The way that people are talking about Arsenal this summer, you'd think something terrible had happened at The Emirates. There is ominous talk of an "exodus" from the dressing room, dark suggestions that Arsene Wenger can no longer attract "world-class" players and, for the fifth year in a row, the nodding consensus that a top-four finish may be too much to ask for. It's a little odd because, while it's hard to ignore the fact that last season ended with all the euphoria of a Leonard Cohen poetry reading, Arsenal is hardly a club in crisis.
Cesc Fabregas' departure to Barcelona has been expected for so long that many Arsenal fans, bored rigid with the interminable saga, would happily drive him to the airport themselves just to put the episode behind them. Gael Clichy has left for Manchester City, but even his own mother would have to admit that he's been annoyingly inconsistent over the past two years. Let's be honest, if Kieran Gibbs' toes weren't made of breadsticks, the Frenchman would have struggled to hold down a starting place. Samir Nasri's desire to leave, ostensibly in pursuit of trophies, but more probably in pursuit of pound sterling, has been an emphatic body blow. As Carlos Tevez and Fernando Torres will attest, ship-jumping at the top level is hardly rare these days, but Nasri's defection, should it come to pass, would certainly sting. Still, as exoduses go, this has hardly been biblical.
The charge that Wenger can no longer attract world-class players is a strange one, mainly because Wenger never really tried to attract them in the first place. Of his finest signings, Patrick Vieira was an AC Milan reserve, Thierry Henry was wasting away on the wing for Juventus and Robin van Persie was a troubled youngster snapped up for less than £3 million ($4.8M). Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg; all were secured for relatively modest fees from relatively modest clubs. Wenger has never been a man to shop at the top of the market. Even when he's spent heavily, he's done so for players with unfulfilled potential like Jose Antonio Reyes, Andrey Arshavin and, of course, Nasri himself.
The 2007-11 era at The Emirates Stadium has been a fascinating, but ultimately fruitless experiment in self-sufficiency. Henry's departure to Barcelona was supposed to be the beginning of the end. Instead, it was merely a new beginning, a chance for a young squad to stand up and prove themselves. Sadly for Wenger, the only thing they proved in the end was that they were good, very good, but not quite good enough. Maybe goalkeeper Manuel Almunia should never have been anything more than an emergency umbrella for the trunk of the car. Perhaps there should have been a few experienced heads in the team. Would a few tough-tackling midfielders really have been such a bad idea? But while Arsenal didn't win anything, it's hard to write off the last four years as a failure.
Did Wenger's stubborn desire to create sporting autarky cripple the club? No. He enters this summer with a savings account full of spending money, a good squad and an academy production line backed up for the next 10 years with waves of velvet-booted sprites desperate to ping the ball around. In this period of apparent failure, Arsenal has always finished in the top four, it reached the knockout stage of the Champions League every time, the quarterfinals twice and the semifinals once. There are clubs across the continent that would kill for a similar level of failure.
And there are mitigating factors for these barren years, especially that last, toe-curlingly awful campaign when the title was open to anyone who could string more than three wins together. A long-term injury to Thomas Vermaelen forced Wenger to rely on two rookie Premier League center backs when he would have rather blooded them one at a time. Injuries to his goalkeepers were so bad that he was forced to recall Jens Lehmann from retirement. Marouane Chamakh suffered a crisis of confidence. And yet, what of it? Every team suffers injuries, every team is subject to setbacks. True champions respond and, over the past four years, Chelsea and Manchester United have always responded better. It's annoying when the most obvious explanation is the correct one, but really there's no mystery as to why Arsenal went without silverware. There was too much glitter and not enough steel.
What is mystifying is the glee with which many observers are celebrating that big empty space on the roll of honor hoardings inside the Emirates Stadium. The critics are quick to line up and kick Manchester City and Chelsea for having the temerity to attract generous benefactors. They are swift to point out the staggering debts that Manchester United have accrued, but there is little in the way of sympathy for a manager who has worked feverishly to live within his naturally set boundaries while insisting all the time on attractive, expansive soccer. For many reasons, Arsenal should be held up as an example of how a club should conduct itself in austere times, but apparently it deserves a good shoeing because it hasn't overstretched themselves and blown the budget on a bright-eyed superstar.
Arsenal isn't in crisis. Preseason training has only just begun and the transfer window will remain open for another seven weeks. If Fabregas and Nasri leave for the kind of fees mentioned in dispatches, Wenger will have close to £60 million ($96.7M) to play with, on top of anything else he has rattling around in his piggy bank after years of relative frugality. That's more than enough for him to pillage clubs around the world for fresh talent. With that kind of war-chest, far from being in decline, Arsenal is actually very well placed for a much needed rebuilding program. And it's started already, with Gervinho arriving from Lille this week.
Wenger has already built three distinct title winning teams; the double-winning class of 1998, the Henry-led class of 2002 and the Invincibles of 2004. He was desperate to add another generation to the hall of fame, a largely homegrown, carefully cultivated generation to be proud of, but it was not to be. The experiment failed. But that failure, such as it was, does not tarnish the success of the past, nor does it make him the wrong man to strive for glory in the future. This era is over and a page has been turned. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's the end of the story. It might just be the start of a new chapter.