Wenger used to solve Arsenal's problems… now he helps his rivals solve theirs
22:45 GMT, 2 December 2012
If Arsene Wenger genuinely had 70million to spend, do you know who his striker would be Robin van Persie. Still.
Van Persie would never have left Arsenal if, in his talks with Wenger, he had been convinced that lavish funds were available and would be spent on the team. If Wenger could have given Van Persie any form of guarantee that 70m was coming his way, he might not have been so eager to sign for Manchester United.
The figure of 70m is the latest jam tomorrow bulletin from Arsenal’s money men, following the sealing of a shirt deal worth 150m with Emirates.
This windfall is Wenger’s to spend, apparently, except he never does.
Cash back: If Arsene Wenger had 70m to spend Robin van Persie would have stayed at Arsenal
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He never seemed to spend the 30m that was his in the Highbury days, either, or the 55m it was claimed sat in Arsenal’s transfer kitty last summer. He has 40m reserved for improvements in January also. Whether that is part of the 70m or in addition to it, nobody is quite sure.
The funny thing is, no matter what is said to be available at Arsenal, Wenger’s outlay always seems commensurate with how much he brings in, as if the two are related. He sells his best player, he buys two or three inferiors. This is not an uncommon policy, indeed, a number of Premier League clubs have adopted it.
Most of them, though, reside in the bottom half of the table: where Arsenal may soon join them.
They are 10th now, two points above Liverpool, and their next home game is against the awkward squad of West Bromwich Albion.
Most years, an Arsenal win would be considered a certainty, but that was thought of a home fixture with Swansea City, too.
If only everything at Arsenal was as predictable as the forecasts of long-term wealth and success.
Arsenal would have known last summer that the shirt deal was up for renewal. Van Persie wanted a better contract, but he also wanted a sign that Arsenal would compete in the transfer market; like 70m dropping into his manager’s lap, for instance.
It seems strange, then, that he left unconvinced and disillusioned. A lot of Arsenal players have trod that path.
Personal finances were also an issue, true, but equally the direction the club was taking. Wenger used to solve Arsenal’s problems: now he solves those of his rivals.
Mountain to climb: Arsenal are languishing in tenth after home defeat to Swansea
Manchester United are first, Arsenal are 10th. It is not so crazy to speculate that those positions might be reversed had Van Persie stayed.
Think about it. United have gone behind to the first goal of the game in 10 Premier League matches and in seven have come back to win. Of those seven, five have featured crucial goals from Van Persie, including the equaliser against Fulham, a hat-trick against Southampton and the winner against Liverpool.
Imagine United without him this season. Wayne Rooney scored twice against Reading on Saturday but, on the eve of the game, Sir Alex Ferguson was bemoaning his strike rate. Even after the 4-3 win, Javier Hernandez had still outscored Rooney in the Premier League.
Now consider Arsenal with Van Persie’s 10 league goals this season added to their total. Supplement a single goal from Van Persie to the draws with Sunderland, Stoke City, Manchester City, Fulham, Aston Villa and Everton; add an equaliser to the one-goal defeats by Chelsea, Norwich City and Manchester United.
That is a difference of 15 points, or the current spread between Manchester United (top, 36 points) and Arsenal (10th, 21).
Obviously, this is not an exact science but the general point seems reasonably watertight: Arsenal’s loss has been United’s gain.
Maybe Van Persie was told of the 70m at the end of the rainbow; the problem is that Arsenal’s players have heard it all before. For seven barren years they have been fed talk of some mythical golden day, when the club will reap the benefits of careful husbandry, glory restored.
Who's next: How long will the likes of Thomas Vermaelen and Jack Wilshere tolerate inferior acquisitions
In two years, Arsenal will be able to compete with the best in the world, promises chief executive Ivan Gazidis. Yet the best of this current team might not wish to wait that long, and then what
Having already lost such vital players as Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas, take Jack Wilshere or Thomas Vermaelen away and 70m would be needed just to restore the squad, rather than enhance an existing world class group.
Also, it is hard, coming fourth. It is a risky business. Set out to win the league and, falling short, the Champions League still beckons. Yet increasingly Arsenal have revised their aims so that any place in the top four constitutes success.
Fourth place, however, has no safety net. Fail, and enter the Europa League; or worse.
The good news No team, beyond the Manchester clubs, have made a charge yet. Chelsea have not won for seven Premier League games, yet remain third.
Few believe West Brom or Everton are capable of maintaining early dalliances with elite positions.
Tottenham Hotspur have won three on the turn, but preceded that with four consecutive league defeats.
Arsenal are five points off fourth place with over half the season remaining. It is not unthinkable that they could be part of the elite quartet when the season ends.
Yet, one day, they will miss that mark. Football’s history says that reality must catch up with a selling club eventually and that is what Arsenal have become in recent years.
An exclusive, top of the range, elite clientele, bespoke selling club, true. But a selling club nonetheless.
What they certainly do not look like is a club with anything between 40m and 70m to spend; for if they were, they wouldn’t be 10th.
Wimbledon are the real winners
Jon Otsemobor having killed AFC Wimbledon with a flippant back-heel, the supporters of Milton Keynes Dons could not resist their moment. ‘You’re not singing any more,’ they crowed.
