13 May, 2008

The Great Exodus

Say what you want about Arsenal, but supporting them has definitely not been boring over the last few years. Fans have seen history made with an undefeated season, the rug of Champions League success pulled from under them with less than ten minutes remaining, their talismanic captain finally leave, and a whole new generation of supreme youngsters populate the first team. At the start of the season, just two stalwarts from the so-called Invincibles of 2004 remained, such as been the dispersion since, but now Wenger has an even greater crisis on his hands.

For a big-4 club, three years without a trophy is unforgivable. The Arsenal faithful understandably demand more, it is them after all that fill the club’s coffers week in, week out. However, in a professional world where youth is becoming an increasingly vital commodity, players too are now getting restless, even in their early-20s. Recently we have seen the impressive Mathieu Flamini snub a contract extension at Arsenal in favour of a personally lucrative move to 2007 Champions League winners AC Milan. Now Milan are obviously an impressive historical force, but is the operative word ‘historical?’ Sure the starting 11 is pretty damn good, but for the second consecutive year the squad have failed to seriously challenge for a Serie A title, while limping out of the Champions League this year with little to show for themselves. One gets the feeling that this summer Flamini will not be the last addition to boost the fledging side, with re-invention vital for next season and beyond.

Now today the word on the street is that Alexander Hleb will buy out the final two years of his contract for £3million, and join Inter Milan in the summer. Hleb’s agent Nikolai Shpilevski revealed the Belarus midfielder gave Wenger the news face-to-face yesterday. Shpilevski said: “Alex is preparing to make one of the most important moves of his life. He is leaving even though Arsenal want to offer him a new long-term contract. Only time will tell if it is the right decision but there’s no way back now, everything will be settled in the next two weeks.” News of Jose Mourinho’s appointment at Inter earlier this year might have been premature, but regardless, Hleb joins a successful side celebrating back-to-back Serie A title wins.

The third piece of Wenger’s must-keep triumvirate is Cesc Fabregas, undoubtedly the jewel in the crown. Problem is that Cesc is also one of the most wanted properties in the football world, and with his two closest friends at Arsenal moving onto pastures new, one wonders if he isn’t starting to stare longingly elsewhere too. The most obvious moves would be to his native Spain, with Real Madrid and Barcelona ready to compete for his signature should any signs of discontent surface. After declarations in the press last summer of their intent to secure the Spanish midfielder, Real have once again confirmed this week that Cesc is their number one summer target, with an estimated 35m Euro price-tag not enough to put them off. As with Inter’s public broadcasting of their interest in Hleb, Wenger is furious over the “disrespect” shown by Real in announcing their desire to buy one of his players while still under contract. Laws exist against individual approaches, sure, but nothing’s ever going to actually get done about it.

The Emirates house of cards might rest on the three aforementioned stars, but there are certainly more players in the squad that Wenger will fight to keep hold of. Top of that pile is leading scorer Emmanuel Adebayor, who today also signaled his intent to leave in the summer unless Arsenal were prepared to break club policy and double his wages. As ever, the usual European suspects are interested (Real, Barce, the Milans etc) and as with the other players looking for a move, trophies and cash money will probably be Adebayor’s guiding stars. You lose those four key players though, and one wonders how the likes of Robin van Persie and Tomas Rosicky, to name just two, will be feeling. Also, imported youngsters such as Denilson, not to mention fringe teenage prodigies such as Fran Merida, might start getting cold feet and feel they’ve backed the wrong horse. Talent is one thing, but it takes regular contact with experienced professionals to convert that promise into on-field performances.

For perhaps the first time in history, you can’t help but actually feel a little sorry for good old Arsene. His intention to play beautiful passing football has always been admirable; however, as with Barcelona of late, that just isn’t always enough. Players get restless, and with agents whispering tales of silverware and wage increases in their ears, it’s understandable that some want out. Similarly his desire to pay small transfer fees for young players is refreshing in the world of Chelsea title-buying, with wage caps also keeping egos in check. Team-building is a phrase office-workers will dread, but that’s exactly what Wenger does; these things take time though, and patience is a virtue that doesn’t pay well.

Obviously much of this has been idol speculation, but one thing that is certain is that much of the dead-weight around Arsenal’s first-team squad must be moved on and replaced. Wenger might hate opening his directors’ wallet, but money has to be spent on established ability, especially in central defence and down the flanks. The likes of Philip Senderos and Emmanuel Eboue are simply not good enough for top-end Premier League challenges and Europe, while the promise in young players such as Theo Woolcott and Nikolas Bendtner has to come to regular frutition soon, or they should be cut loose and cashed-in on too.

For a season where they were supposed to finish fifth, this has been far from a disaster for Arsenal, but even still questions must be raised about Wenger’s approach to the major matches. A humiliating loss to arch-rivals Spurs in the Carling Cup will not be easily forgotten, nor will a similar demolition by Manchester United in the FA Cup. Injury problems will be pointed at, but surely that buck has to stop with Wenger and his reluctance to strengthen at Christmas. It goes without saying that sacking the manager isn’t the answer, but to be successful next year unfortunately some of his principles simply have to be compromised.

No comments: