Last season Arsenal weren’t good enough to win the league. For the first time in a while, there were no excuses to be found. We didn’t suffer the litany of injuries that had blighted previous campaigns. We didn’t have a busy run-in thanks to our relatively early exit from the Champions League. And with just eight games left in the Premier League season, we had the title within our control. Had we won those matches, we would be the reigning champions of England.
Instead, Arsenal finished the season clinging to fourth place. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we might have finished outside the top four if the league campaign continued for another few weeks. Such was the precipitousness of our fall from contention.
When the season finally ended it was clear that we didn’t have enough quality in the side to maintain a serious title challenge. There were clear insufficiencies within the squad that needed to be addressed. Arsenal had conceded too many goals to win a title, but also failed to find the back of the net with the consistency expected from Arsene Wenger’s side. The manager had work to do this summer and promised that it would be a busy one indeed. Unfortunately, things this summer did not go according to plan.
At this moment right now, Arsenal are a vastly weaker side than last season. We are weaker in attack, midfield and defense. Assuming that Samir Nasri will be sold imminently, we will have lost an important player from each area of the pitch this summer. What’s worse, we have almost entirely failed to replace them.
There was plenty of negative media reaction to our win over Udinese on Tuesday. Many in the press were lamenting our performance as evidence of our clear weaknesses. They’re right and they’re wrong. I’d argue that it was a miracle we won the match and kept a clean sheet under the circumstances. When you consider who we had on the pitch for a Champions League playoff, the players should be damn proud of themselves. But the competition only gets stiffer and they need help.
The state of Arsenal’s squad right now is essentially disgraceful. We play Liverpool at the Emirates tomorrow and hardly have enough first-team players to make up the numbers. It’s a big match, against a side that will have designs on taking our top four position. Ideally, it’s a chance to show them, on our home ground, that they are still some distance behind us. But it’s hard to imagine that happening with the players we have available.
Arsene has already said that Rosicky is doubtful for tomorrow’s match. That means we could see a midfield of Ramsey, Frimpong and Lansbury. They had 8 appearances among them for Arsenal last season, with 7 coming from Ramsey. That’s beyond absurd for a club of Arsenal’s stature. And it gets even more ridiculous when you consider the possible substitutes. Unless Arsene Wenger promotes players from the reserves for this crunch game, Arsenal will play the entire 90 minutes without a bona fide midfielder on the bench.
The manager could arguably move Arshavin into the midfield. It’s a move that makes some sense. But then the squad’s inadequacies in attack become a evident. Wenger would be forced to start Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ryo Miyachi on the wing. I’m not even sure if the latter is available to play for the team yet, but I do know that Oxlade-Chamberlain was playing in League One last season. Miyachi impressed on loan for Feynoord, but this is a massive step up for a player that’s less than a year removed from playing for his school. The only other choice would be to move van Persie out wide and play the out-of-form Chamakh who is coming off a dire performance just three days ago.
This was supposed to be the summer where we finally strengthened the defense properly. But instead we watched our longest serving defender move to Manchester City. Gael Clichy wasn’t the best defender in England, and he made his fair share of major mistakes, but at least he was an experienced left-back. Tomorrow we could be starting Carl Jenkinson at a left-back. I find myself a little worried about relying on a right-back from League One starting at left-back against the likes of Luis Suarez. Gibbs is out, Traore is doubtful and far from good enough, and with Djourou’s injury, Wenger can’t even contemplate moving Vermaelen into the left-back position. That leaves Carl Jenkinson as the only real option that doesn’t involve playing Sebastien Squillaci.
This is what happens when you promote a player with limited experience and a terrible injury record. Wenger took a major gamble promoting Gibbs, and it’s already backfiring. What’s more frustrating is that Liverpool will hand a start to their new left-back Enrique. He was bought for a reasonable sum and hit the ground running thanks to his experience in the Premier League. Enrique is on record saying that he dreams of playing Champions League football. Seems like he’s a player we might have been able to acquire. But the boss had other plans.
