As another transfer window draws to a close, Arsenal supporters feel a great kinship with those poor bastards who waited for Godot. But why the angst? Why the impending sense of doom surrounding the increasing likelihood that no new signings will arrive? (Make that “actual” new signings. Gervinho is text-book “like a new signing” when he returns from the African Cup of Nations.) Why is it that many supporters lack faith in the ability of the players already at the club to achieve our goals? The answer, I would suggest, is the law of diminishing returns and a growing frustration with the reality of diminished expectations.
It wasn’t so long ago that Arsenal supporters entered any season believing that all the pots could be won. No trophy was beyond our reach. Arsenal lifted Premier League trophies and FA Cup trophies, and while we failed to bring home that beautiful beast with the big ears, we had plenty of seasons where we looked like having a chance at lifting her. But today, Arsenal’s Champions League ambitions are ruled out by many as a joke. I’ve often heard the competition referred to as one we only hope to qualify for without any real ambition of winning.
When it comes to domestic competitions, the picture is almost more bleak. For consecutive seasons the teams at the top of the Premier League have vanished in the distance before the new year. Cup competitions have provided no solace. We’ve suffered FA Cup disappointments and League Cup debacles. All-in-all, the question of what Arsenal Football Club represents has become murkier over the past few seasons.
While revenues have skyrocketed and Arsenal have climbed Forbes’ oft-cited “rich list,” the caliber of players and ambitions at Arsenal have plummeted. I could delve into the question of why this has happened but it’s well traveled ground at this point and I’d likely get all the facts wrong. But I can suggest what I think has happened as a result of the deterioration.
Over the past few seasons, Arsenal has plunged into a crisis of identity that has filtered into the psyche of Arsenal supporters and created an unhealthy schism between the fans and the club. Those running the club claim that Arsenal is still one of the biggest clubs in Europe and not content with merely qualifying for the Champions League. But the club’s actions suggest otherwise. Promises of future success are made against a backdrop of player departures and flagging performances. And that’s left many supporters wondering, “what is Arsenal Football Club?”
That’s why the transfer window has become such an important and contentious subject among supporters. This is a time when the Club can substantiate claims of ambitiousness.
The argument among supporters has become reductive. There are those that believe Arsenal can finish fourth with the current squad. Others suggest that additions are necessary for a top four finish. But I think the real source of frustration stems from a deeper desire for the club to do something that demonstrates a level of ambition that goes beyond qualifying for a competition we can’t win.
The supporters who steadfastly defend the policies of the club and the quality of the side, are those that have accepted Champions League qualification as the metric by which the club’s success should be measured. Those that are hoping for reinforcements, like myself, have become impatient with excuses about “living within our means.” I no longer accept the argument that we cannot compete financially because the evidence is there that we are not using all the resources at our disposal.
What I realize now is that I don’t want new signings because I want Arsenal to finish in the top four. I want new signings because I want reason to believe that the underwhelming Groundhog’s Day season that Arsenal appear to keep repeating is coming to an end. I want evidence that we will use signings, not to replace departing superstars, but as a way of enhancing the quality that is already in the side.
We tend to think of Arsenal’s days of challenging for titles as some kind of distant memory. But that’s not really the case. In 2009-2010, Arsenal were top of the table after 31 games. In 2010-2011, Arsenal were in 2nd place for most of March and April with the top spot in sight. But after that season we lost Cesc Fabregas and Samri Nasri and never looked like competing for a title. After last season we lost van Persie and Alex Song and despite a few solid additions, look further from a title than ever.
Clubs win titles with a few star players and depth at key positions. At this point, Arsenal are lacking in both characteristics and the result is plain to see. We need signings because we need to replenish the depth of talent that has eroded over the past few seasons and we need a big name signing because Arsenal has become a club without a star.
While there is no question that a player like Jack Wilshere can become a superstar at Arsenal, we currently do not have anyone of the caliber of Bergkamp, Henry, Fabregas, or van Persie. I realize those players aren’t easy to come by. And I realize that modern football requires you to pay a hefty sum to bring them to your club. But that’s what is required at Arsenal if we want to demonstrate that there is more to us than a race to be the fourth best club in England.
Which brings us to another sad legacy of our recent decline. In search of reasons to be proud of our club, we’ve resorted to quoting figures off a balance sheet. What happened to just being a fan of football and enjoying what happens on the pitch? What happened to wanting magical things for Arsenal? Instead of hoping that the best players come play for our club, we’ve been left to opine on FFP and argue about whether David Villa is worth more than 8 million Pounds.
Frankly it’s a bit sad. I don’t care what he’s worth and I don’t really care whether he makes sense financially. That’s for other minds to toil over. I think he’s a brilliant player of magnificent pedigree and I’d enjoy seeing him in an Arsenal shirt. I’m not suggesting that the club bankrupt itself in search of glory. (We’re far from doing that.) But I am suggesting that fans have never been forced to be so obsessed with a club’s finances before. It’s only in search of excuses that we cling to financial analysis.
This transfer window isn’t about whether Arsenal have a team that can compete for fourth place. It is about the identity of the club. Even if we finish fourth at the end of this season, what does that guarantee us but another season just like the last? If we fail to sign anyone this window then we are acknowledging that scratching and clawing to finish fourth in the Premier League is sufficient. It’s the club saying to the supporters that winning the Champions League, despite the fact that we are still in the competition, isn’t really a priority. It’s a ratification of our new place in English football, where Arsenal are not taken seriously as being among the best.
Many will read this and write it off. Some will say that we don’t need to make statements in this window. We can do it in the summer. Of course, if we don’t do it in the summer, we can always do it some undefined time after that.
Unfortunately, we’ve all been put in the position of making excuses for the club and apologizing for the club’s negligence recently. We’ve all found ourselves at one time or another, writing off Alex Song as “expendable,” or defending RVP’s sale as “necessary,” or blaming Cesc for holding us “ransom.” But the sad reality is that the club has forced us to make those excuses for them. Either we make those excuses, or we accept the far worse conclusion that Arsenal, as a club, are slowly making the shift from an elite European side, to something a tier below that. And because we don’t want to believe or accept that possibility we make the excuses instead.
We need big signings at Arsenal. We need them to reinvigorate the fans. We need them to compete at the top. We need them to re-establish our identity. And if we don’t get big signings, we may soon be taught a harsh lesson about the law of diminishing returns.
(Thankfully we have real football today to put the focus back where it ultimately belongs. Regardless of what happens Thursday, here’s hoping we smash Liverpool today.)
Come On You Gunners!