Arsenal And The Permanent Crisis

Richard Heathcote

Ever year the same story: the nights gets shorter, the clocks go back, and crisis returns to Ashburton Grove.

Generally speaking, once you've got a crisis, two things can happen. Either it gets worked out, disaster is averted, and everything calms down again, or it all goes wrong, and things explode, collapse, or both. A crisis is a crisis by virtue of its instability, and unstable things tend to be short-lived.

Arsenal, though. Arsenal are different. Arsenal's crisis has become a permanent fixture in the Premier League calendar, as sure a herald of autumn as falling leaves, vegetable soup, and poor knitwear choices. A limp performance against a team from Manchester, a loss to a couple of lesser sides that just don't know their place, or a sputtering, stalling round of contract negotiations, and the familiar clouds mass over Islington.

That said, this season comes with a twist. The chant "We want our Arsenal back" has been rolling around the Emirates for the last few weeks, as a sort of prelude to the disgruntled boos. It's a peculiar chant whoever it's directed at, but if it's directed at Arsène Wenger it becomes ever-so-slightly tragic, After all, the most recent great Arsenal side was more his than anybody else's. "We want your Arsenal back", is the message, and it comes with the implied question "Why the hell don't you?"

The reasons for Arsenal's crisis - that is, the reasons they've gone from being one of the two best sides in the country to being one of the four or five best sides in the country, which appears to constitute a crisis - are fairly obvious. One, Wenger isn't as good a manager as he used to be. This is not to say that he's got worse, but to say that those around him have got better. Famously, when he arrived in the country, he found a league occupied by boozed-up Englishmen who'd only encountered broccoli in the opening credits of James Bond films. Now that he's demonstrated the benefits of paying less money for foreign players and eating non-fizzy carbohydrates, everybody's at it. Competitive edge: eroded.

Two, the populations of Abu Dhabi and Russia decided that the profits from their country's natural resources would be best used in funding two English football teams. You can't argue with democracy. (Though a little less of the doe-eyed 'oh, we could never have foreseen this coming' would be welcome. It's not as though the idea of the super-rich buying football clubs was unprecedented when Abramovich leaned out of his helicopter and said "Want that one".)

And three, perhaps most interestingly and mysteriously, them upstairs. At a corporate level, the Arsenal that employs Wenger now is a thoroughly different beast to the one that hired him. New stadium, new owner, mostly new board, new sponsors; for all that it's fun to mock Andre Santos's positioning, virtually nothing happens in modern football that isn't the consequence of having either enough, or not enough, money. Arsenal don't make as much as Manchester United, and they aren't given as much as Manchester City or Chelsea, and yet the question still remains: are they spending as much as they could?

Writing over on Grantland, Brian Phillips has pointed out that without knowledge of exactly what the board have required of him, it is impossible to judge Wenger as either a success or a failure:

If they've made vast sums available for his transfer spending and pleaded with him to build the strongest team in England, then yes, his determination to buy bargain players and stick to his own vision has hurt the club. But what if they've ordered him to keep costs down, control wages, and just do the best he can while they get the club's long-term revenue and ownership structures worked out?

That, of course, would be a perfectly sensible business position. You have a manager who loves the club and who's able to produce teams that regularly compete to the level required to allow the long-term plan to proceed - why mess around with that? What would an FA Cup actually do for the club? Practically?

Maybe that's what lies behind the "We want our club back" sentiment: the suspicion that in this chapter, Arsenal aren't doing what Arsenal should be doing - trying to win all of the shiny things - but something else, something that looks on the surface like football but has at its heart different and vaguely alien notions of what constitutes success and failure. Now that would be a peculiar kind of crisis indeed, an existential one: the football club that decided, for the moment, that the football itself could just simmer along.

All together now: "We're the finest organisation to locate and maintain the delicate balance between falling short of our minimum economic targets while simultaneously controlling expenditure with a view to the medium- and long-term". Doesn't really scan, does it?

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