Although already a well-worn narrative, the fact that Arsenal have gone nine campaigns without a Premier League title is this season brought into even sharper focus.
2013-14 marks a decade since Arsène Wenger’s 2003-04 vintage embarked on their unmatched 'Invincible' season, where they not only claimed their third championship, but did so undefeated.
With an average age of just over 27, this achievement was seen as a platform from which that Arsenal side could strive towards further domestic and European honours, but in reality proved effectively to be their last hurrah.
Ten years on, Wenger stands alone as the sole fixture from that season still at the club, with even Highbury having fallen by the wayside in the intervening years. The development of their plush 60,000-seater replacement in Ashburton Grove, second only to Old Trafford in terms of Premier League capacities, was seen as a necessary move for a club of Arsenal’s ilk.
Although its long term financial and commercial benefits off the pitch were guaranteed, the initial growing pains of the move actually became something of a hindrance to the team’s progress on it. While the £470million outlay was quite a leap in and of itself, Arsenal’s stretched financial resources were even more keenly felt as result of the influx of foreign capital into the league.
This ‘financial doping’ coincided almost directly with the construction of their new stadium, with London rivals Chelsea, and more recently Manchester City, the chief beneficiaries in this regard. Indeed, the overall transfer spending of the three teams over the last ten years reflects this shift in dynamic.
While the collective fees paid during this period currently amount to £767.7million and £708.42million for Chelsea and City respectively, Arsenal’s sum total of £295million since 2003 stands at only a fraction of their competitors’ in this regard (League Table of Spending: 2003-2013).
Another interesting point of reference is that while the combined value of Arsenal’s Invincibles as a whole was £44.35million, the value of the Chelsea teams that topped the Premier League in the two proceeding seasons tipped the scales at, on average, £125.25million.
This figure was further dwarfed by Manchester City’s title winning side of 2011-12, itself prized at £191.7million. Indeed, to frame the combined cost of Wenger’s 2003-04 vintage in an even starker light, that figure of £44.35 million has since been matched and bettered on ten occasions by individual player transfers.
The most recent of these, Gareth Bale’s move from Tottenham to Real Madrid, clocked in at just shy of double that price. Taking all of this into account, Arsenal staggeringly find themselves as low as 16th in terms of net spending by current Premier League clubs over the last decade, with even newly promoted Hull City having been more lavish.
In this sense, Arsène Wenger’s sides, from a financial standpoint at least, have punched well above their weight throughout his time at the helm. By achieving no lower than a fourth-place finish under the Frenchman, the 2013-14 season will also mark Arsenal’s 15th consecutive Champions League campaign.
As such, If Wenger’s achievements were assessed from purely a rational business perspective, the soundness of his club’s economic model and years of flourishing well beyond his means would be the toast of Wall Street.
The perspective of the football fan, however, is not so rational. Unconcerned with their team’s profit margins and economic stability, many Arsenal fans have been riled by Wenger’s inability to deliver silverware in recent years.
Chief among their gripes has been their manager’s perceived refusal to adapt to how modern transfer and contract dealings are handled. His old-school stubbornness in these areas has seen a raft of players walk out on ‘the Arsenal project’ in favour of the immediate success being offered by rivals elsewhere.
These stars range from Gunners academy graduate Ashley Cole, who took his ball across town to Chelsea at the close of the 2005-06 season, right through to former club captain and talisman Robin van Persie, who last summer joined one-time arch rivals Manchester United.
In many ways, that transfer alone epitomised Arsenal’s fall from grace as a true superpower of the English game. During the Invincibles season, it would have been unthinkable that Wenger would sell his captain, then Patrick Vieira, to a direct title rival.
Such was Arsenal’s status at the time of the van Persie deal, however, his move wasn’t perceived to be a sideways one but rather a significant step up in standard.
In the build-up to last weekend’s north London derby, many had even earmarked this as season where Arsenal could be usurped by Tottenham. Off the back of a summer where he lost Gareth Bale, André Villas-Boas was still widely considered to have improved his squad with, among others, a trio of record signings in Paulinho, Roberto Soldado and Erik Lamela.
In contrast, Arsenal’s new faces were noticeably absent on Sunday. Aside from an appearance from the returning Mathieu Flamini, re-signed by Wenger as a free agent, little had changed in that regard since last May's derby encounter.
One thing that noticeably had, however, was who came out on top. While Olivier Giroud’s winning goal ultimately left talk of a changing of the guard in north London looking premature, and bought their under fire manager a reprieve, Wenger nonetheless chose not to rest on his laurels.
The deadline-day acquisition of German international Mesut Özil (signed from Real Madrid for a club record £42.5 million) has been likened to the deal which saw Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp join the Gunners from Inter Milan in 1995.
This comparison, however, isn't based solely on the undoubted quality Özil will add to the team in the here and now, but more so on the potential stimulating effect a player of his stature could have moving forward. After a decade of playing second fiddle to other clubs, saddled with debt in what has become multi-billion pound league, Wenger’s latest transfer venture suggests he may not be done with the big time just yet.
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