It has been 11 long years since Arsenal won a league title, a drought that threatened Arsene Wenger’s popularity — and even his job — and led to serious questions about the underlying philosophy of a club that appeared to value beautiful football above winning football.
Now, however, the underlying long-term plan that lay hidden for much of that period is rising to the surface and starting to take the smirk off faces at Stamford Bridge, the Etihad and Old Trafford.
For the first time, perhaps, it is possible to visualise how Wenger saw the future when he learned just how restricted his transfer activity would be because of the huge debts taken on during the building of the Emirates Stadium. Remember, Arsenal’s first season in their new home was 2006-7, just two years after the Invincibles went an entire season unbeaten to be crowned champions.
In many ways the move came at a bad time; a time when Roman Abramovich was spending millions at Chelsea to leave Arsenal helpless in the market, a time when Barcelona were at their financial peak and when other billionaires were suddenly taking an interest in the Premier League — leaving Man City able to tempt high quality players from north London.
During that era Wenger’s priority was almost certainly to maintain a footballing brand that protected Arsenal’s popularity and to do everything to finish in the top four each season; a goal he achieved despite Jose Mourinho’s assertion in the process he became a “specialist in failure”.
The low point, no doubt about it, came in 2011 when Arsenal were beaten 8-2 at Old Trafford and silverware seemed a distant prospect; but this year there is light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly after two FA Cup and two Community Shields in a row, the Arsenal strategy looks like reaping dividends. Uefa Financial Fair Play rules and huge television revenues have served to level the playing field against high-spending rivals – and ironically it may be Arsenal’s transfer policy that catapults them back into title contention this year.
While Man City scramble around buying overpriced players to join an ageing squad and overrated Englishmen to sit on the bench to satisfy Uefa quotas, Arsenal’s more measured and highly-criticised approach in the market is starting to look more sensible.
While Manchester United have abandoned their long-held tradition of slowly adding to a winning squad with a high-quality and well-planned signing in June – choosing instead to throw money a random selection of established and expensive stars instead – Arsenal are the club that appear to have a plan.
It is inconceivable, for instance, Wenger would spend a club record fee on a player like Angel Di Maria and jettison him after a season; instead he has nurtured Mesut Ozil, understanding he would take two seasons to adapt and make an impact, and now expects the German midfielder to be Footballer of the Year in 2016.
His policy, too, of restraint in the transfer market — refusing to sign panic-buys who would block the rise of talented young players in his squad — means there is a togetherness and familiarity in the ranks at Arsenal; they look like a team that have matured and grown together. A team that is now ready to flourish. Can City, United and Liverpool possibly say the same?
It hasn’t been an easy ride, of course, there has been a lot of abuse along the way amid accusations that Wenger has stubbornly refused to spend the money available to him. But things have changed with the arrival of Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, two players who perfectly fit the Arsenal mould, so if Petr Cech (at €14m) is the only major signing of the summer this year, nobody in north London will complain too loudly.
So nervous are Chelsea of the rise of their newest title rivals that Mourinho has even complained Arsenal are trying to buy success; a rather cheeky dig given Chelsea spent more than anyone in the days when the Gunners were hamstrung in the transfer market. Nowadays we’re told Arsenal have €280m in the bank if Wenger needs it while Chelsea rarely spend big without selling big first; but the real evidence of growing equality is on the pitch. This could well be the year when Arsenal’s plan comes together…
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