Arsene Isn’t Trolling Us

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I don’t know if anyone, anywhere, has ever mentioned this, but it’s been a while since Arsenal won a trophy. Oh, you knew? Right, right. Well, that’ll probably be because it’s slipped into every single article/broadcast about the club, like some secret new rule of grammar that’s handed out with press trilbies on young reporters’ first day at the nonsense mines. And it’s made Arsenal fans cranky.

We’re cranky about all sorts of things. About a wage bill that’s comparable to Bayern Munich’s, but due to our 'socialist' ethos sees the likes of Denilson and Bendtner stuck on the books while still earning eye-watering salaries. We’re cranky about Mike Dean, who’s overseen 11 defeats and 6 draws in the last 19 Arsenal games he’s officiated. And seems to take a perverse pleasure in our misfortunes. But most of all, at this time of year, we’re cranky about transfers.

Specifically, many fans are cranky about the manager’s double-speak in press conferences when talking about signings. Of course no realistic fan expects Arsene to reel off a list of  targets and price tags. The impromptu car window briefing is not our way, nor should it be. Of course there’s an element of needing to keep cards in close proximity to chests, or run the risk of being gazumped, as happened with Juan Mata, who the French journalist Phillipe Auclair recently claimed “believed he was an Arsenal player” at one stage.

What many claim to find maddening, though, is the flip-flopping between positions, in terms of  what the manager says we need, and might do. Here are a few examples, in chronological order, from this month. We begin after the 1-1 draw with Southampton, and it’s fair to say everyone is feeling fairly cross…

"I will be active, yes. We are looking everywhere. We are open-minded. We want to strengthen the squad everywhere." – 1st January

Okay. Two uses of “everywhere”. That sounds promising. Hmm. “Open-minded” is a bit of a worry though. Haven’t we already identified our targets? The window opens in January but you can talk to potential recruits and set the deals up in November and December. Still, “active” – that sounds promising.

"It’s very difficult because the level of expectation is very high. People want to see Lionel Messi. They don’t want to see a promising guy." – 4th January

Ruh roh! Three days later things aren’t looking so promising. There’s a point here about fan expectation that isn’t unreasonable, but equally I have never heard *any* Arsenal fan suggest we should/could sign a player of Messi’s calibre. Nor do I think we are particularly dismissive of the “promising guys”. (Quite the opposite in fact.) I think at this point we just definitely want “some guys”. 

"We now have Rosicky and Diaby available again. If you look at our squad, it’s quite complete but we still work in the transfer market as well. We do not want to bring in average players. We only want to bring in an exceptional player. At the moment we have not found him. You are always under pressure to buy in England and every problem has to be sorted out by buying people." – 11 January

Ah, this is essentially the fabled ‘like a new signing’ line. Rosicky and Diaby are – *air quotes* – fit again, so all is well. Except it isn’t, because anyone who’s watched Arsenal for more than two consecutive games will know that there’s less chance of a litter of kittens making it through a game of murderball unscathed than there is either of those two staying healthy. As for the squad being “quite complete”,  we’d just sent Chamakh and Djourou out on loan. So regardless of what you think of those two, less complete than at the start of the window would be more accurate. Arsene Bonus bingo points for anyone who picked up on the use of “exceptional”. Along with “super, super” quality, these are the only sorts of players we’re interested in, hence how tricky it is to find new ones. What’s that? No, don’t look at Park. Or Chamakh. Or Squillaci. SHUT UP!

"We are in the market. To find players of a calibre of Arteta, available in January, I wish you good luck." – 13th January

Good luck indeed! The scouting work we did on Arteta was so extensive that he signed as the summer ‘11 window slammed shut without so much as the time to take a medical. Luck probably isn’t the deciding factor here. It doesn’t take luck to realise that, say, Etienne Capoue is one of the best defensive midfielders currently plying his trade in Europe, and could be had for a reasonable fee. No wonder Everton are sniffing around

"First of all we want to sort out the injuries we have, and we are trying very hard to close the deal with Walcott. Once we have done that, we will certainly do something else. At the moment I cannot tell you more. We have some improvements to make and we know exactly where. In January it is difficult to find the players that are really better and can give something special to the squad." – 15th January

This is particularly bizarre. Putting aside the fact the Walcott deal had already sucked up an agonising 18 months of everyone’s time and sanity, quite how the club’s deal-makers, Ivan Gazidis and chief negotiator Dick Law (who I like to imagine as Denholm Elliot’s character in Indiana Jones, travelling the world and getting into cultural misunderstandings), are going to fix our injuries. Give their strained muscles a stern pep talk perhaps?

