Arsenal’s very identity is at stake

As Robin van Persie prepares to make his Manchester United debut tonight, the club he left behind is suffering an identity crisis.

Arsenal, who also lose midfielder Alex Song to Barcelona this morning, were clearly suffering a transfer hangover as they were held to a goalless draw by Sunderland at The Emirates.

But the events of this summer have thrown up even deeper issues over how Arsenal should position themselves in the new era of billionaire owners and ever-spiralling wages.

In the good old days Arsenal’s USP (unique selling point) was clear and transparent; they were the club of tradition, an old-school powerhouse of English football with a cabinet full of trophies to prove it and marble halls to underline it. When it came to a pecking order it was Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal — and the rest were rarely more than temporary interlopers into the land of England’s football elite.

But things have changed. By sticking so staunchly — and admirably — to traditions of private ownership and financial prudence, that USP is under threat. Instead Arsenal have become the world’s greatest football factory — taking players at a young age, turning them into superstars and then selling them on to clubs with more money and fewer principles.

Financially it’s a model that works; but it’s not a great selling point for the 60,000 fans who turned up on Saturday hoping for an end to seven years without a trophy, but who left wondering once again if that might be over-optimistic.

Even manager Arsene Wenger, whose vision and managerial skill built the modern Arsenal, looked drawn, frustrated and tired after watching his team’s first post-van Persie outing — and spent his press conference explaining why Song was also leaving to join Cesc Fabregas at Barcelona.

“There are different reasons he left but I do not want to come out with that now. Do I feel let down? I don’t know. We are left with that decision and now we have to face it, to deal with it in a correct way,” he said, before reflecting, eyes glazed a little.

“We make the players here, all who have left have made a name here after coming very young — Fabregas, Clichy, Adebayor, Henry, Nasri and Song — he came at 17. But that is what we face today.”

Of course there’s no great shame in being held to a goalless draw by a Sunderland side who were tremendously organised and who defended impressively from start to finish. But there were several other facets of Arsenal’s performance that should start alarm bells ringing.

The passing was slower than we have come to expect, the new three up front formation — by Wenger’s own admission — did not work; Lukas Podolski didn’t look ready to take van Persie’s crown just yet and the team was completely reliant on Santi Cazorla — making his debut — for any creative input.

“Overall, I am happy with the spirit we have shown, but the frustration is we are used to more creativity, and that was the big miss,” admitted Wenger after substitute Olivier Giroud wasted his team’s only real clear-cut chance late on, firing wide when put clean through by the impressive Cazorla.

The temptation is to say of course that van Persie would have scored it; but Arsenal had games like this last year, too, when they sometimes struggled to finish off teams who put 10 men behind the ball. So maybe the problem is deeper.

Certainly, however, there is a lot of work to do before Podolski replaces van Persie in Arsenal hearts.

The good news for Arsenal fans — and they should cling to it — is that Cazorla looks a terrific signing; in fact he ran Saturday’s match, twice came close to scoring and twice set up chances that were spurned by teammates.

At 27 you would hope he has found his permanent home — he will be 31 by the time his contract is completed — and that should provide some extra comfort for fans disillusioned by the sale of so many star names.

So is that the answer from now on? Should the football factory be importing rather than exporting? It’s a question the club should at least be asking — Arsenal’s very identity is at stake.

ARSENAL: Szcesny 7, Jenkinson 6, Meretesacker 5, Vermaelen 6, Gibbs 6, Diaby 6 (Ramsey 69; 6), Arteta 6, Cazolra 8, Gervinho 8, Walcott 6 (Arshavin 77; 6), Podolski 6 (Giroud 64; 6).

Subs not used: Santos, Djourou, Coquelin, Mannoni.

SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 7, Gardner 7, O’Shea 7, Cuellar 8, Richardson 7, Larsson 6 (Meyler 73; 6), Campbell 6 (Elmohamady 68; 6), Cattermole 7, Colback 6, McClean 6, Sessegnon 7 (Saha 63; 6)

Subs not used: Wickham, Kilgallon, Bramble, Westwood

Attendance: 60,078

Referee: Chris Foy.

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