Thursday 17 January 2013

Arsenal in crisis

A snapshot of the Premier League today would probably highlight three clubs in crisis.

Queen’s Park Rangers aimed to become Top Division stalwarts by investing heavily in the Summer Transfer Window after the end of the 2011/12 Season where they barely managed survival. Even though they are currently worse off this season than they were last year, the introduction of Harry Redknapp who has experience of successfully re-invigorating sides on the brink of relegation; the size and quality of the squad and the potential return of key players from injury gives their supporters hope that things can be turned around; and recent results support this belief.

 Aston Villa Football Club has a rich heritage and a passionate, fiercely loyal fan-base. Their current position in the table is largely down to the introduction of a number of young and inexperienced players from the Club’s Academy into the 1st Team, maybe before their time. The fans are undoubtedly disappointed by recent results but there is sympathy for the manager and admiration for the style of football he is trying to engender. Despite the disappointment, the club have the chance to be in one Cup final and are still involved in the country’s other major Cup competition so all is not lost. Investment in a few experienced players who can be leaders on the Field and in the Dressing Room is what is needed and the fans have rightly called upon the Chairman to address this issue.

Finally, we have Arsenal Football Club (no, not Newcastle). Today’s back pages focus on the ‘sending-offs’ in yesterday’s game after Manchester City managed to turn the clocks back to 1975 – the last time they won away in the League at Arsenal. Some would say that 6 points off the Champions League places in January is not a crisis, but the club is facing far bigger issues than the other clubs mentioned when everything is put into perspective.

I have a friend named Dan Martineau who is an avid Arsenal supporter and if he were here now he would point to the fact that the club has qualified for the Champions League 17 seasons in a row under Arsene Wenger and he has no fear of the club qualifying yet again at the end of the season. History, however, is what it is – a record of past achievements and not necessarily an indication of what will happen in the future. I was born in 1977, so in my lifetime, until yesterday, Manchester City had not beaten Arsenal FC at home in the League, which is why I decided to post this article today. There is the sense of a changing tide in the ethos of the club which has started to filter into other areas, not just results on the pitch. Apart from the recent defeat; and the manner of the defeat, the Press have also highlighted the fact that almost  1,000 Manchester City fans boycotted the game yesterday because of high ticket prices. The Black Scarf Movement have highlighted the fact that a number of long-standing, devout Arsenal fans are being priced-out of attending games begging the question “where has our Arsenal gone” and now visiting fans are starting to speak out on what they believe to be extortionate prices being charged to attend games.

Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness were part of the Sky Sports commentary team covering the game and they were asked about the ticketing issue and the many empty seats. Redknapp felt that the fans had a right to voice their opinion by boycotting the game and he was bluntly critical in his assessment of where the club was now stating that they were charging A-Class prices to see a team that now consists largely of B-Class players, pointing to Santi Carzola as the last quality signing for a long-time. This is not an isolated opinion but a fact. The quality of the squad from the period of ‘the Invincibles’ until now has been constantly depleted to the point that Arsenal are no longer considered title contenders even when the season starts and all the teams are on equal points. The depletion of quality is evidenced by the trophy drought but not in ticket prices which remain the highest in Europe. The problem has been compounded this year by the sale of Robin Van Persie.

Arsenal FC has sold key players in the past, a number of whom went to Manchester City. Many of the players who were sold went on to win silverware with their new clubs, Ashley Cole being the best example of this. Fans accepted the departure of others who were regarded as either fringe or disloyal. When Cesc Fabregas, the then club captain left for Barcelona, fans were resigned to the fact that this as an inevitability due to the club’s poor form and the fact that this was Cesc’s childhood club. The Van Persie transfer, however, raised the alarm that something had significantly changes at the club. RVP, as he is popularly known, had been an Arsenal player for a number of years – one who never got to show his true potential until the 2011/12 Season because of being plagued by injury. When Cesc left for Barcelona the fans were disillusioned; hoping for a marquee signing in the Transfer Window but as has become the norm, the players that came had to be Googled and looked up on Youtube for fans to identify who they were. RVP was elevated to Captain. He became the focal point of the team and in this there was a transformation of the player. It was no surprise that Arsenal started the season poorly, 16th in the table at one point. RVP, as if inspired by the Gods, played ‘out of his skin’ and no one can dispute that he more or less, single-handedly drove the team on to securing 4th place by the time the Season had finished.

One man had not kissed a badge as much as RVP did that Season. It would be ridiculous to contemplate that he could leave the club, much less to the club’s greatest league rivals. Many fans still can’t accept the fact that he was in a Manchester United kit just a few months later. The fans were told this was for ‘footballing reasons’ – again, evidence of a change in ethos. Footballing reasons or Financial reasons – the question is rhetorical. The significance of this transfer is that there is not a single AFC fan on the planet that is not sickened by the fact that not only are the club struggling with players who represent a gulf in quality and are consistent in their inconsistency, but that RVP is doing exactly what he did for Arsenal at Man United. The Board promised the fans that their financial model would mean that the AFC would be able to compete with Europe’s top clubs both on and off the field. At the same time, the world of football was aware of the financial woes at Manchester United. Mounting debt, yearly loses, an ageing squad. This was the hope the fans clung on to, that we would leap-frog Man United and that Financial Fair-Play would reign in both Chelsea and Manchester City. Then why sell your best player to your rival? Without RVP’s match winning goals, Manchester United would have been mid-table this Season, they are now seven points clear of the next team and twenty-one points clear of Arsenal.

The January fixture list has been compounded by an FA Cup replay and Arsenal FC are yet to make a move for any players in the January Transfer Window. The manager has given the fans the usual rhetoric of the “unavailability of quality players in January”, even though touted Arsenal targets Demba Ba and Loic Remy have both made moves this month. The club seem more focused on addressing what seems to have become a re-occurring problem of a player seeking to negotiate an improved contract with less than a year remaining on his existing one. Desperation has led the team to play Theo Walcott as a Striker – maybe not so inconceivable for a team nearer the bottom of the table or in the Championship but not Arsenal FC in an era where the world’s best strikers go to the World’s best clubs; none of whom are in the hunt for Theo Walcott.

The team once accused of being too young to win anything now have the elderly statesmen Mikel Arteta and the always broken man Tomas Rosicky as the anchors of their midfield. Such is the gravity of the problem that the also always broken man Abou Diaby found himself in the starting line-up against Manchester City less than a week after playing 60 minutes his 1st competitive game after months of being out with injury – and it showed. The club has the ridiculous problem of struggling to keep their 1st Team Players whilst having a large squad, a quarter of whom are on loan because they are not good enough; the result of Youtube scouting. This is why Newcastle FC are not amongst the three clubs mentioned because it appears that Newcastle have somehow surpassed Arsenal FC in scouting both in Arsene Wenger’s home country, France and on the African Continent.

Potential heroes wait in the wings. David Dein, whose departure strangely coincides with the Club’s period of failure and his ‘wing-man’ Alisher Usmanov who has the money in his back pocket to slash ticket prices and pay for Ramadel Falcao without breaking a sweat –yeaahhh – all Arsenal fans suddenly happy (sadly, just a dream). These heroes will unfortunately never have the chance to strap on their tights and their capes as the current Board of Villains and their very eloquent, but seemingly useless Enforcer with the wrestler name Ivan “The Terrible” Gazidis have said so; without saying why.

If football were a meal then Arsenal fans are paying Fillet Mignon prices for Quiche. The word crisis can’t begin to explain what is happening at Arsenal and it may be that by the time the Champions League games kick off again, the club’s only chance at silverware will require that they beat the top clubs in Europe to the Champions League Trophy.


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