Arsenal look ready this year, with or without Robin van Persie
While the captain’s future is still uncertain, Arsene Wenger has taken steps to avoid the chaos of 12 months ago
The new season always brings with it new faces, new beginnings and new hopes of success – but for Arsene Wenger there is little about this week that is unfamiliar.
The Frenchman is about to embark on his 16th full season in charge at the club and, like many of those that have gone before, the Gunners boss will start it under the microscope.
This time last year Arsenal were in turmoil – later in the season Wenger labelled it his most stressful period ever at the club – as the loss of Cesc Fabregas was then compounded by Samir Nasri’s carefree defection to Manchester City.
Distracted by a tough two-legged Champions League qualifier with Udinese, Wenger’s depleted side endured a miserable start to the Premier League season that might have escaped under the radar if they had not suffered such a seismic, shocking defeat at Old Trafford.
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Wenger has always argued that the mitigating circumstances that day outweighed the significance of the 8-2 scoreline, but whether he liked it or not the tone for the season was set: Arsenal were the new crisis club.
A year on, Wenger may just be thinking along the lines of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Without doubt, what Wenger endured last season has helped him negotiate another potentially tricky summer at the Emirates.
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Having secured a 15th successive season of Champions League football and the exciting signing of Lukas Podolski before the end of May, a positive mood was shattered by Robin van Persie’s damning statement in early July that he would not be signing a new contract, not with Arsenal anyway.
While not entirely unexpected given his reluctance to commit through all of last season, the way the club captain and double player of the year cited a difference of ambition as his reason for seeking pastures new cut to the very core of what many see as Arsenal’s demise in recent years.
In a new Premier League landscape, distorted by the limitless funds available at other clubs, the position Arsenal now seem to occupy is unclear. Having finished third they cannot be considered also-rans, yet the gulf behind the two Manchester clubs was huge, as large as the gap between the transfer fees those clubs can afford, and the salaries those stellar signings command.
Van Persie, now 29, wants a wage packet in accordance with his status as Premier League top scorer and PFA Player of the Year, but he also wants a realistic chance of success and medals. The evidence of seven barren seasons – for all of which he has been present – suggests he can only realise those ambitions playing for another club.
Top players leaving for the riches on offer at Manchester City or, like Fabregas and Thierry Henry before him, the chance to wear the colours of Barcelona, could be understood, if not forgiven.
But selling your best player to Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson, always Wenger’s chief rival despite the arrival of the nouveaux riche at Chelsea and City, would seem to herald a genuine shift in the hierarchy.
Much like last summer with Nasri, Wenger has rebuffed all talk of Van Persie leaving, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But the difference this year is palpable.
While 12 months ago the Frenchman was eventually undermined by his board who decided �25m from City’s bottomless funds was too good to turn down for Nasri, this year Wenger has already taken decisive action.
Podolski’s arrival was followed by that of Ligue 1’s leading scorer Olivier Giroud from Montpellier, and those two striking assets were then supplemented by last week’s capture of Spanish playmaker Santi Cazorla from Malaga.
Having lavished more than �35m on that trio, Wenger has a counter-argument to Van Persie’s criticisms over the club’s ambition.
Chelsea’s spending spree on Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin is touching �60m, while United have spent only on Shinji Kagawa and City, so far, �15m on Everton’s Jack Rodwell. Arsenal have not been inactive players in this summer’s transfer market.
And so they shouldn’t be. With Champions League revenue again assured, and the Emirates grossing more than �3m a game, Arsenal’s status as Premier League paupers is relative only to those three clubs mentioned above. Compared to the other 16, the Gunners are among the elite.
What Wenger, Stan Kroenke and everybody else at Arsenal are now painfully aware of, is that this status must now be reflected on the pitch, and in the trophy room.
Seven years of Champions League participation and third and fourth-placed finishes is not the kind of diet the Emirates faithful are used to, and although it is only Wenger’s brilliance that has raised the bar of expectation, if that stretches to eight by next May, the question will be whether the Arsenal board feel it is a status quo that can be accepted.
Wenger’s current contract is due to expire in June 2014. His track record and pedigree suggest he deserves to fulfil that term of office. But he will know better than anybody that he will ultimately be judged by what happens on the pitch over the next nine months.
Arsenal must start well, and they must compete for the two trophies that really count. If no title challenge materialises, it will be time to accept that Wenger’s era is coming to an end.