The summer is often a depressing time for Arsenal fans. While fans of most other clubs spend the off season reading about potential new signings for their club, they have a very different experience. The biggest Arsenal story of the summer is inevitably about who will leave next, rather than who will arrive. It is not just a recent development, as this has occurred throughout Arsène Wenger’s reign, but recently it seems different. In the past Wenger was often able to hold onto players – he held onto Vieira and Henry for as long as he could. Now they leave.
Last summer seemed to be the low point as Gaël Clichy, Samir Nasri and, most importantly, Cesc Fàbregas left the club. Although the anger towards Nasri is more obvious, it was the Fàbregas departure that hurt the most, as he was the club’s leader and best player. With yesterday’s statement from Robin Van Persie, Arsenal now face the same situation again for the second successive season.
The statement was obviously designed to make his position at the club untenable, leaving them with no choice but to sell – so that is what they must do. The transfer cannot be allowed to run on all summer, causing chaos within the rest of the squad. It already appears as though lessons have been learnt from last summer, with Giroud and Podolski already signed. Wenger and Ivan Gazidis must accept defeat and concentrate on getting the best deal.
Players do leave, but clubs continue and Arsenal must now look forward. One of my biggest pet peeves of modern football is players excusing themselves for moving by saying they want to win trophies. It implies they have no responsibility for the failures and near-misses; instead it must be the fault of those around them. Teams win and lose together, as a unit, and no one player is excused from that.
Nobody could argue about Van Persie’s importance last season. Without him, Arsenal would never have finished third. But he has not performed to that level for successive years as Vieira, Henry and Fàbregas had done before him. It was obvious when he first joined Arsenal that he would be special but it has taken a long time to get there.
Years of adjustment and injuries followed, with the back end of the 2010-11 season being the first time he produced his best form for a sustained period. Throughout the injuries Wenger stuck with him, developing him into one of the leading strikers in world football. However, this was not enough and he has followed others before him in choosing to leave the club.
Arsenal’s barren run is well documented. Whilst Wenger has built a technically gifted team, there has been an underlying belief for many years that the group lacked the unity and bravery to really challenge. Whilst it may hurt now, the characters who leave a club to win things and ignore their own failings are exactly the type that breeds this culture. When those who are truly winners fail, they stand back and take a look at themselves, and then make sure it doesn’t happen again. Players who decide they will simply leave if the team does not win are not leaders, and will never be the defining difference between success and failure. Most of those players have now left the squad, and those remaining appear to be hungrier and more determined for success. Although a star is lost, the collective spirit should improve.
Tactically things will now change, and should do for the better. The current Arsenal system was built around getting the best out of Fàbregas, whilst accommodating Nasri and Arshavin. Additionally it placed great demands on the central striker to be the main threat whilst also linking up the play, making the team heavily dependent on Van Persie. All those players have left or are leaving, meaning change is necessary.
Whilst the system was designed to get the best out of certain players, Arsenal have been tactically naïve. Prisoners to their determination to make it work, they have been inflexible and predictable, unable to play any other way. The system leaves the full backs exposed, whilst the lack of a true holding midfielder has left the team open to counter attacks. This can all be addressed now, as there is no stand out star to evolve the team around. The right signings still have to be made, but the opportunity is there to develop a far more rounded and flexible team. It is always a big loss to lose a player of Van Persie’s stature, but it does not have to mean the end.
The night is always darkest before the dawn. Although it may not seem like it now, Arsenal must look forward and be positive. The current culture amongst the squad and tactical inefficiencies has not brought success and this is the perfect time to fix those problems.