denial that Cesc wanted a move to the Nou Camp. Some people close to the situation suggested that Arsene asked Cesc to give him one more year at the Arsenal. Regardless, Arsenal’s public statements about the player proved truthful and accurate. Arsenal said Cesc would stay and Cesc stayed.
This summer has been entirely different. We began the summer with declarations from the manager that Cesc was staying and that the player was not for sale. Slowly, as the summer progressed, those statements changed. Now we know that the club will sell the player to Barcelona but only if the Catalans meet our valuation.
In the background, there has been speculation that the player is quietly on “strike.” He did not accompany the team to Asia. He did not play for the team in the Emirates Cup. And while the club initially tried to mollify supporters with claims of a continued hamstring problem, they have since acknowledged that he’s “unsettled.”
Whether the player is in fact on “strike” is irrelevant. It’s clear that the Cesc issue is directly effecting the team’s preparation. Cesc Fabregas is arguably the best player at Arsenal. You can’t possibly prepare for a new season, especially one so front-loaded with key fixtures, when you don’t know the status of your most influential player.
Moreover, we are now hearing claims that Arsenal’s ability to proceed with essential transfer business hinges, to some extent, on what happens with Cesc. Not only are the team unable to prepare with their best player, but they’re also unable to conduct the business necessary to improve the team.
The team have left this too late. Next week there are international fixtures. Most players will spend that week with their country rather than their club. By the time they return to London Colney, the match at St. James’ Park will be 48 hours away. So it’s safe to say we are down to the last five days of meaningful preseason preparation for Arsenal. And we still don’t know if our captain and best player will be with the team, or if a replacement will be bought should he leave.
At this point it almost doesn’t matter. If Cesc were to stay, it’s unlikely to expect much from him for the first few weeks. If Cesc is sold, and Arsenal were to buy a replacement, it’s hard to imagine that the new player could be ready in time. So we should simply expect neither to have Cesc at the start of the season, nor have any reinforcements at his position.
It’s a bad outcome to a bad situation. But the club have created their own fortune. If they had just been honest at the beginning of the summer, they could’ve taken control of the situation. Frankly, I’m not sure why they haven’t anyway. Arsenal could have come out and said:
“Cesc will be sold to Barcelona if they meet our valuation of the player. We value Cesc at £40 million and will not entertain any bid below that price. We are prepared to hold Cesc Fabregas to his contract if we do not receive an offer at our asking price. If the necessary bid is not received by the start of our Asian Tour, then Cesc will be an Arsenal player for the upcoming season.”
I might be over simplifying a complex situation but frankly I fail to see how. This transfer is down to one thing; price. They want the player, the player wants them. By hesitating in our approach to this transfer we’ve given Barcelona and Cesc Fabregas reason to believe that we can be bullied into accepting a lower bid. If I were Barcelona, that’s precisely how I would interpret Arsenal’s behavior. I wouldn’t pay what Arsenal are asking if I didn’t have to. Especially when Cesc isn’t even Barcelona’s primary transfer target.
Some people might argue that Cesc’s own behavior is what’s put us in such a difficult position. I don’t accept that. We could tell Cesc that he’s free to go if Barca meet our price and explain to him why the price is reasonable given other market valuations. If Cesc threatened to go on strike for the season, we call his bluff.
Everything Cesc has done in his Arsenal career has been geared towards achieving success for himself and his team while garnering the respect and admiration of the fans. Can anyone believe the player would sit out a season, right before the European Championships, in his mid 20s, because Barcelona wouldn’t pay what he’s worth? Would he trash his reputation, lose the money, give up a year of football, and possibly lose a spot in the Spain squad over this? Nothing about Cesc suggests that he would behave that way. I think he would accept that his “dream move” to Barca has to wait and do his best for Arsenal once again.
The fact that we are now in this confused situation with Cesc Fabregas has nothing to do with Barcelona or the player. It has to do with Arsenal showing a stunning lack of conviction or direction on an issue that they knew would be prominent again this summer.
If that was the only thing the club did wrong this summer, then you might say it’s not the end of the world. But there’s the Samir Nasri situation to consider as well. Nasri became a popular figure at the Emirates last season. While there’s no denying his spectacular start to the campaign, there’s also no avoiding the deterioration of his contribution over the last 5 months.
