Thoughts of an Arsenal fan

Another transfer deadline goes, another Arsenal revamp. It seems to be an occurring story over the past decade of almost, almost, almost for arsenal fans; almost having the squad that will step over the line to win the league, almost having the squad that will attract better players and almost being the team that could consistently compete for silverware. Almost to all again.

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The year is 2005, Arsenal wins their last silverware, the FA Cup. It was at this stage we had come off the end of an invincible era, one in which we went 49 league games unbeaten, had rivalled as Manchester United’s closest domestic rivals and were in the process of evolving for the future – the eventual movement into the Emirates stadium and the perceived certainty that we would continue to dominate on the domestic front as well as begin to push further into Europe (something which would happen the season after). Beating Manchester United on Penalties seemed a strong justice after the loss of our streak, a feeling that this season would be a blip and a recovery of Arsenal’s ascendency would soon follow. Unfortunately, that is not how it would turn out.

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For myself, it began with one dominant and powerful Frenchman, one who commanded the way Arsenal went above their fashion, a World and European Champion who pushed Arsenal to the forefront of title successes. This was Patrick Vieira. Now in this period, there was many a French influence on this team, Wenger, Petit, Pires and Thierry Henry to name a few but Vieira added a steely toughness to our core as well as a directness in our attack. The man was involved in three titles and four FA Cup successes, made captain on the retirement of Tony Adams proved everything with his ability that this was what Arsenal was going to be going forward. It seemed though that Vieira would also be the same as many a successor would be too – a man who turned many heads to his services. It is not unheard news that Vieira for years was followed by the big teams. Manchester United, Real Madrid and a newly wealthy Chelsea were a few of the early Clubs ready to offer big money to seal him. For those early years, it seemed that the success of Arsenal and the use of the captain’s armband kept him happy at the club. With the promise of a bigger stadium and more money in a London based club, with the world class and new thinking manager, Arsene Wenger must have given Vieira hope of fulfilling his ambitions of success and silverware. Eventually, though there would be things Vieira thought were out of Arsenal’s reach, European success and dominance. Arsenal in 2005 went out early to Bayern Munich – a less than uncommon theme to occur later on 3-2 on aggregate. Chances in Europe could not have come closer the season before when Arsenal again went out to Chelsea who in turn were eliminated by Monaco who lost in the final to a Jose Mourinho Porto team – a big chance gone to win again. Chances to accomplish everything with Arsenal that had not already been frustrating, the lure of Giants in the game can never be ignored. To play at the top and then for the top of the top is something no player can ignore – their chances of winning everything are near guarantees and this is why for many give the reason for these moves.

 

It came as no surprise that after scoring the match-winning penalty in the 2005 FA Cup final that another giant would come calling and this time Vieira would budge. Italian giants Juventus came in and signed Vieira for a modest fee of £13.75 million. I was gutted as was many an Arsenal fan, Wenger had felt Vieira was beginning to hit his later years and the progress of one Cesc Fabregas couldn’t be hindered. In these times Wenger was unquestionable, he had knowledge, he had faith in developing players, improving the performance of players and for the most part (bar a few Pascal Cygan’s) got his eye for signings spot on. At some point you have to progress, you have to look forward – something Arsenal emphasises as a club philosophy, and accept that some players will go. No Arsenal fan at this point could have imagined what would happen.

Vieira for me would be the first and significant loss to the invincible era of mega Arsenal players. I loved Vieira and it was hard to take that he felt that he didn’t have as good a chance to win the champions league with Arsenal compared to a European giant like Juventus (the true irony that Arsenal knocked Juventus out in the Quarterfinals the following season on route to the final with Vieira looking on – the image after Henry whizzed past him in the second leg said it all!). More players began to feel this way, a faltering domestic campaign in 2005-6 with the closing of Highbury and scraping fourth on the last day (another sign of things to come) signified a chance to jump ship. Thierry Henry would stay one more season before climbing on board S.S. FC Barcelona for a smaller fee than could have been. Later on, Cesc Fabregas would follow suit and rejoin boyhood club Barcelona. Eventually, Arsenal’s lack of ability to win European titles to become a giant status meant bigger players in the game would not join Arsenal and keep them would be much harder than it had been before. Domestic campaigns were thus harder to seize.

Money became a big part of the game at this time as well and the emergence of Chelsea and later Manchester City in England. Further afield Paris Saint-Germain, for a short period of time Anzhi Makhachkala of Russia, as well as the emergence of the Chinese league, demonstrated the investment in sports teams for Billionaires as a huge place for a franchise and business advertisement and investment. As such football stars became mega rich too. Money, as well as fame, can be the factor of many a transfer. Arsenal with the building of the new stadium knew this would allow them to step up to compete with the bigger teams, for a period of time though it meant the purse strings would need to tighten up. The emergence of new money teams made it hard to keep players who wanted more. C-Ashley Cole for me summed this up, Undoubtedly Chelsea was a strong and attractive team to join, I had nothing but respect for Cole at Arsenal and still do now but it felt like a betrayal knowing he would leave us to strengthen a title rival, who at this point was a lesser team to us in terms of domestic dominance and success. To leave us and make more money but to strengthen a growing team was very hard to take, it was an upsetting transfer, but one that would become more common in the seasons that followed, especially with Manchester City’s emergence as monetary and contractual powerhouses. The loss of the successors to the invincible. A group of players who were close to bringing a title back, but lacked that little extra steely character and match-winning mentality that players like Vieira and Henry had around them meant we came short. Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna would all join Manchester City and take their qualities and provide a title for them – not us. Money talked when we could not pay them what they were being offered. Transfer windows for our bigger players now became daunting for Arsenal fans, the naivety of us to expect them to stay for us when the money could talk elsewhere.

