Storm Clouds in North London, as Arsenal face a summer of questions
It wasn’t meant to be this way – on the 28th of August 2011, Arsenal found themselves on the end of an 8-2 thumping by rivals Manchester United. Then sat perilously in 17th place, already written out of the title chase, the task was damage limitation and prestige salvage for Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger.
Somehow, Le Professeur managed it, and gradually the maligned Gunners began to pull themselves together. Mikel Arteta settled into the midfield chasm left by Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, Wojciech Szczesny began to fill the goalkeeping abyss left by the ineptitudes of predecessors Almunia and Fabianski, and Robin van Persie began scoring – and didn’t stop. 30 Premier League goals last season as the Dutch striker put years of injury frustration behind him to lead the line for this young and exciting Arsenal team.
By the time Spurs were beaten 5-2 on the 26th of February, as the balance of power in the capital’s north began to shift, the brooding discontent in the terraces, aimed mainly at the manager and some of his more uninspired signings, had all but dissipated. Arsenal ended the season in third place, pipping their more glamorous North London neighbours to Champions League qualification, and ending a testing season on a high.
This was to be an off-season of consolidation and gentle tweaking, but things aren’t working out this way, and instead, Arsenal find themselves in the midst of a tumultuous summer. After seeing the winter through, Wenger finds storm clouds are raging.
Arsenal’s most publicised problem has been the flickering loyalty and public dissatisfaction of van Persie.
A month ago, Arsenal’s superstar frontman announced that the new contract offered by the club was not for him. Gunners’ greatest fear was realised as the biggest fish of all finally realised that the pond was too small. The spectre of losing RVP the captain, not to mention RVP the goal machine, is a disaster in itself, but perhaps worse is the logic and the reasoning behind his imminent departure.
It seems he is unconvinced by the plans proposed by board and manager; the vision has failed to charm him, and the ambition demonstrated by the club’s hierarchy hasn’t stirred the vestiges of loyalty hoped for by Arsenal fans. Van Persie appears to be leaving what he considers a sinking ship, and certainly one failing to match his personal aspirations and goals.
How Arsenal deal with their wantaway striker, and how they begin to replace his near-guaranteed goal haul, are two major questions for Wenger this summer.
Van Persie is no stranger to Arsenal’s treatment room, and since his return to fitness it appears that Jack Wilshere has taken his residency with the club doctors. Arsenal recently announced that the young midfielder’s absence will continue at least until October, meaning that well over a calendar year will have passed since he last contributed. Dean Ashton, speaking to, referred to the ‘loneliness’ inevitably felt by the player, but Arsenal fans ought to be worrying about the prospect of Wilshere’s injuries taking a terminal toll on his career.
Has Aaron Ramsey ever been quite the same since being sidelined by Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross back in February 2010? Will Wilshere prove to be another Tom Huddlestone, periodically so dashing and influential, but in flashes so brief, and amidst years so faded by injury? Is Wilshere’s destiny to be another of those consistently gracing the ‘unavailable’ columns of the Saturday previews?
And what of Abou Diaby? Remember him? Appearing more and more as the white elephant in the room, his career has seemingly been ‘on hold’ forever. When Diaby does return, will it be as the ‘new Vieira’, this polished, languid dynamo, or as the player that has so often flattered to deceive in Arsenal red?
Questions remain of the manager: Did Wenger put too much pressure on the young Wilshere? Asking the boy to do a man’s job in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield? The Frenchman is often exalted as a patron of academy football and a protector of the fruits of youth, but this masks a distinct lack of progress in recent years.
Carlos Vela’s recent sale to Sociedad is typical of this; for years heralded as the brightest thing to emerge from the ranks, the Mexican wonderkid who would one day lead the line, he was eventually let go with little ceremony. His progress, it seems, had stagnated, he hadn’t become what we all hoped he would.
And Vela is not alone.
Denilson continues to serve his sustained exile in Brazil, a strange fate for a man once described by as ‘one of the Premiership’s most underrated players’, Armand Traore never quite stepped up, and Johan Djourou has never quite convinced that the tutelage of Wenger a Premier League defender makes. All this, and talents like Sebastian Larsson and Fabrice Muamba seemingly slip through the net.
Wenger recently hailed Arsenal’s ‘rising stars’, but what evidence is there that optimism surrounding players like Ryo Miyaichi and Chuks Aneke will cumulate in anything more than a transfer to a middling La Liga side 4 years down the line? Haven’t we heard it all before, are these players really going to be the ones to step into the first team, or are they to be the Simpsons and the Hoytes of the future?
As Robin van Persie’s demands and refusals raise questions about players’ loyalties to clubs, so Arsenal’s cancellation of their Nigerian tour raises questions about clubs’ loyalties to their fans.
Much has been written and speculated about Arsenal’s once-proposed trip to Nigeria. After the tour was postponed, and eventually cancelled, the Gunners’ ‘compromise’ was to send first team players Podolski, Mertesacker, and Sagna to Lagos. The ‘compensation’ was greeted with smiles and applause at the events and activities organised by the club’s partners, but realistically, are Nigerian Arsenal fans sated by these three? It would be much like the Queen sending Prince Philip to the Olympics opening ceremony in her place – would anyone truly accept that?
A lack of loyalty is apparently chronic in the red half of North London.
It’s been seven years now since Arsenal last added any kind of silverware to their dusty trophy cabinet, if this summer’s anything to go on, the wait will be a little longer yet.
Ed Dove
Storm Clouds in North London, as Arsenal face a summer of questions
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