In his interview with Arsenal.com before the Udinese match, Wenger emphatically reminded us that he has brought players into the club this summer. He reminded us that Gervinho, Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Miyachi and Campbell have all joined the squad this summer. And he’s correct. But only one of those players should even be considered as regular contributor to a side with title ambitions. Some day we may look back and say this was the group of players that paved the way for future successes. And I hope that’s the case. But Wenger also has a responsibility to secure our present success, and that group of players isn’t the answer.
Let’s look at our summer business in the context of players that should be expected to contribute to a premier league title contender this season. We have potentially lost Nasri, Cesc, Clichy, Denilson, Bendtner and Eboue. We’ve added Gervinho. That’s our real summer business. That’s it. Because no matter how exciting the future will be for Miyachi, Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Campbell, it is unfair in the extreme to expect them to play more than a handful of games for Arsenal at this stage in their careers. But as it stands, they won’t just have to play a few games. They may have to carry the team at times.
Could we have signed Juan Mata or Jadson? Perhaps. Enrique? Maybe. Cahill, Jagielka, Samba, Mertesaker? We still might. But we haven’t signed any of them yet and we already find ourselves half-way through a tricky Champions League playoff that’s precariously balanced. We have a match with Liverpool tomorrow and United next weekend at Old Trafford. Even if we make a new signing, it’s hard to see it happening in time to impact either of those matches, and the new player would be ineligible for the Udinese match. How many games should we sacrifice in the name of trying to find a bargain? 2? 3? Our entire Champions League campaign? That’s the cost of waiting for reinforcements to arrive.
The fact is that we don’t have a very good squad right now. We have a good starting XI. When they’re all fit. But how often does that happen for any team? And what should we do when the ACN takes Chamakh, Frimpong, Gervinho and potentially Alex Song away? We’re seeing what will happen right now. Should we be thankful that we can rely on Miyachi and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Craig Eastmond. Will they see us through our eight January fixtures including the visit of Manchester United.
As Arseblog has pointed out, it’s not fair to expect so much from our young players. They’re going to make mistakes. They need an opportunity to learn and develop somewhere the stakes aren’t so high. They don’t need 60,000 fans at the emirates getting on their backs as they try to somehow compete with the seasoned veterans of United in the middle of a long campaign.
And speaking of the fans at the stadium, what should they make of the game on Saturday? They will have paid the highest ticket prices in the world to watch the likes of Lansbury and Frimpong and Jenkinson and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Is that right? Is that appropriate? I’m not suggesting the emirates faithful should expect half-a-billion pounds worth of talent like the fans at the Eastlands. I’m not suggesting they should be treated to 50 million pound signings like the supporters at Stamford Bridge. But surely they can expect to see something other than teenagers from lower divisions in our first Premier League home game against a top-four rival.
Last season the fans filled the stadium to see Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. They’re gone now. (Yes I realize the assumption involved.) But they’re not replaced. And there’s simply no excuse for this whatsoever. I said in a previous blog that while Wenger might not have wanted to accept that he was losing Cesc and Nasri, he certainly knew it was a possibility. We should’ve had our replacement targets identified weeks in advance. We should’ve had tentative deals in place, and backup deals in place. That way, after Cesc’s departure was announced, the Club could’ve lifted spirits with an immediate arrival. But Cesc has already played for Barca and we don’t look any closer to replacing him.
What the hell is going on at Arsenal? You don’t sell the world’s best creative midfielder and just pat Aaron Ramsey on the back and say “go get ‘em tiger.” You go buy a big-time talent. Wenger himself said you can’t sell Nasri and Cesc in the same summer and still claim to be an ambitious Club. I disagree with that.
I think you can buy replacement players that are so highly-regarded that it proves your ambition. It shows that you’re not resigned to slipping into mediocrity. And it makes other players want to join up. You prove that Arsenal are still a big club by bringing in a player that any team would covet. You go sign Eden Hazard or someone like him and remind the world that we mean business. But sitting around waiting while your season carries on, only adds anxiety to every fan and player at the club.
And don’t tell me for one minute that we have to wait until we know the outcome of our Champions League playoff. Ivan Gazidis certainly doesn’t believe we need to wait until after the qualifier to spend. He said, “We’re certainly not sitting there saying ‘let’s hold back on our resources’ for some reason, why would we?” Good question Ivan.
