Depending on when you read this, you might know whether or not Arsenal have gone to Udine and qualified for the group stages of the 2011 Champions League or not. I don’t, but I’ll be glued to my TV come Wednesday afternoon and hoping, praying and willing the team that faces Udinese Calcio forward. The pressure on the club and on manager Arsene Wenger is, however, unlikely to be abated because they have done enough to go through. That’s what’s expected of Arsenal. They are amongst the elite of clubs.
All the same, between the departure of players and the rash of bad luck – which is the only way the maelstrom of injuries, suspensions, pressure and incompetence by UEFA can be described – there is a sense of blood in the water that the media sharks are eagerly targeting. But how did we get here? It’s easy to point to some moments, but let’s go back and examine six specific moments in time that (in my estimation) have led Arsenal to the point it finds itself in.
1. June 2 2005: Ashley Cole and his agent are found guilty of making contact with Chelsea and he is fined 100,000 pounds by the club.
The glitz and glamour of the Premier League were always going to be a welcoming target for moneyed people. But no one could predict the effect that Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea from Ken Bates would have on the world of soccer. Put simply, it shattered the old models for running a football club. Chelsea could bid more than anyone else for talented up-and-comers and they could pay them more. And for professional players, whose interest lie in maximizing their earning potential in that brief window of time when they are at their physical and mental apex, the idea of sacrificing millions of pounds/euros to remain at a “boyhood club” was never going to compare.
So it went for Ashley “Cashley” Cole: a young man raised at Arsenal’s academy and brought along to be the best left back in England. When Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho and Peter Kenyon came calling with promises of greater wealth, he could do nothing but listen. And pay attention that I mention that he and his agent, Jonathan Barnett, were found guilty (in fact, all four were). For what that incident should have warned all is that there were people in every player’s ear, quietly feeding them the promises of other clubs. Arsenal fined him while trying to negotiate a new long-term deal but the damage was done. Cole was sent to Chelsea for William Gallas and 5 million pounds, but the story has repeated again and again (see: Adebayor, Nasri).
2. March 28 2006: Cesc Fabregas leads Arsenal past Juventus in the Champions League.
You may be asking why I’m selecting this date if it’s a good one. But consider what had happened before: longtime Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira had been angling for a move for the past few seasons. He finally got his wish when Arsenal sold him to Juventus. Arsene Wenger turned and gave Vieira’s old #4 shirt and the responsibility for being the heart of the midfield to the young, untested Spaniard. In many ways, this date was the day when Fabregas stepped forward and became known as one of the best young midfielders in the world. In a duel with the old master, Vieira, it was Fabregas who ran the game and set up the goals that would see Arsenal through. Before this date, there were some lingering doubts. After it, there were none and Cesc was the central piece of the new Arsenal. The team would be built around him.
But what this date also did is put Arsenal on a collision course with FC Barcelona over Fabregas. The Catalan club, long angered at having lost Fabregas, would eventually begin a public media campaign through its players – Fabregas’ childhood friends and national side teammates – to get him back to the Camp Nou. Just about every player, coach, executive or director had an opinion that was voiced in their friendly media outlets. And for anyone who thinks this wasn’t the case, answer this: why was there no clamor for Fran Merida? He, like Cesc, left La Masia early and under acrimonious circumstances. He, like Cesc, featured early in the youth and reserve sides for Arsenal. He, like Cesc, had “Barca DNA.” It’s just his DNA didn’t make him a world-class midfielder. So it didn’t count.
3. May 1 2006: Abou Diaby is injured by Dan Smith.
Now, before I say anything, let me be clear: I am not accusing Dan Smith of being anything but a slow, clumsy, second-rate player. He’s not at fault for what transpired beyond his own actions. I don’t prescribe to the idea of intent as it comes to this event. But what also is clear is that, after this day, there would be a new idea presented for how to deal with Arsenal: kick ‘em. Don’t try to play football their way. Be more physical and more aggressive and force them to tuck tail and run.