Nasri is still essentially unproven, but he wants to be the highest paid player at the club. Despite his obvious motives, he has dazzled some fans with spectacular bullshit about wanting to see ambition from Arsenal before he signs. I find it interesting that when Denilson claimed he was a winner and wanted to win trophies, most people dismissed that as lunacy. But when Nasri says it, while negotiating a contract, many people are quick to lap it up.
If you believe the reports, and there’s reason to believe them, Arsenal can get £22 million for Samir Nasri. Yet for some reason, Arsene Wenger has departed from his usual policy of fiscal responsibility and said that Nasri is not for sale. It’s hard to understand really. Nasri is far more replaceable than Cesc. We can get more money for him than he’s probably worth. We’re likely going to lose him for free next summer anyway. But Arsene has chosen this moment to show a callous disregard for finances. Why?
Wenger said earlier in the summer that you cannot sell Cesc and Nasri and claim that you are still an ambitious club. Perhaps he is right. But that depends entirely on what you do in connection with those sales. If you fleece City for £22 million and use it to buy Juan Mata and a dependable center back, then you will not only be seen as ambitious, but improved!
Wenger’s stance on Nasri has started to change recently, just as his stance on Cesc has changed. Wenger now says that Nasri will only stay if he shows clear signs of his commitment. Personally, I don’t care if he agrees to sign for Arsenal for half his current wages. He’s not a £22 million player in my opinion. He’s not capable of playing Cesc’s role in the center of the park. And wingers are something we have in abundance at the club. Selling him gives us the resources to properly strengthen.
But now that situation is shrouded in uncertainty. Nasri can’t play in the first leg of our Champions League playoff tie. Had we sold him early in the summer and spent that money already, we’d be a stronger side to start the season. Now there’s little chance he’ll be sold before the season begins, if he’s sold at all. He won’t help us start our qualifying campaign for the Champions League, but we won’t have a replacement for him in time to help us if he is sold. As far as I can tell, it’s a situation that’s been badly mismanaged and the ultimate decision on Nasri may eventually prove to be the wrong one.
And as bad as the Cesc and Nasri situations have been this summer, the handling of our defensive issues has probably been probably worse. We were told very clearly at the beginning of the summer that Arsenal would be active in the transfer market and that the defense would be strengthened. It was a decisive statement that the manager was aware of our deficiencies and intended to rectify them.
But actions speak louder than words. Wenger sold our established left-back and bought an untested, young right-back. Carl Jenkinson looks a bright young talent but right-back is the most settled position in our defense. Meanwhile, Gael Clichy’s departure means two untested left-backs will battle for that starting role. Gibbs is the player Wenger has identified as Clichy’s successor, but injury problems have consistently kept him from finishing matches, let alone playing for several months consecutively.
And none of those moves addressed the problem in the center of defense. Time has ticked away and Arsenal have yet to sign the central defender that we were assured was arriving. Early in the transfer window we heard that Samba and Cahill were likely. Now we hear that Jagielka is a target. But in each case, Arsenal did not see fit to buy the player. By most accounts, our bids were deemed insufficient in each instance.
Even as recently as last week, Ivan Gazidis has said that Arsenal were certain to make more moves in the transfer market, but the question of timing is again paramount. Arsenal play five times from August 14 to August 27. Is it reasonable to expect the same XI to play every one of those matches? Probably not. That means that an out-of-form Johan Djourou will probably have to play in a key fixture. Traore and even Squillaci could have to do the same. Which begs the question: how has the defense improved from last season?
Arsenal’s manager publicly acknowledged that the defense had to be strengthened. If we enter the season having sold our longest serving first-team defender and having bought a young back-up right-back, how can anyone expect a better defensive record? There’s no denying the importance of Thomas Vermaelen’s return from injury, but with so many fixtures so early in the season, Arsenal need strength in depth.
By waiting so long to buy a defender, Arsenal may also find that the market becomes less favorable. The perception right now is that we need a center-back. As a result, teams will want full-price to sell us one. But if we start the season by conceding a few bad goals, the prices won’t improve, they’ll worsen. If we are seen as desperate, then players like Cahill and Jagielka will suddenly become even more overpriced than we seem to think they are already.
We have plenty of evidence that Arsenal are not always the best when playing games of brinkmanship with transfers. We narrowly missed out on Xavi Alonso, and had to wait until January to complete what should have been the summer signing of Andrei Arshavin’s. Often when we’ve waited until too late to secure a target, we’ve wound up with consolation prizes like Silvestre and Squillaci. Then we have the case of last summer’s pursuit of a goal-keeper.