Wenger bristled at the fans demands to spend money. He said that merely spending money shouldn’t be the goal. He said that’s a panic reaction. Instead he suggested that the goal should be to add quality to the side regardless of the price. I couldn’t agree more. After all, I don’t want a £20 million Stuart Downing. But Wenger is playing semantics with us. The fact is that quality players cost money now. Scouting is more sophisticated and Arsenal aren’t the only ones scouting players in the far corners of the globe. You want top talent that can improve your team now? You have to pay. But Wenger seems unwilling to do it.
The natural response is to point out that the transfer window is still open. And you’re right. Wenger can still make additions to the squad. Frankly, he’d be bordering on sadistic if he didn’t. But my response is that the window has been open for months. The chances have been there. Don’t give me this song and dance about the transfer market not being a “supermarket.” City got their deals done. United got their deals done. Are they too rich to compare to Arsenal? Ok. Liverpool managed to get plenty of deals done. Don’t want to compare with their crazy transfer business? Fair enough. What about Sunderland? They managed to bring in plenty of players. Was that a fluke? And let’s not forget that teams have found it possible to buy players from Arsenal if they’re willing to pay the price.
Tomorrow will be a very interesting match from the transfer standpoint alone. In Liverpool, we face a side that dived into the transfer market early and got the players they targeted. They identified their needs and made the signings they felt were necessary to strengthen the team. I’m not suggesting they made the right buys. But they got what they wanted. We will be the team fielding inexperienced youngsters while our Club hunts for last-minute bargains.
The fact is that Arsenal could’ve made deals for the kind of quality, experienced players required. If that meant resolving the Cesc and Nasri situations sooner then so be it. You might say I’m oversimplifying. But I had a boss once who told me something I’ll never forget. I had just failed to get something done that was my responsibility. I had a very good excuse. But he simply looked at me and said “I don’t pay you to have good excuses. I pay you to get the job done.” And he was right.
It doesn’t matter that signing quality players is hard. Getting the hard job done is why Arsene Wenger is the highest paid manager in the Premier League. Or at least it should be why he’s the highest paid manager. I’m increasingly of the opinion that it’s because he can get the minimum required results with the least possible resources. But by telling us that the transfer market isn’t a “supermarket,” Arsene Wenger is essentially saying, “it’s hard finding what we need.” I’m sure it is. But I don’t care. Just get it done.
Wenger has done a masterful job building our team on limited resources. He deserves plenty of credit for what he has achieved at Arsenal. He has proved his brilliance and guile time and again. As a Wenger loyalist, my tendency is to defend him because of what he’s done in the past. But no one is questioning that now. It’s what’s being done today that’s cause for concern. As time has worn on, Wenger’s love for parsimony seems to have exceeded our need for it. The money is there now. He could buy if he wanted to. Instead he’s choosing to get by on what he has because he prefers to do it that way.
In this case however, he may have pushed his team too close to the brink. We are about to cross a rubicon from which there is no return. If this transfer window closes without several experienced, quality players arriving, then we should prepare ourselves for a very tough season.
This is the hard part for fans. Swallowing your pride, putting aside emotions, and taking a long, hard, objective look at your team. The Arsenal team that we have right now is not good enough to finish in the top four. It’s a weaker side than last season by some distance and that team might not have finished in the top four had the season carried on another two weeks.
When United lose Vidic and Ferdinand they bring in Jones, Smalling and Evans. No Sebastien Squillaci in that group. Chelsea lose Essien? No they bring on Mikel. City seemingly have three star players at just about every position. And what about Liverpool? Tomorrow we will face them without Gerrard. So they’ll rely on Charlie Adam instead. And who do we have filling in the gaps? Teenagers. Players coming up from League One. Promoted members of the reserves. Any way you look at it, that’s not good enough. If we want to stay in the top four, then we have to finish above one of those teams I just mentioned. Which one is it going to be?
Instead of thinking of the really good player’s at Arsenal, why not think of the players backing them up. Here’s a list of the outfield players who wouldn’t be in our first choice starting XI, assuming we sell the players we expect to sell. Chamakh, Arshavin, Miyachi, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Diaby, Rosicky, Frimpong, Eastmond, Lansbury, Djourou, Squillaci, Traore, Jenkinson. That’s it. That’s the cavalry. It’s unrealistic to expect your first choice XI to all be fit for the entire season. It’s even more unrealistic to expect it from our players. So those are the players we’ll need to rely upon at various points this season. And you’ll have to forgive me for being blunt, but they’re not good enough. Maybe a few of them will be very very good. But it’s too much to ask right now.
