There was a time, not that long ago, that Arsenal was the standard for club management. Devoid of a wealthy backer willing to lavish (and lose) millions, it worked very much as a real business, year after year, breaking even or turning a small profit. When it came time to make some serious capital investments -- moving out of historic, but cramped, Highbury in favor of a new 60,000-seater at Ashburton Grove -- it did so intelligently, securing financing and building a comfortable, state-of-the-art stadium capable of generating substantial match-day revenue.
On the pitch, it emphasized youth and technique above all else, scouring the world to pick up potential, usually at a knockdown price, and turning that potential into stardom.
But the biggest selling point to neutrals was the football itself: creative, stressing innovative passing and movement, always pleasing to the eye and effective at the other end.
The linchpin, of course, was the manager,
But now, the landscape has changed and it's getting increasingly difficult for the Gunners to compete in the way they did. In three of the past four seasons, Arsenal finished fourth (it was third in the other). In that time frame, a familiar storyline has emerged:
It's a similar blueprint to what worked for Arsenal before, but it simply hasn't been as effective. Theories abound. Some contend that Henry and Vieira were, after all, one-offs, global superstars who you simply can't plan to unearth on the cheap (
There's probably some truth to all those theories. But the fact of the matter is Wenger has a real challenge on his hands, and, as ever, he's marching to the beat of his own drummer. Exhibit A is in central defense. Last year, the Gallas-
The other obvious unaddressed weakness is in central midfield. Denílson was pilloried in his role as holding midfielder last year; Song, who also featured in that position, didn't exactly pull up trees, either.
Meanwhile, up front, the sale of Adebayor to (who else?) City for $37 million was a great bit of business, but his goals (34 in 62 Premiership games over the past two seasons) will need to be replaced. Wenger has pursued Bordeaux's
The flip side to all this is that Arsenal remains a young and talented side, and if the kids kick it up a notch, the Gunners will only get better.
Of course, all of this is based on "ifs." And, once again, Arsenal goes into the season filled with uncertainty and questions. Perhaps the biggest of them all is this: Having cashed in royally on Adebayor and Touré, why aren't those funds being used to further strengthen the team?