"All the players who can strengthen us are cup-tied in the Champions League." – 17th January

This strikes me as a remarkable assertion. Arshavin arrived cup-tied. The last two players we even bought from sides in the Champions League were Squillaci and Mertesacker. And Bremen were on the decline at that point. Cazorla and Giroud would have been eligible to play for Malaga and Montpellier, but neither side were regulars in the competition. We simply don’t tend to shop on the Champions League club shelf. In any case, wouldn’t having players who can assist in the fight for fourth and the FA Cup be handy to have?

Hilariously, that story came off the back of Twitter rumours we’d put out at £30m “feeler” for someone, who the internet swiftly decided was Edinson Cavani. A player that Napoli already claimed they’ve turned down a £45m bid for. Given that our record purchase is around the £14m mark, plus the manager and board have never given any indication of spending much more than that on anyone, it’s easy to see why the link to West Ham’s Diame (a snip at £3.5m) looked a lot more likely, though that too has now been dismissed.  Nonetheless, I can find you plenty of other quotes along the lines of ‘we’ll look to do something’. I would still expect between none and one signings. It certainly won’t be Wilf Zaha though, despite having seemingly scouted him since he was a foetus.

“We are looking at him, but at the moment we have not made any bid for him. I don’t know if Manchester United are in for him.” – 17th January

Fast forward a few days.

“We were never in for Zaha. Never… If Zaha goes to Manchester United, good luck to him.” – 21st January

Again, good luck. Zaha signed for United today. Not buying him isn’t the issue. The Walcott renewal likely ended any interest, but it seems a bit rum to say we were ‘never’ in, when a week ago we were ‘looking’, and Pat Rice and Steve Rowley have been regulars at Selhurst.

Here are some gems from today…

"We want to make things happen from inside the club. We have the resources to do well." – 25th January

Hands up who had ‘promote from within’ on their Arsene bingo cards. Because this is that. Only a pedant would point out that Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski were hardly sourced from within, right?

“It’s a wrong market. The only clubs who sell are in financial trouble and players who move are unhappy. It’s unfair.” – 25th January

Huh? Malaga were in financial trouble when we bought Santi from them. Is he unhappy? Should we send him back?

"The gamble is much bigger than during the summer. The number of players you are allowed to sign should be limited." – 25th January

There’s the grain of point here, in that some teams will end up playing the same version of a team twice, while others will face radically improved (and also potentially weakened) versions of the same side depending on how the fixtures fall. Here’s my response to that: boo hoo. The same is true of the summer window, in that you’re able to keep buying/selling even after the season has started.

If Arsene eventually wants Platini’s job, God knows I’ll back him to do it, because I think he’d actually be a brilliant administrator and reformer. But now is not that time. Right now he is Arsenal manager, and I would prefer him to concentrate on what improves our performances and results, rather than existential questions about how the game’s structured which are unlikely to be answered any time soon. 

So are Arsenal fans right to be cranky about the messaging we get over transfers. Yes and no. Yes, because fundamentally this is a squad that looks like it may need more serious reinforcement if it’s to achieve it’s main (only?) aim: Champions League qualification. No, on the basis that the impression Wenger engages in double-speak is actually a mistake. Once you strip away the ‘ifs’, the ‘buts’ and the ‘super, supers’, you’re left with a pretty consistent message. Which is that the manager believes the squad is good enough, and doesn’t require major additions. This is his core message, and you can find a version of it in almost every press conference:

"If someone else can strengthen our squad, we will do it of course, but we have the resources inside to do well. We have two players in every position, that should be enough, plus the young players in behind. But if we find the top-class players in any position, we never refuse to strengthen our squad." – 25th Janaury

There’s an idea prevalent among the more positive-minded Arsenal fans that Arsene says the more contradictory stuff to troll the media somehow. I don’t buy that. The media sells papers and clicks whether we sign anyone or not. It makes no sense for an already embattled manager to troll his own fans. What would that even achieve? The more you look at the answers, the more you see the clear line of thinking that runs through them. He doesn’t want to spend, certainly not big, and is managing expectations accordingly.

So no, I don’t expect a high profile signing, despite the fact there’s a strong case for saying this squad needs the kind of lift Arshavin’s arrival provided in January ‘09, or Reyes did in January ‘04. Both of those players ultimately failed, but also achieved what was required of them in the short term. Even if we finish fourth, oughtn’t the question be how far could we have gone, in the league and cups, if we’d used more of the resources at our disposal? Finally, let’s also not lose sight of the fact Arsene can point to 14 seasons of straight Champions League qualification in his defence. That certainly is super quality, but the worry is for how much longer?

– TDC

[A version of this article originally appeared on Football Week, a new iPad launch from my paymasters at Future. You can follow them on Twitter too.]

  1. averagebloke said: I have finally decide I want him out, I am sick of having a squad that cannot compete at the top and can no longer even maintain it’s top four status. I wish he would buy a player or two and stay as our manager, but he won’t, so out.
  2. arse2mouse posted this
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