The clock is ticking. Before long, Sky Sports will be serving up their transfer deadline day festivities and I have a feeling we’ll be glued to the television waiting expectantly for that big signing we know is about to flash on the screen. Hopefully it’ll happen long before that.
When last season ended we knew there was a lot of work that had to be done to improve this team. We knew there would be money. We knew where the issues were and which players might be leaving. And before long, when the fixtures were announced, we knew that we would be in for a very difficult August that could define our season in many ways. We knew all of that, yet we did virtually nothing about it. Instead we continued to build for the future as if everything is alright today.
Frankly, I’m infuriated. I’m sick of being deceived and condescended to by my own Club. I’m sick of being told we have plenty of money and we’re not afraid to spend it while we sit back with our hands in our pockets. I’m sick of looking at the first team players on Arsenal.com wondering where the rest of them are, while the manager tells us that the team is already too big. I’m sick of meaningless sayings like “super super quality” and “like a new signing.”
Would it take “super super quality” to improve over Squillaci? I’m not sure it would even take a professional footballer. And Thomas Vermaelen is not “like a new signing.” He’s an actual signing that Wenger made two summers ago and he’s the exact reason why you go out and make signings. Because if Wenger brought in another player of Vermaelen’s quality it would have a profound impact on our defense.
Wenger made the argument that there’s a market for players from 0-10 million and a market for players from 30-50 million and in between there is no movement. That’s not true. It’s just not true. If he wants to tell us that he can’t find what he’s looking for that’s one thing but don’t lie to us. We could have Cahill if we met the asking price and it’s below 20 million. Same with Jagielka. We could’ve had Mata at just over 20 million. It’s not that the players weren’t available, it’s that we’ve turned our noses up at the prices. When you’ve got a cupboard full of delicious food, you can balk at the high price of groceries. But when the cupboard is bare, you’ve gone a week without eating, and your wallet is full, you pay what the grocer is asking.
What I want to make perfectly clear is that I completely trust Wenger’s judgment when it comes to talent. He won’t get every decision right, but he’s done better than most. But what I do want is for him to go buy players that can rightfully be expected to play important roles for a title contending team.
We may well stay in the top four this season. Our young talent is precocious and exciting and may mature faster than we can imagine. They could deliver the kind of performances necessary to keep Arsenal in the Champions League for another season. But they can’t deliver a title. It’s too much to ask. It may not even be fair to expect us to challenge for a title no matter who we buy when you consider the kind of money being spent at other clubs. But I don’t believe you use that as an excuse for inactivity.
I love Arsene Wenger but I love Arsenal more. Wenger has brought us players that could be an important part of our bright future and I’m thankful for that. But Arsene seems to have become impossibly farsighted. He appears more capable of seeing the distant needs of the club than the urgent demands right before his eyes. I don’t know which is worse: that Arsene Wenger sees the deficiencies in this squad but won’t address them, or that he merely cannot see them at all. Hopefully it’s neither. Hopefully he sees them and will address them. But he’s already mortgaged the early part of our season standing on principle. And that’s hard to accept.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a short tale by Hans Christian Andersen. In it, the Emperor parades around in what he believes are new clothes, but he is actually not wearing anything at all. His subjects assume that he must be wearing clothes and compliment him on his fine vestments, until a young boy shouts out that the Emperor is naked. It is a tale about many things, including the phenomenon of collective denial. I find it particularly appropriate for our current situation.
Arsene Wenger has been a fine manager indeed. And he may continue to be splendid for years to come. But we must not be in collective denial about the state of our squad. We must not assume that the Club know exactly what they are doing or have it all under control. We must not be distracted by stories of “super super quality” and “transfer supermarkets” and “traveling with sweat and petrol.” We must not be dazzled by the invisible garments. For they only take our attention off the reality that we can not afford to deny. We must look at the squad that will take the pitch against Liverpool tomorrow and see the truth clearly. The Emperor has no clothes.