Arsenal: Forget The Barren Run, Future Looks Bright For Arsene
As you’ll no doubt have heard, Arsene Wenger will take charge of his 1000th match as Arsenal manager against Chelsea this weekend. It’s a staggering achievement, a triumph of loyalty, resilience and sheer physical endurance, made all the more impressive in a sport ruled by short-termism. And yet, for all that he’s accomplished in North London, there’s another milestone that casts a shadow over his reign: nine long years without a trophy.
When people reel off the list of his achievements at Arsenal – three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, the historic unbeaten season, the sparkling attacking play, transforming football culture in this country – we’re mainly talking about things that happened over a decade ago. His first 500 games saw a return of seven trophies; there has been no silverware in the 499 matches since.
That barren spell should finally come to an end with the FA Cup this year, but really, it doesn’t take away from just how incredible a job he has done. I’d even argue that he’s overachieved in the last decade.
There are two key reasons for the trophy drought, and the manager isn’t to blame for either. The first is building the Emirates Stadium, an investment into the future that would curtail the club’s spending power in the present. The second is Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea as a plaything, transforming the football landscape. Arsenal had plotted a steady path to sustained success, only for Chelsea, and later Man City, to speed past in a Lamborghini.
Wenger has said: “We had to fight with clubs who lose £150m per year when we had to make £30m per year.” To pay the bills, a star player seemed to leave every summer and the team would be reshaped, generally with new signings from the reduced aisle. How were Arsenal meant to compete for the big prizes?
If anything, he’s a victim of his own success. In the 50 years before his arrival, Arsenal won the league five times. He came along and won it three times in his first seven full seasons. Before Arsene, the club finished in the top four 23 times in 92 years. He’s on course to do it for the 18th time in 18 years.
Even on a budget, he’s still managed to be competitive and it’s easy to take that for granted. Players like Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie have all departed in recent years, but there’s been no implosion. Just look at David Moyes flounder at Manchester United and the scale of his achievement becomes apparent. I’d argue that Moyes’ squad is better than Arsenal’s last year, but United won’t have Champions League football next season (no, they aren’t going to win it, don’t be silly).
We’ve witnessed football envied by the world every week and seen genuinely world-class talents in the red and white. We were only minutes away from beating Barcelona in the Champions League final with ten men. There were famous wins in the Bernabeu and the San Siro. There was the victory over Barça’s class of 2011 (the best team I’ve ever seen) at the Emirates that briefly made anything seem possible.
Many Arsenal supporters argue that’s not good enough and, to be fair, there are legitimate gripes with some of his decisions. His reluctance to make necessary signings has cost the team and infuriates the fans that pay ludicrous sums for their tickets. He should have taken the domestic cups more seriously, even if only to end that dry spell. Proven winners like Gilberto Silva and Robert Pires were let go too soon, putting huge pressure on their fledgling replacements.
For me, the nadir came last season. Dumped out of the cups by the mighty Bradford and Blackburn, the fluency that characterises Arsene’s best teams had disappeared. The captain had been sold to Man United. The defence resembled a sieve more than a wall. Trailing Spurs in the league for a second successive season, a top-four finish looked like a fantasy, but he miraculously turned it round, ensuring Champions League football for the 17th successive year.
Despite not winning a trophy since 2005, he’s safely guided the club through a delicate rebuilding period that will ensure we’re challenging for honours long after he leaves. Those investments into the new stadium and young players are about to pay dividends. If you crudely divide his managerial reign into spells of trophies and no trophies, this season marks the beginning of a third period.
The club is in outstanding financial shape after securing huge new sponsorship deals. The arrival of Mesut Özil proves that Arsenal can finally compete with Europe’s biggest clubs for the very best players, allowing the club to build on the squad they already have, instead of scrambling for replacements.
Most of the team’s core is tied down to long-term contracts. Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, and Wojciech Szczesny are all 25 or younger, whilst Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem are still in their teens. That’s a frightening array of talent, all of whom have their peak years ahead of them.
There aren’t many clubs in the world better placed than Arsenal for success in both the short and long-term. The overwhelming favourites to win the FA Cup, and still in contention for the league title, a trophy this season would mark a turning point and usher in a new era of success.
The future is here.