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Before Arsene Wenger took over in October 1996, George Graham’s Arsenal side were notoriously tough opponents to handle. Their back-five of Seaman-Dixon-Bould-Adams-Winterburn (not to mention Martin Keown) were revered in the league and very rarely conceded, let alone lost a game. Teams would fear facing them because they knew they’d be in for rough game.
Then of course when Wenger took over, Arsenal’s defensive solidity was paired with a continental attacking style which yielded double-winning squads and ‘The Invincible’s’ of the 2003-04 season. This is a far cry from the current Arsenal squad whose form, confidence and passion for the club frustratingly fluctuate from game to game.
So, what’s gone wrong?
In order to address this, we’ll need to start by hopping in a DeLorean back to 26 October 2006 and the unveiling of The Emirates Stadium.
Shortly after losing the Champions League final to Barcelona in 2006, changes were plentiful at Arsenal. Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Robert Pires, Antonio Reyes and Lauren were all packing their bags for pastures new and Dennis Bergkamp retired. Meanwhile, the rest of the squad were eagerly waiting a new season at a new stadium.
The 60,361 capacity stadium, the third largest in the country after Old Trafford and Wembley, cost around £390 million. Although the new stadium would yield an increase in revenue from bums on seats on match days and improved corporate hospitality facilities, and open up a wide variety of new sources of income (the stadium could host weddings, parties, concerts and international friendlies, for examples) the cost of building it meant that they’d be repaying debt for many years to come. Sponsorship deals with the likes of Nike and Emirates Airlines helped.
So why should this debt affect matters on the pitch?
The board took the decision to buy young players with great potential, then after a few years of development at the club, sell them for a profit. The most notable example of this was Nicolas Anelka, who was bought for the paltry sum of £500,000 and sold to Real Madrid for a staggering £25 million. This sale helped fund the building of the club’s current training ground.
This is all well and good but when the club are selling stars like Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Robin van Persie – who were all hitting the peak of their careers – fans are incensed, especially when players are sold to Premier League title rivals.
How has this financial restructuring, which in fairness is exactly how a club should be run, led to on-the-pitch failings of embarrassing proportions (8-2 at Old Trafford!) and player discontent?
The changes at boardroom level could be culpable and have undoubtedly changed Arsenal’s complexion over the years. Ex Vice-Chairman David Dein was cast out by current board member Peter Hill-Wood and major shareholder ’silent’ Stan Kroenke took control of the club. Ivan Gazidis became Arsenal’s new Chief Executive and has been at the forefront of the financial organisation of the club.
The dynamic duo of Wenger and Dein, who brought a lot of success to the club at first, has been replaced by a seemingly disinterested owner and a cost-cutting executive.
Funds, fans are told, are readily available for Wenger to spend on improving the squad every year. Yet all Arsenal seem to do is negotiate the sales of top players to pave the way for mostly inexperienced/un-established talent (Lukas Podolski, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla can be exempt from this). It seems the squad is in a constant state of regression.
Image by Crystian Cruz
This regression dates as far back as 2008 when Mathieu Flamini was allowed to run his contract down and be moved on to AC Milan for free after a magnificent season with Arsenal. Then the troubles flew in from there.
Henry was replaced by Eduardo, who suffered a horrific leg-break which eventually spelled the end of his Arsenal career, van Persie was on the treatment table for a lot of his Arsenal career before suddenly exploding into form. He repaid Arsenal’s hard efforts to rehabilitate him by requesting a transfer to Manchester United.
Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, Kolo Toure and Adebayor were all allowed to transfer to Manchester City to help them become major players in the Premier League.
Though the club boast a sensible wage structure, they have too many average/periphery players on a high wage who rarely perform to their potential, players such as Johan Djourou, Sebastien Squillacci, Marouane Chamakh, Andrey Arshavin, Aaron Ramsey and Andre Santos.
Despite so many poor performances from players, fans are still expected to buy season tickets for nearly £2,000, match day tickets for between £60-£120 and fish and chips for a remarkable £13.90.
Meanwhile, Ivan Gazidis et al walk away with over £1 million in bonuses every year and Theo Walcott demands to be paid more a week for blindly running down the wing, blazing crosses into the stands and sending shots on goal out for throw-ins.
Fans have a right to feel cheated.
Wenger has used the same excuses for the past eight trophy-less years when his team’s performances show an abject lack of any football talent. We are told time and time again how the squad have ‘exceptional quality’, the ‘right mental attitude’ and have ‘the ability to win titles’ (as he said after the draw against Fulham on Saturday).
Players harp on about how they do have what it takes to do well, yet in the subsequent games after they are culpable for the team’s downfall.
I do feel Arsenal fans are being exploited. Our hard-earned cash is being used to pay off the stadium debts in addition to forking out the most in the country for match day tickets. So when fans see the players put in consistently average performances and then hear they demand a pay rise, it makes it hard for the crowd to get behind the team 100% – as we witnessed with the boos ringing throughout the stadium at half and full-time against Fulham at the weekend.
Wenger’s views concerning the board, the club’s finance and player politics doesn’t go as far as deception in the media, but he knows that if he starts questioning aspects of the club he manages then things will spiral out of control.
If the team were to win the upcoming games against Tottenham, Montpellier and Aston Villa though, all of these troubles would be moot, at least for a while. Until they start winning games again, they will always be in the grey line between a football club for fans to enjoy and a business for executives to plunder.