Last summer Arsene privately identified goal-keeper as a position that needed to be addressed. We had targets. We pursued them. We balked at the prices. Right until the very very end of the summer transfer window, Arsene coyly suggested that the business would get done. But it didn’t. We started the season with Manuel Almunia as our number one when there was no excuse in the world for that happening. Without arguing about whether it turned out for the best due to Szczesny’s rise to prominence, Arsenal’s transfer tactic’s last summer were an abysmal failure. If you identify an problem area and don’t address it, you’ve failed. Pretty simple conclusion.
Right now we’re facing the same fate. Defense was identified as a problem after last season. We’ve failed to address it, and we will now struggle to have addressed it before the season starts. Is there any possible excuse for going into the 2011-2012 season with a weaker defense than the one we had last campaign?
You could argue that we have to respect our financial realities. We are not a club that can afford to just pay whatever price we’re quoted. And that’s absolutely correct. But it’s not an exculpatory argument in this case. Arsene can’t say we are able to lose Nasri for free next summer, then suggest we are not able to pay the asking price for a top quality center back. If we had conducted our Cesc business or Nasri business is a timely fashion, then we’d be well positioned to pay what’s required to secure the services of someone like Gary Cahill.
The signing of Gervinho shows that Arsene is still a top evaluator of talent. He finds gems at prices that fit the Arsenal financial model. And for that reason, he often balks at buying players that he perceives as being overpriced. But surely Arsene knows that £22 million for Samir Nasri is more than he’s worth. If you can sell a player for an inflated price, why can’t you then pay a little extra to improve an area of the squad that desperately needs it?
And if money is really the issue, then why haven’t the outgoing players moved already? We knew that Arsenal had to make some signings this summer, but it was almost equally clear that some players had to be sold. Proceeds from those sales could’ve been used to fund signings regardless of how Cesc and Nasri’s situations are resolved.
It’s easy to argue that we’ve tried to move out certain players but can’t find willing buyers. Maybe that is the case. Of course that raises the issue of their wages, but I don’t want to broach that topic.
Whether we’ve done all we can to move players like Bendtner, Eboue and Almunia remains to be seen. But if we’re sitting around waiting for the dream offer for these players while simultaneously haggling for the lowest possible price for our targets, you can see the hypocrisy. Ultimately that’s a recipe for being stuck with unwanted players and failing to acquire new ones.
With all the broken promises, equivocation and indecision this summer, it’s no wonder supporters are antsy. I fully believe the booing at the Emirates Cup was more an expression of frustration with Arsenal’s summer business than with the team’s performance on the pitch. (Not that I believe is was the proper expression of that frustration, but that’s another topic.) It’s hard to argue that the nervousness among the supporters isn’t mostly justified. And when a club’s supporters are nervous and on edge, the club needs to find ways to ease the tension. Cue Peter Hill Wood.
When the Chairman of Arsenal FC speaks to the media, it should only be to praise the supporters for their commitment, and thank them for their patronage. That’s what you do when you’re in the customer satisfaction business. And when you know that your club is going through a challenging, transitional period, it’s even more incumbent upon the Chairman to show some circumspection in his public comments.
So it’s hard to defend Mr. Hill-Wood for his latest outburst in the Star. He criticizes the fans as essentially some impatient mob that doesn’t understand the business of football. Even if he’s right, he is completely out of line saying such things. In any other business, he’d be in peril of losing his job.
Right now fans are frustrated that Arsenal’s new owner, Stan Kroenke, has remained relatively silent regarding his plans for the club. The only men doing the talking are Ivan Gazidis and Peter Hill-Wood. Since Kroenke remains silent, fans will inevitably assume that Mr. Hill-Wood’s words represent the sentiment of the club’s leadership. That only makes his comments more stinging.
Mr. Hill-Wood is a millionaire who attends Arsenal matches for free alongside fans who pay the most money in England for their ticket and are still coping with a new 6% increase. Those fans were treated to a disgraceful capitulation by their team at the end of last term and promised changes this summer, most of which haven’t come. And to add insult to injury, those fans are experiencing the range of emotions that come with losing our captain and best player to the team that knocked Arsenal out of European competition the last 2 seasons after a protracted tapping-up campaign.
