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Arsenal At A Cross Roads

Arsenal FC, a club who have been at the pinnacle of English and European football for over twenty years, a club who have harboured some of the Premier League’s most talented players and have one of the most decorated youth set-ups in Europe. Arsenal FC, a club who have been without silverware for six seasons, who are ever becoming a feeder club for more successful sides and a club whose long standing manager Arsene Wenger’s philosophy of sleek fast flowing attractive football and putting faith in his youth ranks, is now being questioned. Arsenal are at a cross roads in their history, long gone are the days of the 1997/1998 Premier League and FA Cup double win, as are the heroes who brought that glory. Arsenal is now a club that is seemingly falling behind its rivals, both in terms of success, stature in the transfer market and in credibility. Where does the problem lie? Who’s to blame? And what’s the solution to repair Arsenal’s slight decline?

It is only August and already Arsenal’s future for the next footballing season is in question. After a torrid summer regarding transfer sagas and a dismal opening performance against Newcastle in the Premier League marred by indiscipline, they now face an almighty challenge on the 16th and 24th of the month. European football has become an expectation at Arsenal after thirteen consecutive appearances in the European top flight since the 1998-99 season. However, the Gunners now face a difficult two-legged challenge to qualify for the 2011/2012 Champions League against Serie A’s fourth placed side Udinese. This is a side that finished ahead of Italian giants Juventus, Roma and Lazio in their domestic league and have the likes of Italian veteran striker Antonio Di Natale and Chilean starlet Mauricio Isla in their ranks. The challenge is made even more strenuous for Wenger who has to secure a safe passage without arguably three of the Premier League’s best players in the 2010/2011 season, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and the injured Jack Wilshere. Should Arsenal fail to secure European qualification in the coming weeks the pressure is likely to build upon Mr Wenger’s shoulders.

The veteran French manager’s philosophy has begun to be questioned and his future placed in doubt, largely due to his transfer policy. It has become a common sight every 31st August on transfer deadline day, to see hordes of dejected Arsenal fans on Sky Sports News trying to come to grips with losing yet another star man over the summer and bringing in only a hand full of prospects for the future. Wenger promotes installing youth players in the first team and his youth academy is the envy of many a manager, however, Wenger’s stubbornness to leave his philosophy has meant a decline in Arsenal’s league standings. For every top European side, if you lose a key man in the transfer window you replace him with a top player; if you earn £30million by selling a player you reinvest it by strengthening the squad. Wenger on the other hand has failed to follow this model set by other high achieving clubs, to the anger of Arsenal fans.

To many rivals amusement Arsenal have recently been labelled a feeder club to bigger and better sides, and one can see truth to this. Since the summer of 2006/2007 Arsenal have sold Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole, Gilberto Silva, Alexander Helb, Mattiheu Flamini, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy and Cesc Fabregas, with Samir Nasri set to be leaving later this week, to Champions League rivals for a total of £116.8million. In return Wenger has continually disappointed fans by not replacing Arsenal’s key players with like-for-like signings, but instead investing in young players or players of a sub-standard to those recently departed. The summer of 2011 emphasises this with unknown quantity Gervinho signed for £10.6million from French Champions Lille and 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin from Southampton for £12million, while Cesc Fabregas has left to European Champions Barcelona for 34million euros with a further 5million euros in variables, and Samir Nasri is rumoured to be nearing the competition of his move to Manchester City for £22million.

Wenger’s transfer policy would not be left open to such widespread criticism had his replacements for his key men brought success, but these problems have been extenuated by not recording results with the existing players. Rather, Arsenal’s famous fast flowing passing football although a joy to watch has not brought the necessary results needed to challenge for the Premier League title, leaving them 12 points away from champions Manchester United in the 2010/2011 campaign and losing out at their only chance of silverware against Birmingham City in the 2010/2011 Carling Cup Final. There are calls for upheaval at the helm of Arsenal, with many suggesting ousting Wenger would bring a breath of fresh air to the club who are stuck in a rut over the past three seasons, never being closer than ten points to the crowd champions. Wenger’s trust in youth is becoming a spent philosophy to many and it would appear that Wenger has taken Arsenal as far as he can. Long gone are the glory days of the late 90s and early 2000s, the days of Arsenal’s “invincibles” who were unbeaten for all 38 Premier League games.

So what now for Arsenal? The 2011/2012 campaign will be one of the most important in Wenger’s career and close attention will particularly be paid to what movements he makes in the final weeks of the summer transfer window. Wenger certainly needs to have a rethink of this mentality to leading Arsenal. For the past three summers Wenger has neglected the necessity to strengthen Arsenal from the back and to fill the void left by Sol Campbell’s and Kolo Toure’s departures. Attacking wise if Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (whose departure is imminent) are not replaced, the Gunners will lack a vast proportion of their goals and creativity. It will be incredibly hard to replace a player like Fabregas whose record is played 303, scored 57 and 100 assists without substantial investment, a trait Wenger rarely likes to show. Equally Wenger needs to question if his attacking style of five yard passing football will always succeed, and rather showcase another model of football in case his long trusted tactics do not provide the results needed.

The jury is out on Arsene Wenger by the fans and media alike, and unless the serious changes demanded and needed are provided, it could be the last season we are given the pleasure of watching Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. He is without a doubt one the most tactically brilliant manager’s to grace the English Premier League, one of the most impressive managers at nurturing and sculpting young players into world class stars and has led Arsenal to play some of the most beautiful football the pitches of England have ever seen. Wenger has overcome many great challenges in his 15 years at Arsenal, but could this be one challenge too great for the Frenchman? 

David Philip Harrison

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