It’s only natural, or the nature of the football supporter, to reflect on the past; after all, we surely can learn from the lessons of bygone days. In looking backwards it gives a context in which to judge where the Arsenal currently are as a club. The Premier League era is a good benchmark with which to view our clubs fortunes.
Manchester United are the undisputed front-runners of the Premier League era, an era that has seen a variety of clubs contesting the top spot. Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, Leeds United and Aston Villa are some of the clubs that have been challengers for the throne and have since become mid table or worse. This has happened through a mixture of financial problems, problematic managerial appointments and the harsh realities of market forces. Now it’s Chelsea and Manchester City that are the rivals of Manchester United: both clubs having been changed beyond recognition by powerful financial ownership.
The Arsenal’s current standing is a more complex issue. Unlike most, our club decided to upscale at the peak of its powers. Off the back of an unbeaten Premier League title an FA Cup victory and an appearance in the Champions League final, in successive seasons, we moved to a larger stadium. We took some of our superstars with us but we jettisoned some of them prematurely.
Selling the Emirates to the supporters was easy; “how would you like to see some of the best players in the world at a state of the art stadium that will generate the income to allow the team to get even better and compete with the best in the world?” What could go wrong?
What then happened was that, while the club were able to accommodate 22000 more supporters, those supporters were not watching the best players in the world anymore. We were not seeing the team get better or compete with the best in the world.
We have seen a steady decrease in quality and achievement on the pitch. In a sense we have joined the ranks of those teams I mentioned earlier that have become yesterday’s men as far as the premier League is concerned. The major difference is that the Arsenal appeared to have made a decisive move in solidifying our position in domestic and European football by increasing opportunities for revenue. What none of us expected was to see the better players at the club leave on a regular basis. Perhaps naively we assumed that we may have been seeing an Arsenal that was as good as the Invincibles year after year with quality coming in and quality retained.
Perhaps we thought we would see an Arsenal team lining up with regulars like Cole, Nasri, Fabregas and Van Persie alongside quality imports like Mata and Hazard plus good British Premier League players such as Cahill and Jagielka in the squad. Perhaps we believed Arsene Wenger when he predicted that Denilson, Diaby, Song and Bendtner would prove to be world class.
Yes it’s all ‘ifs & buts’ that make us look back (sometimes in anger) but the harsh reality is that Arsenal used to compete with Manchester United on equal footing. Both teams equal on quality, desire and competitiveness. That golden era of the Premier League when Manchester United v the Arsenal was THE game has gone. Its now MUFC v CFC or MUFC v MCFC.
Where once the Arsenal travelled to the home of the benchmark club as a battalion intent on taking three points we now go to Old Trafford each season as cannon fodder. Ferguson, his team and their supporters now look at the fixture as a home banker not as a concern.
Being objective its true to say that Abramovitch changed the football landscape and as a result, during our trophy less spell, Chelsea have won ten trophies. That is a cold hard fact that we need to come to terms with; things have changed. Money talks and that’s the truth of the matter, but we are not poor so how are we where we are?
There is talk in some quarters that winning the League Cup at the expense of ECL qualification is a bad thing. This viewpoint is based on an either/or scenario. I'm unsure why. Why not aim to do both? "A club of Arsenals stature" is being used to dismiss the League Cup but this, in my opinion, smacks of arrogance. Facts are we are not going to win the Premier League or ECL so why not try to win one of the two trophies available to us AND aim for qualification to the 13/14 ECL? Stature can start to be rebuilt by winning things.
In terms of taking small steps on a road to recovery Arsene Wenger needs to look at the League Cup as a path to Wembley and a piece of Silverware. Given the draw for the next round and the teams left in the tournament it has to be a winnable trophy. We can’t think of it as somehow beneath us. Maybe the Invincibles had bigger fish to fry but we need to get over ourselves and go out there with our best eleven and win a trophy. It’s a step that we should be taking: little acorns and all that.
What is ultimately frustrating is not so much that we have fallen down the pecking order; no club has a divine right to anything. The frustration is that in 2006 we seemed to have done the right thing and planned our future correctly. Something went wrong. I don’t know what that something was but the club needs to repair things soon before its too late. Those repairs need to be substantial. Failure to do so and we might just find ourselves being another Newcastle United a formerly great entertaining team that was once right up there but have declined, a relic of a bygone age.