I come at this with no hidden agenda or secret bias, but the question needs to be asked: has Arsene Wenger got it wrong in the summer transfer window all over again?
As another season ends, the speculation linking the Gunners top performer to one of its European rivals begins. This has become an annual ritual for Arsenal in recent years. Think Van Persie, Fabregas and Nasri or Hleb, Viera and Henry a little further back. Traditionally Le Professeur has responded by replacing such glowing world class talent with the sort of players that prompt the instinctive response “who?”
A bit of a shocker then that so far this summer neither of Manchester’s two biggest clubs nor the two Spanish El Clasico giants has been sniffing around the Emirates to pinch Arsenal’s crème de la crème.
Equally perverse were the early reports that Wenger had recklessly abandoned his frugal sustainability policy and intended to splash some cash in the transfer window. Early indications even pointed towards some marquee signings with rumours of £30 million for Higuain and £40 million for Suarez mooted around.
It all got quite exciting for a while with Gunners fans glancing at that notoriously dusty trophy cabinet and seeing a mirage of a cup or two filling the empty void. Just as all this anticipation approached fever pitch the next thing to happen was … precisely nothing at all.
A quick browse over Wenger’s top five money signings might give some insight into why he appears particularly reluctant to spend big for established names. It’s a bit of a mixed bag.
Firstly, Andrei Arshavin (the next Lionel Messi indeed): the Russian arrived full of promise, but his disastrous spell will surely be remembered one of the most catastrophic flops in football history. Jose Reyes was also another big money signing who showed early promise that ultimately didn’t amount to anything. Wiltord enjoyed some mild success without exactly setting the Premiership on fire.
Then you’ve got Thierry Henry who, of course, is as big as Arsenal legends come, but remember he was bought as an inexperienced winger for around the £10 million mark rather than the proven world class striker he developed into.
Thus, this transfer falls under the category of ‘youth with potential’ that Arsene so favours, rather than the bracket of ‘big money superstar signing’ that he appears to shy away from.
Finally, there’s Santi Cazorla who in his first season at the Emirates is coming along quite nicely and is one of the rare success stories.
When Wenger built The Invincibles he did it by drafting the services of unknown names with a modest budget who later transformed themselves into world-class superstars. Overmars, Petit, Viera, Anelka, Fabregas and Van Persie were all brought in for peanuts and after delivering on the pitch were moved on with very weighty price tags. Good business if your aim for success is the annual balance sheet opposed to the trophy cabinet.
The problem stems from the football landscape shifting dramatically since Wenger first took over the reins at Arsenal. Since his appointment, we’ve seen Abramovich arrive at Chelsea ushering in a new era of spending big transfer bucks to achieve success.
A policy that Manchester United decided to copy in order to keep pace with the Blues and that has been completely gazumped by the bottomless pockets of Manchester City’s Middle Eastern owners.
Admirable as Wenger’s sustainability policy and attitudes towards youth development are, it has been at the expense of being sufficiently equipped to compete for silverware.
The familiar Arsenal pattern of recent years is defying the odds to still be in the running for all major trophies as the season enters the home stretch. It’s at this crunch time of the season, or ‘squeaky-bum time’ as Sir Alec Ferguson liked to call it, where they suddenly lose a string of key fixtures and their entire seasons falls apart quite spectacularly.
Once the injuries and suspensions take their toll, the lack of real steel and leadership shines through and that crucial ingredient of world class talent is found wanting.
For years now, fans, journalists and pundits have all been singing the same tune about Wenger showing some adventure and ambition on the transfer market by bringing in the big guns, but it all seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Originally, the argument coming from the Arsenal board was that with the investment in the Emirates stadium, the funds simply didn’t exist but even they have now admitted that Wenger has money at his disposal should he wish to spend it.
That reluctance for large-scale investment in the squad appeared to have backfired spectacularly two years ago when Arsenal were on the wrong end of an 8-2 drubbing at the hands of Manchester United in the opening weeks of the season.
That humiliation prompted Arsene into a couple of last ditch panic purchases in the shape of Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker. Something of a relief for Gunners fans that so far that summer had to make do with the likes of Charlton reserve Carl Jenkinson being the new blood coming into the club.
No disrespect to Jenkinson, he may well be one for the future but at the time, he was signed he did not represent the immediate step-up in quality necessary to get Arsenal challenging for the title again or to strike fear into the hearts of Europe’s elite in the Champions League.
Perhaps what’s frustrated fans the most about Wenger’s false promise of realigning his acquisition strategy this summer is that on the other side of North London their fiercest rivals, have broken their club record fee in capturing Roberto Soldado, the man who bagged an impressive 30 La Liga goals last term.
The Spanish international’s arrival follows hot on the heels of a cool £17 million spread for Brazilian Paulinho, a clear statement of intent from Tottenham Hotspur’s ambition for a top four finish this year. There are also big noises coming out of White Hart Lane that if Bale goes to Real Madrid, Spurs will reinvest the large chunk of dough from that sale on bringing in another three or four big name signings.
With the top three positions all but sewn up by United, City and Chelsea, barring an unforeseen disaster, it once again leaves Arsenal scrapping to nick the last Champions League qualifying spot.
There is still a month of the transfer window left and who knows, maybe Wenger has pulled the wool over all of our eyes. Like a great cabaret magician maybe he will unveil a glittering line-up of superstars just before the transfer window deadline. But I doubt any Gunners fans are holding their breath.
Maybe the shock factor of finishing outside the top four for the first time since 1996 is exactly the sort of motivation Wenger needs to loosen those precious purse strings.