On the way down: Arsenal are fighting to avoid catastrophe as new reality bites that Arsene Wenger is no longer the pioneer
Arsene Wenger is no longer the pioneer and money may be tight so club clings to Champions League status
At the Emirates Stadium today many of the chief scouts of leading European clubs, along with many agents, will convene for a forum on the scouting and trading of elite level footballers. Finding the next big talent, developing players and trading them astutely is big business these days and where better to hold a seminar on the subject than at a club who pioneered the art in the modern game?
It would be no exaggeration to say that a large part of the Emirates was paid for on the profits of Arsène Wenger's unerring eye for a player and once enviable scouting network. The man who brought Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, among others, to England changed football here for ever. But not much in football stays the same for long.
This talk at the Emirates today will be, in part, about the dismal situation the host club finds themselves in. Beaten in the League Cup by a team 72nd in the professional hierarchy and with a side that was close to full strength. Seventh in the Premier League and now so concerned that their 16-year spell in the Champions League is coming to an end they are insisting, if it comes to that, players agree to a reduction in wages.
At the top sits Wenger. Embattled and frustrated with criticism of his approach, he is in an unusual position for a manager whose club are slipping down the table. He is stronger than ever within Arsenal. The absentee majority shareholder Stan Kroenke has no appetite to intervene. The chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, defers to Wenger on all player contract issues, so too the club's so-called transfer fixer Dick Law.
Wenger's skill in recent years has been narrowly averting disaster – failure to qualify for the Champions League – which in turn has put no pressure on the club to change anything radically. Every calamity, such as last year's frenzied summer window trading after the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, is patched up. In May, Arsenal finished third and it looked like a success compared to the situation nine months' previously. Even now Arsenal are only two points off fourth place, albeit 15 off the top.
Every season something slips. Take this summer's signings. A tick for Santi Cazorla, but Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski have failed to make an impact. Podolski was looked at by most of the leading European clubs and subsequently passed over. As Arsenal have found in their failed attempts to sign the likes of David Silva and Juan Mata, if a richer and/or more successful club is interested, they lose out.
Wenger will not be leaving soon and certainly not before the end of the 18 months on his contract. Kroenke and Gazidis have no appetite for the attrition and pain that would cause the club. There is nothing like the critical weight of supporter feeling to force him out, in fact they sang his name at Valley Parade. There is every chance Arsenal will beat Reading on Monday and limp on. They pull the occasional rabbit from the hat to divert the gaze from their increasing mediocrity.
Defeat by Bradford was simply another marker in the road in the gradual falling of Arsenal's fortunes, not a pivotal moment from which change will spring. In fairness, a League Cup defeat should never decide a manager's future but this is a club that is very different. The more life becomes difficult for Arsenal, the closer they stick to their guns and for some that is a quality to be admired.
Yet every bad day brings with it further examination of Arsenal's financial approach. There is no question they pride themselves on the fact that they will sail through Uefa's financial fair play regulations for the first monitoring period that ends in May. Their last accounts posted a £36.6m profit, but that was boosted by player sales. The football operation made a loss. The wages bill was £143m, £50m more than Spurs. Ticket prices, as every Arsenal fan knows, are the most expensive in the league.
The tales of Arsenal's increasing parsimony are legendary. At one point, a visitor to the training ground who asked for a television screen to be switched on to a live match was told the club did not have the channel. The local provider had quoted Arsenal the higher rate paid by pubs and restaurants and the club refused to pay it. But what is the truth about the great unspent transfer kitty?
The Arsenal Supporters' Trust has long petitioned for the £70m it believes Wenger has at his disposal to be spent. Those around Wenger will tell you that the situation is nowhere near as simple. They argue his inspired player recruitment and management during the building of the Emirates, and the club's first years there, kept Arsenal in the Champions League and their head above water. They say that the notion he is simply sitting on £70m unspent is nonsense.
Yet when you look at those who are targets this January – Pepe Reina, Demba Ba, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Wilfried Zaha – they are not players, however talented Zaha might turn out to be, who are likely to transform the fortunes of the club immediately. That is not the business Arsenal are in.
When the scouts at the Emirates today look back at Wenger's track record at the club they may well conclude that he overachieved. That it was impossible for him to continue discovering players of that standard, especially when the rest of football wised up and began to copy his approach. That would a fair assessment of a brilliant manager, but 16 years on he is not for changing. It is testament to how ingrained in Arsenal's existence Wenger has become that the club feel the same way.
Previous worst: Wenger's dark days
Leeds United 1-0 Arsenal, May 1999
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's late goal all but ended Arsenal's hopes of retaining the title. They finish a point behind Manchester United.
Arsenal 2-3 Tottenham, Nov 2010
Neighbours won away in league for first time in 17 years.
Newcastle 4-4 Arsenal, Feb 2011
Became first team to fail to win in Premier League after going 4-0 up.
League Cup Final, Feb 2011
Lost to Birmingham City 2-1 thanks to Obafemi Martins' 89th-minute winner after defensive error.
Man United 8-2 Arsenal, Aug 2011
Suffered the club's heaviest defeat since 1896 in Old Trafford thrashing.
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