Now, this had always been present in teams like Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers. But while we had players like Vieira, Sol Campbell, Gilberto Silva or Martin Keown around, this tactic wouldn’t work. They were as physically intimidating and as willing to kick back as anyone. With those personalities and attitudes removed and replaced with more mercurial talents and youngsters still finding their way, it’s no surprise that the “they don’t like it up ‘em” tactics have become more common and more accepted. Put simply, they’ve worked. Dan Brown begat Martin Taylor who begat Ryan Shawcross.
4. April 18 2007: Darren Dein leaves club due to “irreconcilable differences”.
In some Arsenal quarters, Dein has gained almost a mythological image. He was the man who pulled the strings for Arsenal. He was the man who worked with Wenger and could force him to change his usual thrifty ways. He was the man who was at the helm for much of the best years of the club’s history. He was the first one to recognize what Abramovich’s arrival would trigger and tried to get Arsenal into the hands of a rich Daddy Warbucks.
And yet, for all his love for Arsenal, he willingly sold his stake in Arsenal to Alisher Usmanov. This after bringing Stan Kroenke on board by brokering his purchase of ITV’s Arsenal shares. In both instances, there seems to have been a push by Dein to remain as some sort of power broker within the club’s future structure. Instead, the Arsenal board made it clear that he was out. What this created was a vacuum right in the middle of the Arsenal hierarchy. A hole that no one seems to have been able to fill.
5. August 9 2007: William Gallas is made captain over Kolo Toure or Gilberto Silva.
In retrospect, this might be the worst decision Arsene Wenger has made in the years since moving from Highbury to Ashburton Grove. When he came onboard, there was a young captain already present: Tony Adams. When he left, the armband went to Vieira, another player like Adams. They’re were both passionate, hard and tough. They got in people’s faces and wouldn’t back down from a fight. After Vieira left, the armband passed to Thierry Henry, but this was more a recognition of Henry’s value and place as the club’s best player and not a statement on his leadership qualities. If anything, Henry was a sign of things to come.
When Henry finally left for Barcelona, the expectation was that the armband would go to Gilberto Silva or Kolo Toure; men more akin to the Adams/Vieira model. Instead, Arsene surprised us all by handing it to a player who’d barely been at the club: Gallas. The French international was anything like the other two. He was mercurial, to say the least. He spoke his mind and was nowhere near the vocal presence to lead others than even Henry had been. At a time when the club was bringing in young players, the man in charge was not someone to be looked up to, admired or feared. Not surprisingly, his petulance in the aftermath of the Birmingham 2008 game was his defining moment.
6. May 5 2008: Mathieu Flamini signs with AC Milan.
It was a strange turn of events that made Flamini go from an almost-unheralded move to Birmingham City to a major move away to AC Milan. Much of it was due to injuries to both Gilberto Silva and Abou Diaby (from the Smith tackle). Having no other option, Arsene turned to the young Frenchman who had one year left in his contract. He was instantly rewarded with the perfect partner for Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas was artistry; Flamini was energy. Fabregas would pick defenses apart while Flamini would retrieve the ball and protect the back four. They were a great tandem. The club, realizing what they had, sought to lock Flamini’s services for the long haul with a new contract.
But Flamini knew (in part because his agent was telling him) that there were bigger offers to be had in a free market. So he turned down every contract extension and deal proposed by Arsenal and hit the open market after his best year – some might compare this to what happens to NFL/NBA players who have their best years right before they’re free agents. AC Milan, desperate for new blood, brought him in and signed him. The effect this had on Arsenal can be seen to this day: fearing that they might do all the hard work of training a young player and then lose him for nothing to a richer side, the club began signing its youngsters to bigger and better deals as soon as they were able. This has led to unproven players being paid as well as most professionals elsewhere. It makes them hard to transfer out when they don’t pan out (as we’ve seen with Denilson and Nicklas Bendtner this summer). It also means that established first-team players and potential new signings see those wages as below their value and want to be paid more and more – which the club find difficult to justify (see: Nasri).
Now allow me to say: COME ON YOU GUNNERS!