It’s a power shift rather than the ‘financial doping’ that the Gunners manager has complained about in the past as another season slips through his fingers
By Greg Stobart
Arsene Wenger has never attempted to hide his resentment about the ‘financial doping’ he believes has skewed the odds in favour of Arsenal’s major rivals over the last decade.
The petrodollar-fueled spending of Chelsea and Manchester City has changed the landscape of the Premier League and in the process turned Arsenal from title contenders to perennial also-rans.
Wenger accepted after the midweek draw with Swansea that Arsenal’s title hopes are over, declaring that the title would be won by ‘unstoppable’ City or Chelsea.
The Frenchman now has to focus on ensuring Arsenal qualify for the Champions League for a 17th consecutive year and must justify his side’s overwhelming status as favourites to lift the FA Cup, ending a nine-year wait for a trophy.
The next week will be pivotal. On Saturday, the Gunners face Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium before they travel to fifth placed Everton next Sunday.
It must feel like Groundhog Day for Arsenal supporters. The last few years have been played on repeat: faint hope of a title challenge, settle for a top four finish, crash out of the Champions League in the early knockout stages.
The move to the Emirates Stadium was supposed to fire Arsenal into Europe’s elite, but they didn’t count on foreign billionaires turning up and blowing them out of the water with their million pound missiles.
Wenger carefully steered Arsenal through the transition from Highbury to the Emirates, but on the other side found that the situation was no different. The club’s bank accounts grew thanks to weekly sell-outs but they couldn’t afford the transfer fees and wages to compete with Chelsea and City.
“Professional football is about winning and balancing the budget. That’s the basic rule and one I fought for at Arsenal,” said Wenger in 2010.
“At Arsenal we live only with the money we produce,” continued Wenger. “What I fight for is to live within the resources we produce and to pay the players according to our real potential.”
It could have been so different for Wenger had Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour not been able to ignore economic realities to catapult their teams into the big time.
Arsenal have felt that more keenly than any other club. Not only are they stuck in the inertia of an annual third or fourth placed finish, but the shift in power was embodied by the fact they lost key players to rivals.
Ashley Cole moved to Chelsea before Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri all left Arsenal for the Etihad Stadium. Bacary Sagna could well be the latest man to walk that well trodden path.
The fact that Arsenal were unable to convince Nasri, in particular, to sign a new contract summed up the state of play. The Frenchman was mocked and accused of money-grabbing by Arsenal fans, but he won the title in his first season in Manchester and has become a pivotal player under Manuel Pellegrini and on current form would walk back into his former side’s midfield.
Arsenal supporters are now once again voicing their frustration with Wenger, especially after the humiliating 6-0 defeat at Chelsea last week. Once a revolutionary, the 64-year-old increasingly looks like he has been left behind and has no idea how to catch up.
Wenger has agreed a two-year contract extension to remain at Arsenal beyond this season, but it is clear that the Gunners have fallen behind City in almost every aspect of the club.
For all Wenger’s complaints about City’s investment in players, he himself has changed his strategy in recent years. Project youth was abandoned in pursuit of more immediate success with ready-made signings like Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil.
Arsenal have the financial capacity to attract top players – Wenger keeps telling us that – but even then the club’s transfer policy feels like an easy excuse behind which to hide.
City have deployed a continental structure with Ferran Soriano as chief executive and Txiki Begiristain as director of football, while the Etihad Campus will be the most impressive training centre and Academy in world sport.
What progress are Arsenal making?
Is there no-one Wenger can bring in to help with recruiting players? How do Arsenal find themselves dealing with a huge injury crisis every spring?
It seems he is too stubborn to address some of the major issues. While once he could rely on his ability to spot a young player, rivals have caught up with their sophisticated scouting systems.
Wenger may not even have the old magic when he comes to spotting talent if the Yaya Toure example is anything to go by. The Ivorian was once on trial at Arsenal; on Saturday there is every chance he will end any faint hope that the Gunners could still win the league.
Paul Scholes’ assessment of Arsenal on Sky Sports on Tuesday night became an internet hit largely because few could disagree with his assessment of the lack of leadership in the squad and the lack of progress of players such as Jack Wilshere.
On Saturday, an Arsenal legend, one of their greatest leaders, will be among the City delegation at the Emirates.
It is outrageous that Wenger saw no role for Patrick Vieira at Arsenal and the former Gunners captain is now using his vast experience, his leadership and his winning mentality to coach City’s reserves.
Arsenal and Wenger have simply been left behind by richer and more progressive rivals. The excuse about financial doping is wearing thin, especially when the club is on course for an annual turnover of more than €290 million this year.
Wenger just needs to finally show a willingness to adapt or Arsenal will never catch up.