Despite being the FA Cup holders, Arsenal begin the season potless. The financial constraints have been all too visible this summer: £7.5m in losses in the past six months, £45m in debt and stalled progress over the new stadium at Ashburton Grove which will cost, and this is now a conservative estimate, a staggering £400m. Added to that is the realisation that Arsène Wenger's supposed £10m kitty for transfers has probably simply gone on covering the not inconsiderable wage demands of some of his top players - not least Patrick Vieira. The wrangling over the captain's contract has been a constant irritation and is in marked contrast with the deliberate alacrity shown by Thierry Henry in securing his new deal.
Football agents are notoriously self-interested barometers, but talk to any about Arsenal and they all say one thing - no point dealing with them at present because they simply do not have the money. "You only have to look at the goalkeeper they signed, Jens Lehmann [from Borussia Dortmund for £1.5m] to see that," says the agent Barry Silkman who has been closely aligned to free-spending Chelsea this close season. "He was not their first choice, or their second or third. And I would be surprised if Wenger believes he is starting with a defence he is happy with."
Yes, that defence. The feeling persists that the best thing to take Arsenal forward is their forwards. Vieira, Henry, Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg and, still, Dennis Bergkamp can show an irrepressibility about their attacking even if doubts persist whether it is at all sustainable. At the back Martin Keown is 37, Pascal Cygan performs as if he is even older, Sol Campbell still makes mistakes as does, with even greater frequency, Ashley Cole, while Lauren is simply not a defender and Igor Stepanovs is, for many fans, simply not a footballer.
Wenger recognises the problem. Forty-two goals were conceded in the league. "Our defensive record was simply not good enough," he says. "Unfortunately we lost Campbell, Vieira, Cole in positions where we lacked cover. We couldn't replace Cole, and at the decisive stage we dropped some points, against Aston Villa for example." Now he has the 18-year-old Gael Clichy while even more promising is the Swiss centre-half Phillipe Senderos, also 18, whom Keown has called the "next Tony Adams". But still no experienced defensive cover.
Youth is a contentious issue at Highbury, not least for the perception, possibly valid, that Wenger has been distrustful of a crop of young talent and has paid the price with a squad that lacks depth. Many fans would, for example, have been happy to see Stuart Taylor given a chance in goal and the cash invested elsewhere. Other young talents who may be given their head are Ryan Garry, Jermaine Pennant, Jeremie Aliadiere and the richly talented David Bentley. Wenger is publicly bullish about their prospects and about those of his club's. After all they have won three of the four main domestic trophies in the past two years.
An intelligent man, he has also attempted to use the financial situation to his advantage. "We've won the title twice and been runners-up four times in the past six seasons and we've never spent £60m or £70m. Money gives you a good chance to be successful, but there are other ways to do it without spending so much. We have shown that."
Wenger never has been a big spender - his most expensive signings, such as Sylvain Wiltord at £11m - have often been his most unconvincing. There are also grounds to hope that the financial straits are easing. The £130m kit deal with Nike has helped and it is thought an agreement may well have been reached, at last, with banks to cover the new stadium even if there is also a growing belief that Arsenal will take the sensible option and attempt to ground-share at the new Wembley. Nevertheless, work begins again at Ashburton Grove next month.
"We need to get the finance in place for that," says Wenger who has invested much of his own future in the frustrating and bloated project. "When we do, we will be all right. If we get it, the team won't suffer. If we don't, the club will face a critical decision. What will we do?"
What indeed will Wenger do? Although Vieira and Pires have signed new contracts it is unlikely they will see them out. Other players are disgruntled at both the deals on offer to the big names and the way they have been named as makeweights in ill-fated transfers. Wenger takes great store in the fact that he has never reneged on a deal although he has not shown any desire so far to extend his current one at Highbury. That has only a limited time to run and the feeling persists that Carlos Queiroz is only a locum at Real Madrid.
A revival is needed, just one year after Wenger's vainglorious statement that his team would dominate English football. They may do again. Defences are less important in the Premiership especially if the attack can be re-ignited. Any hope of taking that success into Europe should be cautioned against, however. Teams are not so naïve there.
The residual disappointment of losing the championship last May was evident at last weekend's Community Shield match. So, too, were the rows of empty seats in the Arsenal end which, notwithstanding the explanations offered up by the club, suggest a lack of hunger among the faithful. Wenger must whet the appetite again - of players, of fans and of the club's directors. It is a tall order and may be, at present, an unattainable one.
But another thing was clear in Cardiff. Despite Manchester United's victory on penalties, nothing was actually settled. Sir Alex Ferguson - and Claudio Ranieri - despite their wealth and well-placed optimism know that.Reuse content