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The Precipitous Fall of Arsenal

On Sunday Arsenal will play against Tottenham Hotspur in its most important match of the season: the North London Derby. Two years ago, this would have been an easy game to win for the Gunners. This weekend, it would be a major accomplishment if Arsenal doesn’t lose.

Two years ago, Arsenal was a title contender, one of the world’s most feared teams. Five years ago, it played in the Champions League final. This year, Arsenal is no longer one of Europe’s eight best clubs. 

What went wrong?

In July 2006, Arsenal opened a stunning new ground: Emirates Stadium. The team had outgrown Highbury, its former ground, and replaced it with a £390 million stadium that seats over 60,000 people. London’s most successful football club would finally have a worthy stadium. Emirates Stadium was the missing piece of the puzzle, it would usher in a new era of global dominance …

Life has surprises, and it did not work out that way. The greatest contribution Emirates Stadium has made to its tenants is the mortgage. Rather than assisting the club, the new stadium has been the biggest obstacle to success.

To ease financial difficulties, the club sells its best players and cannot spend enough money to acquire adequate reinforcements. This past summer, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, and Gael Clichy were sold. The club received more than $100 million, but signed a plethora of second-rate players and was unable to acquire a much needed goalkeeper.

On soccer’s transfer market, top clubs have the first pick when it comes to choosing new players. Smaller teams can’t afford to spend as much, and have to be content with the leftovers. Arsenal is now one of those inferior teams which must use players that elite teams don’t really want.

A few years ago, this wouldn’t have been a problem. A few years ago, Arsenal fans worried about what would happen when their manager retired. Today, Arsenal fans can’t wait to see Arsene Wenger, a Frenchman who has been manager for 15 years — an eternity in the soccer world — walk out the door.

There was a time when Wenger was the most skilled investor on the transfer market. He could sign a player for a moderately high price, watch him become the Premier League’s best player and top scorer, sell him at three times the original price, and then watch the player’s career collapse.

This is what happened to Thierry Henry. For years, Arsenal played well because it could sign undervalued players, such as Henry once was. The team was able to field the likes of Patrick Vieira, Kolo Toure, and Robert Pires while spending a fraction of what they were worth.

Wenger seems to have lost his touch. He no longer makes great deals. He no longer buys players well under their value. Instead, he buys players for more than they are worth, with Thomas Vermaelen, Sebastien Squillaci and Marouane Chamakh among the more recent flops who have been paraded around the club.  

Moreover, Wenger is unable to innovate strategically on the pitch. Arsenal plays an attack-minded, highly technical, passing game, which resembles Barcelona’s style. The problem is that Arsenal plays in England, in a more physical league. Wenger’s strategy lacks pragmatism, which puts the team at a disadvantage. 

Last season, Arsenal was vulnerable against teams such as Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, which are known for playing in an unattractive manner. Arsenal’s polished passing could not overcome the rugged physical strength of its opponents. On the other hand, the blinding speed of Tottenham Hotspur’s wingers exposed weaknesses in Arsenal’s defense. 

Perhaps Arsenal will defy the odds on Sunday. Last season was disappointing for the Gunners and the outlook for this one is worse. It is up to Wenger to improve. If he does, Arsenal’s fans will forgive him for walking past the exit sign last summer.

Theodore Furchtgott is a RealClearSports soccer columnist. He can be reached at Theodore.Furchtgott@gmail.com.

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