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Arsenal Review: Something Stinks

As I write this today, a fire is burning in the marshes east of the city and a foul smell wafts through the air. So pungent and strong is the odor that doctors are warning the elderly, children and those with respiratory conditions to stay indoors.  Walking from the house or office to the car raises your nostrils and makes them flare up. 

If there ever was an analogy for what happened Sunday at Old Trafford, well, there you go.

It’s not the loss, mind you.  We lost there last year and it didn’t feel like this.  It wasn’t even the margin — I submit that the 4-0 thrashing we got in the 2008 FA Cup was just as equally a bad display.  No, what stinks is that this was entirely avoidable and entirely foreseeable — and no one did anything to stop it.

When last season ended, the mandate from the supporters was clear: “Fix the problems.”  Some chanted for Arsene Wenger to “spend some f–ing money” but it really boiled down to that.  Two wins from 17 games in 3 competitions was untenable.  Another season spent relying on players who couldn’t stay fit for any stretch of time was untenable.  Another season depending entirely on youngsters forced to mature before their time was untenable. 

Instead, we spent the summer dithering over transfers.  We were linked to Phil Jones before he opted to go to Manchester United.  We were strongly linked with Juan Mata but he instead went to Chelsea.  We have been rumored to be after Eden Hazard when he, his manager, his agent and everyone linked to him have said he wasn’t leaving Lille this season.  Rumors of interest in Jose Enrique (Newcastle to Liverpool), Ricardo Alvarez (Velez Sarsfield to Inter Milan), Christopher Samba (still at Blackburn Rovers), Gary Cahill (still at Bolton), Yann M’Vila (still at Rennes), Marvin Martin (still at Sochaux), Lucho Gonzales (still at Marseille) or Yossi Benayoun (still at Chelsea’s physio room) have gone nowhere.  With hours left in the transfer window, Eljero Elia is going from rumored Arsenal target to Juventus – another one missed.  (Note: All of this can and hopefully will change in the next 18 hours).

What we have done is sell our starting left back and starting winger to Manchester City and sold our creative central midfielder to Barcelona while adding a talented winger (Gervinho), a new left-back (Andre Santos) and three potential signings for the future in Carl Jenkinson, Joel Campbell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Even if you think it was time for Clichy to move and time to end the charade over Cesc, this was clearly not enough.

The obvious question is “Why?”

The obvious answer is simple: “Money.” But it’s not that simple. 

For one, any time they are asked, Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis are quick to say there is money to spend and they are willing to spend it.  Wenger will take the responsibility for not spending and say he wants better players than he has.  For another, when doing the math just over the transfer periods, we are one of the few clubs that comes out in the black over the past few seasons.  Even if you discount this year’s transfers, there’s plenty of money from the sales of Adebayor and Toure to Man City, of Alex Hleb to Barcelona, of Eduardo to Shakhtar.  Add to that the high price of tickets (and that’s without the 6.5% increase this season) and people have a right to ask where that money is going.  Is it disappearing out the back door at Emirates Stadium?  Is it fading into nothingness into some vault?

Go back and read the last few years worth of financial news out of Arsenal: We’ve paid off all the Highbury development debt.  We have slashed a third of the debt on Emirates Stadium.  By all accounts, our level of debt is manageable and a sign of sanity in the insane world of football. Wasn’t this the point of the move to Emirates?  Of the transfer and wage structures we have been living under the last few years?  We own our stadium.  We don’t need a rich sugar daddy.  We have money.

And really, if the money is available, why all the dithering over using it?  I get that we are a club living within our means but, let’s face a simple fact: the entire system at Arsenal relies on attracting new supporters while keeping the old supporters happy.  In short, you compete for titles every year to attract new supporters and keep old supporters happy.  You win a title now and again to attract new supporters and keep old supporters happy.  You have big marquee players wearing your shirts to…that’s right…attract new supporters and keep old supporters happy.  And all those supporters, in turn, go buy replica shirts and mugs and t-shirts.  They pay travel agents to go to Emirates.  They allow the club to go to Asia and America and make millions beyond the millions obtained from Sky’s TV deal.

Yes, you can call them “johnny-come-latelys” or “bandwagon jumpers” but any major club needs new blood in order to ensure its financial stability.  It’s why Real Madrid went and spent 80 million pounds for Cristiano Ronaldo and 56 million pounds on Kaka’.  It’s why Barcelona are hellbent on keeping their place atop the soccer world by signing Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.  It’s why Manchester United work to stay ahead of Manchester City and Chelsea.  Yes, the diehards will always be there.  But the diehards aren’t enough to keep a club at the top of the football scrum.  You need to be attracting new “customers.”  To put it another way, “you must always be closing.”

Arsenal are currently not “closing.”  They are not ensuring the product they put out on the pitch (the football) is the best it can be.  They are not keeping pace with their immediate rivals – by now, newer rivals are overtaking them.  So worried are the folks in charge about ensuring the club stays on its current track that no one seems willing to acknowledge that the club is being left behind by richer, hungrier, more desperate clubs – except to use it as an excuse for not reacting accordingly. 

We can sit all we want and rail at the billions spent by Roman Abramovich and Sheik Mansour or how Real Madrid and Manchester United get away with moves most cannot, but the fact is that they are closing.  They are obtaining the best players.  They are competing in the highest levels.  They are drawing the new fans.  They are sitting at the end of the day with the trophies.  They are doing what they are meant to be doing.

Arsenal can choose to stand on principle and watch as they are sucked into the morass of league table mediocrity or they can come out with fire to reclaim their place.  Arsene Wenger can continue giving platitudes to the supporters about “mental strength” and “like a new signing” or he and his team can go out and find new signings that have with them the strength to finish a season with their best and strongest performances.  The men and women in charge at the highest levels of the club can continue to imagine nothing is wrong or they can set to ensure that games like last Sunday’s never happen again under their watch. 

To steal another famous movie line, “this is the business we have chosen.”  And like the crime business of Hyman Roth and Michael Corleone, the football business is just as ruthless and just as cold.  At the end of the day, players are sold because their value to the club is no longer as high.  Managers are fired because they are no longer as valued.  Legendary homes are demolished because new and bigger homes are required.  A strong vision and a capable hand are required to lead a professional sports club.  Otherwise, the small fires out in the distance can turn into the smoke that clouds the sky and stinks your day.

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