I had the privilege of watching Arsene Wenger’s first ever game in English football. In October 1996, Arsenal won 2-0 at Blackburn Rovers, a comfortable victory that didn’t really make the fans who had been dismayed at the appointment before the game any more positive about this studious-looking Frenchman who had just arrived from Japan. It turned out, they were wrong.
In the 16 years that followed, the club has had sustained success, unheard of since the glory days of the ’30s. Not only that, it has all happened with attractive and flowing football matched by none of their peers at home, and few abroad. They won three English championships under Wenger and four FA Cups. They have become a big European club, which they were previously not. They now have a worldwide following, are a fixture of the UEFA Champions League, have a beautiful new stadium, and are free from debt. The vast, vast majority of football fans would delight in such a record.
But here and now is was matters to most, and for Arsenal supporters, especially the younger sort who did not grow up watching plodding football and only the occasional championship challenge, the last few seasons have been frustrating ones. The one just finished was regarded as the worst, and has seen serious questions asked of the boss. Even that campaign saw a third-place Premier League finish and a place in the knockout stages of the biggest club competition in the world. Only two English teams finished higher in the league and only one went further in Europe. You sense that their fans who packed the North Bank in the sixties and seventies would struggle to understand the growing disillusionment.
Wenger is a victim of his own success. As he has turned the Gunners into a member of the European elite, the supporters, especially the new generation — the stadium move brought 20,000 new ones to see the team each week — want to see trophies and trophy signings. Forget that in 1993 the club finished 10th or two years later they finished two spots lower – they do forget that and just want success. Only one team can win the title every year. Finishing third is something that all but two clubs in the entire football league would swap.
The club lacks ambition, some fans and now, Robin van Persie, are saying. Ambition in the modern parlance means money. Whether it is splashing out on new stars or paying those that are already there an ever larger pay packet.
Arsenal not being able to compete with the likes of Manchester City does not equate to a lack of ambition. No club can — that is just a fact. Trying to do so would likely be a disaster. Van Persie is not far off 30 and he has one big move left in him. After a great season, his stock and bargaining powers are high.
Wenger can’t be expected to do much about the fact that clubs like City have almost limitless funds. What is he expected to do? Sign Messi? What does become important however is how the club replaces the outgoing captain.
Arsenal have already been quite busy in the transfer market. Olivier Giroud could be a very good signing. The top scorer in France last year will be even more important if Van Persie leaves. And while Lucas Podolski did not light up the European championships — though he made his 100th appearance for Germany and scored his 44th goal (both fantastic statistics) — the former Bayern star has scored goals wherever he has been. Neither may be in Van Persie’s class but then neither was Van Persie when he first arrived all those years ago.
It hurts but that is football. There are few things better for fans than the news of a big transfer but the flipside of that coin is that not much hurts more than seeing your biggest star and best player disappear. You can’t have one without the other.
But Arsenal is a club in a good position. The UEFA Champions League is probably beyond the team but a couple more signings to strengthen the defence and the Gunners could really do something in the Premier League. Arsenal fans have been wrong about Wenger in the past, and they are wrong now.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. His column, Top Corner, appears regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.
» Champions League: Arsenal bows out of last-16 despite second leg win over Bayern Munich
» Premier League: Michael Owen in trouble after ‘punching’ Arsenal captain
» Top Corner: After Bin Hammam mess, race for AFC top post warms up