But the true Wimbledon are still singing. And they will always sing, because even in defeat they were empowered by the knowledge that every neutral in the land was on their side.
They have suffered kicks in the teeth far crueller than an FA Cup defeat and survived. They will be back this way again.
And they will always be the real and only Dons.
Top Dons: AFC Wimbledon left Milton Keynes with their heads held high despite defeat
Dance or abuse: Liam Jones in grey
So, are we getting the full picture
The Sunderland fan accused of making a racist gesture to West Bromwich Albion striker Romelu Lukaku issued a strong denial.
Liam Jones claimed that what was perceived as a monkey gesture was, in fact, a chicken dance.
'I'm devastated,' he said. 'I have black friends and black cousins.'
No certain judgments can be made, but, revisiting the photograph of the incident, it is possible to concede that he could have been flapping his arms, not scratching his armpits.
His elbows are out, but slightly forward, and his fingers are pointing down. Your hands go up to scratch your armpits.
We can be sure, though, that Northumbria Police will be acting on far more than a single frame image, as they have already arrested Jones on suspicion of racially aggravated intentional harassment.
And if that was the sum of the evidence, it would be ridiculous.
AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT
Platini's grand plan would end up as a 64-team bunfight
There are 16 places up for grabs in the Champions League first knockout stage, and 13 are already decided. Matchday six this week is largely a glorified round of club friendlies played before disinterested crowds.
Juventus and holders Chelsea will fight over the last place in Group E; Celtic and Benfica in Group G; Galatasaray and CFR 1907 Cluj in Group H. None of these teams play each other, though, and all the action takes place on Wednesday.
Tuesday is as a good as dead. Exhibition stuff really. Squabbles over who comes first, as if that matters in a tournament in which Real Madrid, AC Milan and quite possibly Juventus will be in the runners-up pot; skirmishes over third place and the right to enter a competition that is so prestigious that UEFA are thinking of scrapping it: again.
The dreaded Europa League. Barely three years since the UEFA Cup breathed its last, UEFA president Michel Platini is checking the pulse of its replacement. Still, as ever, he has a cunning plan.
Man with not a very good plan: Michel Platini has touted merging Europe's two club competitions
Expand the Champions League to 64 teams and merge the two competitions. Yes, that should get the juices flowing again. More lame ducks, more dead rubbers. A group stage that trundles on and on, like one of those freight trains in America taking forever to pass.
The problem is the Europa League is failing. Crowds are small, television interest minimal and post-Christmas brings the march of the useless in which all the third-placed teams from the Champions League are parachuted into the competition to confirm its mediocre status.
Fulham, who were charting unknown territory, had great fun in the Europa League, but the teams fielded by Liverpool this season suggest priorities elsewhere.
If any English club had a genuine chance of returning to the Champions League through league position next season, the Thursday game would be sacrificed in a heartbeat.
So what is Platini’s solution In an interview with Ouest-France newspaper, he entertained a merger, pairing the tournament that doesn’t work with the one that does, to create a giant bunfight in which a team that finished seventh in the Premier League, won the League Cup or lost the FA Cup final could potentially end up champions of Europe; or in a pool stage match with Barcelona.
Millwall, for instance, who lost 3-0 to Manchester United in the 2004 FA Cup Final, and qualified for the UEFA Cup as a result, would be there.
How would this format work Having first arrived at 64 teams through the usual summer round of preliminaries, one presumes they would split into 16 groups of four. This would then be whittled down to a further eight groups of four, before the knock-out stages begin with 16 teams, then eight, four, and eventually the two finalists.
Wise move Millwall, defeated FA Cup finalists in 2004 would have been in the Champions League
That would make a total of 19 games, excluding preliminaries, up from a current campaign of 13. Maybe Platini could invent a 13th month to play it in, too.
Alternatively, the knock-out stage could start at the round of 32, meaning a group competition comprising teams so weak it would barely be worth watching (Manchester United v Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, Real Madrid v Neftci PFK), followed by an unfortunate pairing with Barcelona and then out.
Why would any elite club sign up for that It would be financial suicide.
It was Platini who turned the Europa League into a Champions League Lite, when a better solution would have been to make it wildly different, returning to the immediacy of the old knock-out format. A proper cup competition, without the safety net of group football.
Madrid, Milan, Barca, Chelsea… Neftci PFK: Merging would result in more dead rubbers and would likely discredit eventual winners
Sadly, the Europa League, like most of Platini’s creations, was poorly conceived from the start. He isn’t very bright, this guy. He doesn’t think things through. That makes him dangerous.
His supporters say he often floats ideas, like a 64-team Champions League, to test the water – or so other people can do the hard work and point out the flaws –but that isn’t correct either.
Platini may have been answering a newspaper question but he could have, instantly, ruled out a merger.
Instead, he kept the plan alive. Some pretty half-baked schemes – financial fair play, expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams, those extra officials standing next to the goal doing nothing – have become reality this way.
For a man who played football in such a thrilling fashion, Platini comes up with plans that make for a moribund game.
Financial regulations linked to income cement in place the existing elite. An expanded European Championship is less competitive, therefore less interesting, and the same would be true of an inflated Champions League.
Just because Platini said it in a regional French newspaper does not mean his cogs are not already whirring away on a plan to pit Barcelona against AEL Limassol. He will then wonder insightfully, three years later, why nobody is watching.