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Then came those who left because you could not win a title with Arsenal. We became a selling club for money teams and as a result, match winning players were now sold. These players were replaced and younger players again took place, but now challenging for first became challenging for the top four. The quality of our transfer now began to waver. Arsenal fans wanted the bigger players and then got second fiddle – not terrible players but players of a cheaper value – example – The chance for Lille’s Eden Hazard lost to Chelsea and instead the second-hand quality of Lille’s Gervinho. Arsene scouted more for cheap value players to develop – Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny, the odd cough out for players like Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, although small coughs compared to the bigger coughs of Manchester City with Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli and Sergio Aguero. It became commonplace to hear “Arsenal have been scouting” or “Arsenal tracking” or “Arsenal refuse to pay” only to be just scouting or unwilling to go that little further to add players to the team that would improve us. Until Petr Cech was bought we were in desperate need of a top class keeper after Lehmann (maybe not top class himself, but compared to his successors – Almunia, Fabianski and Szczesny he probably was). Just always short of something. Arsenal lost steely character. Chances to strengthen were lost younger players didn’t step up. Players got fed up. Henry came back very briefly to see the team character had changed. Bar the odd top class signing we mostly had to settle for what we had unless we could get players on the cheap. Losing badly to Manchester United 8-2 signified the panic buying and a need to change policy – Mertesacker and Arteta came in on deadline day because it was obvious Arsenal were not good enough. Early exits in Europe became regular to the European giants year after year. In the end, Robin Van Persie could not see the light anymore and left to join and instantly fire Manchester United to title glory.

Hope did come though with big signings. Arsenal held the purse strings long enough and the stadium was close to paid off – big signings were needed to compete and put Arsenal in the big four of the league. Petr Cech, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil all brought in to add quality each year, players developed and it looked as if Arsenal could finally get ‘almost’ into done. FA Cup success returned in 2014 and for the last 4 seasons, Arsenal has had their name on the trophy. But again the league came short. I loved Leicester – as a footballing fan – winning the league, it’s what football needed, but Arsenal blew their chance after beating them late on at the Emirates 2-1 to go in front of them and hold it only to lose 3-2 a week later to an inexperienced and weakened Louis Van Gaal Manchester United team. United was in the rebuild, Man City was dropping points and Chelsea was ageing. Tottenham was not there yet and Liverpool was inconsistent as always. And then there was us, consistent top four Arsenal with a chance to go for it. The melting pot was mixed well for Arsenal to take a punt at title success. And frustratingly it was lost again. What needs to change?

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Well at some point as I said early things need to come to a change. Common themes have occurred – losing top players to bigger teams or to money or to title-winning teams. Reluctance to spend out have cost us of being top dogs, at some point a dog will have its day and as much of a great job he has done for us I’m afraid it is time for Arsenal to take a new path forward. Arsene Wenger has been phenomenal for arsenal – unquestionable. But Arsenal needs a change. Coming fifth last season and losing champions league status has shown arsenal’s decline from the invincible era, chances to win have been missed and acceptance for finishing high are not what us Arsenal fans want. Being teased with better and not getting it is highly frustrating. Being tagged along with players on run down contracts hoping players will stay has been the boiling point for many. It feels as if Wenger is out of control and out of touch now.

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This season, transfer deals have been uneasy, Sanchez has combined title chances, big money and a rundown contract to leave a weakened Arsenal. The players look disinterested and results have been poor. The team is disintegrating. Walcott has gone, as has Coquelin and now Giroud. Until Wednesday 31st January 2018 it has been worrying as an arsenal fan. I hate buying in January, its panic again but now Sanchez has gone it feels like the players have rallied and Arsenal want to change emphasis – Aubameyang in on a record fee, Mkhitaryan in from the Sanchez deal, and Ozil has signed a new contract. It feels as if Arsenal may be panicking but want to make a statement, as of yet we have not dealt with the defensive issues the team has but at least now we are sending a message of intent to the league – that we want to rebuild and want to be one of the big dogs, not a team in freefall. It feels as if inside Arsenal Football Club there may be a power shift happening, one which may eventually finish with a new manager in charge and a new path to run forward down. One will only know when looking back, maybe not this season but in two or three seasons. We need to prioritise and get back into the champions league – top four or winning the Europa league (which is a very realistic possibility) and then strengthen again. We need to catch and compete with Manchester United and City and must, must, must not let Tottenham finish above us again after this season. We need to change now from decline to refined, past almost there to back there, been there before to we’re here again.

 

You can follow Adam and his weekly internal struggle with Arsenal on twitter @adamalecwright

 

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