On August 28th, 2011 Arsenal were left for dead. An 8-2 beat down by Ferguson’s henchmen confirmed what Arsenal supporters had suspected, but loathed to admit. Arsene Wenger did not adequately address the departures of Cesc Fabregas, Gaël Clichy and Samir Nasri during the summer transfer window. The additions of Yossi Benayoun, Mikel Arteta and others weren’t sufficient for a team expected to challenge for a spot in the Champions League at the very least.
I watched that game at a lounge in Incheon International Airport surrounded by United fans. Along with the belly laughs and songs (which were sang in unison by people from Brazil, England and South Korea, it was quite impressive) came eulogies for Wenger’s reign in North London.
The patrons at that bar weren’t alone. In October, Wenger himself admitted ‘half the team wanted to leave’ during the summer exodus. Money constraints at the club led the manager to go public with his concerns regarding the exit of more players.Some of the more dim amongst the fan base called for Wenger’s exit, believing his arrogance in refusing to acquiesce to Nasri’s wage demands sent a negative message to current and prospective players.
More importantly, did he want to stay? The angular man from Strasbourg looked worn out.
As we enter May the outlook is considerably different. A push in February galvanized by the return of favorite son Thierry Henry and continued excellence from Robin Van Persie saw the Gunners rise to third. The contributions of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Laurent Koscielny and Alex Song (who is still only 24) have been hallmarks of an exciting second half.
While he’ll still make decisions that leave you scratching your head, Thomas Vermalean has been the backbone of a club that sorely lacked one eight months ago. Bacary Sagna’s return from a broken leg couldn’t have come at a better time. Sagna’s return corresponded with an uptick in the play of Theo Walcott, who was isolated on the flank much too often during the absence of the French Defender.
Mikel Arteta was immense in the deep midfield, as he helped fill the void created by Jack Wilshere’s injury and allowed Song to move forward and play a role better suited for the Cameroonian international. Tomas Rosicky displayed the quality that helped the Czech Republic qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
With the season coming to a close, difficult questions remain. Can a club with the history and success of Arsenal call a third place finish (which isn’t exactly a sure thing) a success? If you asked me that question in October I would say yes.
Will Robin Van Persie stay? The question has been hammered to death amongst Arsenal supporters. There are pictures of Robin in an Arsenal shirt when he was young –entirely possible he was a big Dennis Bergkamp fan as a youth, who wasn’t. There is also the relationship he has with Wenger. How much will that mean when another club throws the proverbial blank check at him – I don’t know.
AFC has the money required to pay Van Persie. According to Forbes, Arsenal is the fourth most valuable club in all of football, coming in at $1.29 billion. However, American billionaire Stan Kroenke, the holder of 66.7% of the clubs shares, refuses to ‘throw money against the wall‘- whatever that means, seriously. Last year, Kroenke was locked in a power struggle with Uzbek Billionaire Roman Usmanov, owner of 29.25% of the club’s shares. Under British law Kroenke must make an offer for all the remaining shares he does not own, including Usmanov’s.
Kroenke’s spend thrift approach fits well with Wenger’s eye for relatively inexpensive talent, as evidenced by the signings of Arteta, Benayoun and Lukas Podolski, whose transfer was confirmed today. Will the German support RVP up front, or replace him?
And perhaps most important of all, how long does Wenger want to keep doing this? Rumors of his ascendance to the board have hung over the team since that disastrous day in Manchester. Could Pep Guardiola, a long time admirer of Wenger, take over at a club that’s been deemed ‘Barcelona lite’?
I do not pretend to write this objectively. This season has been a mix of peaks and valleys. My memories will include the good – the comeback against Spurs, the Van Persie hat trick against Chelsea and Thierry Henry’s winner against Leeds, to name a few – and the bad.
For my fellow Gooners and I, this summer will be defined by the contract negotiations with our Dutch talisman. I’m nervous already.