At first glance, this question looks bleedingly obvious. With their massive fan base, a beautiful new 60,000 plus seat stadium, and their years of success and trophies, Arsenal should be quite clearly considered to be a “big club.” For the past decade and more, they have been considered part of the so-called Big Four, along with Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool. But now that old order is crumbling, and Arsenal are struggling to keep pace with the other big clubs.
Just about three weeks ago, when Tottenham Hotspur beat Arsenal, Guardian pundit (and EPL Talk award winner) Barry Glendenning made an offhanded comment that should really stick in the gut of all Arsenal fans. He stated that of course Spurs should beat us. They spend significantly more money than us on players. He’s dead right. And now it has come to this: Tottenham are on the verge of finally, and perhaps permanently, overtaking Arsenal as the dominant club in North London.
My fellow Gooners. Read that again. That should strike fear in the heart of every Arsenal fan around the globe.
But the numbers and the reality doesn’t lie. Sure, Arsenal has finished above Tottenham for 15 straight seasons. But you don’t get a trophy for that. And now that Tottenham has finally reaped Champions League riches, these days are certainly numbered as well.
Which leads me back to my original question. Can Arsenal continue to call themselves a big club over the long-term without spending the requisite money?
While Arsenal continue to stay amongst the strongest clubs in Europe on the Forbes list, they have definitely fallen behind domestic rivals Chelsea and Man U, and most certainly behind Barcelona, Real Madrid, and perhaps even Bayern Munich. With the rise of Manchester City and Spurs, it won’t be long before Arsenal find themselves behind these clubs.
But the question has to be asked: Why?
When did Arsenal fall behind to the point where they may simply not be able to keep up? Arsenal have sold big players before, most notably Nicolas Anelka. What makes them different now, and why can’t they recover?
1. Inability to Market Themselves, Especially Outside Europe. By all measures, Arsenal play the perfect style to be the most popular club in North America and Asia. They play wide open, attractive football, and their skill and talent makes crowds want to see them play, even in opposing markets. But Arsene Wenger remains very stubborn. As the Gaffer wrote just six months ago, the fact that Arsenal have not gone on such a tour is almost criminal. The fact that Arsenal have also ignored key markets in Asia, while allowing clubs such as Liverpool, Everton, and of course Chelsea and Manchester United dominate that region has been business malpractice by Arsene Wenger.
2. Smart Spending In Face of Massive Debt. This is one that i will credit Arsene for. While other clubs, most notably Manchester United And Liverpool, spent heavily in the face of massive debt, Arsenal actually made a large profit over the last three seasons, selling such luminaries as Adebayor, Flamini, and Kolo Toure. Liverpool, however, have spent freely, adding Aquilani, Torres, and others. That club may pay the ultimate price: if a new owner isn’t found soon, they may become the new Leeds, forced to sell off players and plunge through the ranks of the football league.
3. Lack of development and motivation of some key players. While I will not spend this column harking on the failure of players like Denilson or Theo Walcott to grow at the club level, it is important to note that a number of these young players have not developed in the way we all thought they would. Sure, some of it has to do with key injuries, but this can not be an excuse: it is Arsene Wenger’s job to highlight not just the top talent, but also durable talent. Every manager knows that the Premier League season is long and grueling. The manager must find players up to the task.
4. Lack of depth. Three and four are very much related. Everyone this side of Rotterdam knows that Robin van Persie gets injured. Everyone, that is, except for Arsene Wenger. When RVP is inevitably out for 3-4 months with some sort of calf/knee/ankle/foot injury, Arsene Wenger has no plan B. But the facts don’t lie. When Didier Drogba was out for a couple months, Nic Anelka was there to pick up the scoring slack. Arsenal simply have no other striker option good enough. Eduardo is not the same player he was before the injury; he may never be. Nik Bendtner is just starting to scratch the surface of his talent. At this point, however, he’s simply not a reliable option.
5. Arsene Wenger Himself. This is the one that is really hardest for me to write. But first, a confession. I generally hate all the coaches/managers of teams I root for. I have always disliked Jim Leyland, even when the Tigers made their first World Series in 22 years. My anger toward Lloyd Carr was unparalleled when he was the coach at Michigan. There has only been one coach who I have steadfastly supported: Arsene Wenger. It was hard not to. The man brought trophy after trophy to Arsenal. Every fan swore their allegiance: “In Arsene We Trust,” the banner reads behind the goal. But is Arsene Wenger really deserving of that? The past five seasons don’t lie: While the ship has been sinking, while Arsenal players struggled (especially in goal), Arsene Wenger behaved not like one of the winningest managers in history, but more like Baghdad Bob. “We have utmost confidence in (insert flopping continental keeper name here)” he would say, while that keeper flubbed one or two goals almost every game. Arsene Wenger needs someone to offset him, someone to say to him “Arsene, we really need a new keeper.” “Arsene, Silvestre and Billy Gallas aren’t good enough.” In other words, Arsene Wenger needs someone to tell him when he’s wrong. He’s been wrong on the keeper, he was wrong to not buy depth the last couple years (as stars were likely out of our price range), and he’s wrong not to strengthen the squad at the back and at the front. If Arsene Wenger is unable to notice these things on his own, he needs someone to tell him when he’s wrong. Before it’s too late.
While Cesc may walk now, and Gallas not long after, it is clear that Arsenal have a lot of decisions to make. While a lot of these fall on the shoulders of one man, it is important that he understands that his years of winning have bought him a lot of patience. But a fifth consecutive season without silverware, and a 4th without any sort of final appearance, will see the end of the patience from a lot of fans. While he can point fingers at Barcelona or Chelsea “tapping up” our players, it is clear that Arsene has not done enough to convince our players that their futures lie at Arsenal. In 2010-2011, Arsene has the chance to reverse the bleeding. If he does not, a steady and perhaps irreversible decline may be at hand at Arsenal.
Jordan Acker will continue to love his Gunners no matter what. Follow him on Twitter at @JAcker2L