It’s easy to kick a dog when it’s down. And it’s even easier when everyone else joins you in doing so. Arsenal Football Club is certainly going through a difficult period, but just how bad is the situation they find themselves in? Is it as bad as most pundits make out? Is it worse?
I would argue that, before the season began, Arsène Wenger would have expected a minimum of five points from their opening three league games. His team were favourites at St James’ Park on the opening day, whilst a home game against a revitalised Liverpool and a trip to Old Trafford to face the champions would have been seen as slightly trickier. And so they proved to be, as Arsenal lost both their second and third league games after only picking up a point at Newcastle.
We mustn’t forget that Arsenal have had several problems to contend with, especially regarding team selection. Wenger will hope their next league game will be their first this season where they have eleven players on the pitch come the final whistle. As well as having three players sent off, Alex Song was handed a retrospective ban following a stamp on the ever-popular Joey Barton, further limiting the club’s options for the matches that followed. Combined with injuries, they were left desperately short for the United game, as they had to take on the Red Devils without influential players such as Jack Wilshere and Thomas Vermaelen. With regular fullbacks Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna also both on the sidelines, a duo of Armand Traoré and the inexperienced Carl Jenkinson found themselves thrown in at the deep end, the latter being the unfortunate victim of an early dismissal. The former has since left for QPR, never really settling at Arsenal since joining the club in 2005.
Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri, arguably Arsenal’s two best players, have both departed the Emirates for large fees. The money from these transfers is the subject of much speculation, with many supporters urging the French manager to go out and spend on new signings, rather than allow it to burn a hole in his pocket. Many names of central defenders have been thrown about, whilst the goalkeeping position has recently become less of an issue with the improved form of Wojciech Szcz?sny. Ultimately though, the tactic of replacing quality with youth seems doomed to fail. Losing their two star midfielders has provided the biggest challenge to Wenger regarding his transfer policy. Arsenal have not been in this situation for a long time, where their own top players seek a move away, with the belief that there are other clubs with a better chance of winning trophies. Thierry Henry, the club’s greatest player ever, left for Barcelona in 2007. The difference between his departure and that of Fabregas is that the Frenchman was approaching his thirtieth birthday and, although he was still a quality striker, his best years had been in an Arsenal shirt. The fact that it is now the likes of Nasri and Fabregas, both only 24 years of age and in the prime of their careers, is a worrying sign indeed. What’s more worrying for Arsenal supporters is that it is something which Arsène Wenger is powerless to prevent. In both transfer sagas he initially declared his intention to keep hold of his best players, which eventually was not possible due to their desire to leave.
The Gunners’ season could have been a lot worse had they not produced an impressive comeback in Udinese. No Champions League football would have been a disaster for a club of the stature of Arsenal. I would suggest that having to participate in the Europa League whilst the big boys battled against Europe’s elite would have caused more humiliation than the 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford. The pain certainly would have lasted longer. But Arsenal did ensure entry into the Champions League and will now play Marseille, Olympiacos and Borussia Dortmund in a group where, despite their poor start to the season, they will be fancied to qualify for the knockout stages. If they make it that far then who knows what could happen, although I feel they had a much better chance of winning the competition last season, where they were knocked out by Barcelona at the Nou Camp after defeating the eventual winners at home. When it comes to the Premier League, Arsenal will do well to recover and achieve their fourth placed finish of last season, as, although it’s still early stages, Liverpool look threateningly capable of stealing it.
So, all the negativity surrounding the club suggests that it will be yet another disappointing campaign for Arsenal. They are pretty much guaranteed a position within the top six, having not finished outside the top four since 1996, when they were just outside in fifth. Interestingly, the season before that they came twelfth, which is currently their lowest finish in 35 years. The club is a long way from that sort of downfall, but they are also a similar distance from “The Invincibles” of 2004. Arsenal Football Club is not in decline, but a period of transition. The self-destructing second half of last season together with the removal of two of the club’s main pillars has had a massive impact on Wenger’s project. When the dust has settled, Arsenal will be back.