At this point, when assessing Arsenal’s seasons, one need only copy and paste the year – because everything else is the exact same as ever.
The boos that tang out around the Emirates said it all; this isn’t going to be a fun season for Arsène Wenger.
In the wake of the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool yesterday, which threatened to be a hammering at one point, Wenger claimed that his team were “not ready on a physical level” for their opponents.
Considering he insisted after the pre-season match against Manchester City last week that they absolutely were physically ready for the campaign ahead, that was quite the backtrack.
The whole point of a pre-season campaign is to make them physically ready – the fact that they would be playing Liverpool was known to Wenger weeks in advance so it’s not as if this fixture came as a surprise.
And yet his planning for this fixture suggested otherwise. His decision to leave Olivier Giroud, Mesut Özil and Laurent Koscielny out of the side looks, in hindsight, to have been foolhardy.
Even when Gabriel fell to the floor in a crumpled heap, and visions of having to pair Calum Chambers with a 20-year-old he had just signed from Bolton began to flash across the minds of not just Wenger but everyone else in the stadium, the stubborn manager retained his principles.
Koscielny would not play against Liverpool, and there was nothing more to be said.
Granted, they did not start training until Wednesday, but would the scenario of having a semi-fit Koscielny starting, and at least adding some composure to the Arsenal backline, really have been worse that throwing Rob Holding in at the deep end and expecting him to deal with the constant attacking threat of Sadio Mané, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino?
Did he expect that he could be without all those players and still win? Perhaps, but confidence wasn’t the deciding factor – it was the principle of the matter. Rules are rules etc.
The theory that Koscielny could not possibly have played is further debunked by the fact that Southampton defender Cédric Soares, who played all 120 minutes for Portugal in their victorious final at the Stade de France, was able to play 79 minutes for his side against Watford on Saturday.
Anthony Martial, who came on as a substitute for Moussa Sissoko in that same final, has started both of José Mourinho’s Manchester United matches so far – and one gets the sense that Paul Pogba would have featured too were he not suspended.
Having principles is one thing, dogmatically sticking to them when it is clearly to the detriment of the team is another.
The same applies to his transfer market policies.
By now, complaints about Wenger in the transfer market sound like a pantomime crowd screaming “He’s behind you!” as the manager remains the only person in the whole theatre who can’t see the blindingly obvious, no matter how many people bellow it at him.
The goalkeeping situation was sorted a over a decade too late, as Petr Cech finally came in to plug the gap filled by Jens Lehmann’s decline just after the unbeaten season in 2004.
Now we have a situation where Robin van Persie left the club four years ago and while perennial ‘7 out of 10’ striker Giroud continues to lead the line, Wenger’s response to why he does not look for an upgrade is to shrug his shoulders, raise his arms to the sky and curse the gods above for creating an inflated transfer market.
Arsenal are an extremely wealthy club, there is no other way of putting that, and yet their determination to play the put-upon paupers bullied by the ostentatious showing of riches by the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, it’s borderline insulting to the fans that pay the highest season ticket prices in England.
Thierry Henry made an interesting point on Sky Sports yesterday, when he admitted that Arsenal’s transfer policy confused him, while also fearing that what they can offer players is diminishing every year:
“The thing I don’t understand is: we’ve been told that Arsenal are wealthy, that we have money, that we can compete against anyone in the market, but when the season starts, we can’t compete in the market. So which one is it?
“Are Arsenal still the first choice in England? If a big player becomes available on the market, first of all, can you compete? Can you put the money on the table? Next, is the money stupid? We all know the money is stupid but you have to pay.
“And finally does the player want to come to Arsenal? That’s something we all need to take into consideration. So are we still the first choice in England? I don’t think so.”
The final point is an interesting one. How does Wenger now sell the club to potential signings?
Not the likes of Grant Xhaka or Shodran Mustafi, because for them the guaranteed Champions League football will be enough in the short run, but how does he persuade a top-level player who looks at Arsenal’s Premier League and Champions League results over the last decade and sees a perfect example of stagnation?
Mustafi will arrive in the coming days, which should at least alleviate the pressure in that respect. But how much longer can the line come from the club that they are only “two or three players away from challenging” before it becomes sort of bland mantra, the last desperate mutterings of a club whose relevance is ebbing away right before their eyes?
They’ll finish in the top four this season, because that’s what they do, but yesterday and the summer should be a reminder to never expect anything better than that from Arsenal.
They’re stubborn and comfortable – and that’s just how they like it.