All Peter Hill-Wood has done is help entrench a sense of disillusionment among a major segment of the support. He’s furthering an “us against them” mentality between the supporters and club’s leadership. It’s the last thing the club needs right now. More than anything the players need Emirates Stadium to be fortress that intimidates the opposition. But the Chairman’s comments hardly make fans want to sing their hearts out. Instead he’s helping foment more of the very unrest he so clearly despises.
In fact, Mr. Hill-Wood indirectly slighted his own players. Jack Wilshere is the latest Arsenal player to come forward and suggest we need signings. He joins the likes of Ramsey, van Persie and Szczesny is making that observation. Other players have gone farther, questioning the ambition of the club. Players like Denilson, Nasri and Clichy have all made statements to that effect. I’m not saying I agree with them, because I don’t. I still believe we are an ambitious club. But when the players make these kinds of comments, it’s hard to blame the fans for following suit. And it’s totally unacceptable for the Chairman to respond by dismissing all of it as aberrant behavior.
This isn’t an issue of where Arsenal will finish in the upcoming season. We all live in hope. Even if we lost Cesc and Nasri and failed to make another signing, I’d get right behind the players wearing an Arsenal shirt, and right behind Arsene Wenger, and I’m sure they’d put up one hell of a fight for silverware. That’s not the point.
Arsenal were confronted with a summer that presented very clear challenges and required very decisive action. But the club failed to act decisively. While we accept that it is not our right as fans to know everything the club are doing behind the scenes, they are in the business of pleasing fans. After all, that’s what a professional football team is supposed to do. It’s supposed to please its customers.
Arsenal can please the fans through positive results on the pitch. But Arsenal can also endear itself to fans by taking decisive action to rectify acknowledged problem areas. Ivan Gazidis obviously understands that. Why else would he appear on camera and say that Arsenal understand where the weaknesses have been, that there are significant resources to invest, and that we will definitely still be active in this transfer window? He didn’t make that statement for the benefit of our bargaining position with other clubs. He said it to calm the fans. He said it to reassure us. But those statements were made more than two weeks ago already. And still no sign of “activity.”
Having said all of this, there’s still a positive viewpoint. Cesc could stay. Nasri could stay. We could add a defender or two. Maybe even a striker will arrive. We could even have all of that resolved this week. It seems unlikely, but it’s not impossible. And if that happened, some people would be inclined to say we had a fantastic summer. I might even have been one of those people. After all, we’d have everything we wanted.
But upon further reflection, I just can’t fully agree with that anymore. We will start the season unsettled. It’s a foregone conclusion now. Because even if all of the aforementioned miracles occur, it’s too late. We can’t get everyone settled and ready before NUFC. Especially when few players will be with the club next week.
We’re 48 hours from Member’s Day and there are rumors that a version of the team photo will be taken with and without Cesc to allow for either eventuality. Who knows if that’s true. But having that kind of uncertainty this close to the season is obviously not in anyone’s best interest.
A new season should come with excitement and hope. Right now, there’s more trepidation and animosity. The fans are fighting amongst themselves over these very issues, and that’s sad to see. It’s hard to mentally prepare for this season when the most pressing questions from last season are still hanging over us. Only when those questions are answered, will most fans feel ready to start thinking about what transpires on the pitch.
But I don’t want to end this stern examination on a sour note. As I said earlier, I live in hope. When the curtain rises on the 2011-2012 season, I will be ready to support every player wearing the famed blue and light blue of Arsenal. (Sorry, couldn’t resist. The joke comes courtesy of the very funny @feverpitch on twitter.)
I recently received my new Jack Wilshere shirt. (Yes, the new away shirt. I’m a sucker for marketing.) And as I slipped it on, I noticed that familiar motto behind the crest as always. “Victoria Concordia Crescit.”
Ultimately it’s up to the management at Arsenal to conduct the club’s business. And it’s up to us as fans, to support our players in what they do on the pitch. A long time ago Arsenal adopted that latin motto meaning “Victory Through Harmony.” Never has it seemed so appropriate as it does now. It’s time to stop worrying about the business of football and leave that to the business people at Arsenal. It’s time for us to come together as supporters and see a common ground. Maybe the easiest way to do that is to remember the common enemy. They’re the ones wearing the other shirt.
Meaningful football will soon be upon us and I for one am excited to support The Arsenal once again. As always.