I must confess that when the curtain came down on 2010-11, I lay awake at night, my grey matter all a flutter, wondering how the Tim Stillman Column could possibly staff 1,500 words a week with the mission to make the barren summer months seem vaguely interesting. I should know by now that the words ‘Arsenal’ and ‘summer saga’ go together like Cointreau and Sunday morning remorse.
Once again, the last seven days have provided me with sufficient artillery to send my Times New Roman army hurtling over the top of the trenches. With the First Team now in pre-season training and currently being put through their paces in Kuala Lumpur, we’ve had some meaty morsels from Arsene Wenger to sink our collective teeth into.
Unsurprisingly, the twin feel-good hits of the summer are dominating proceedings, with the futures of Messrs Fabregas and Nasri calling the tune. I shall come back to those later, but first I want to deal with the manager’s first press conference on Friday. In which he released some interesting tidbits. First of all, he seemed rather firm in his resolution that he would not be purchasing a replacement for Gael Clichy – placing his trust instead in Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore at left back, with Vermaelen the nuclear option.
I touched last week on my dissatisfaction with such a solution. Gibbs has yet to convince that he has progressed sufficiently just yet, whilst he has an injury record that casts firm doubts as to whether he can even manage a full season. Whilst Traore has spent a few seasons in the wilderness and his quality has yet to fully convince. However, I haven’t seen Traore play since he was 19, he is now 21. It’s reasonable to expect he has improved.
Arsenal are generally good at defending in open play – the manager explicated what we all know at the back end of last season – we suffer in terms of defending set pieces. Arsene hinted height was a factor there and at 6’1’’ Traore is a slightly more physical specimen. His delivery is also infinitely better than Clichy’s – which was a weakness in Gael’s game I don’t think he ever really ironed out.
I’m not saying I’m convinced Gibbs and Traore are the answer there, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Gibbs is at the age Clichy and Cole were when they stepped up. I have my doubts, but I’ll leave them chilling on ice until the season is well under way.
However, where that particular press conference did genuinely annoy many – understandably so, was the manager’s infuriatingly clichéd assertion that, “We’ve added Thomas Vermaelen since last year.” Not only is that flawed logic, but it brought home to me how much the manager’s words are becoming a source of ridicule amongst his own fans. There were those that were genuinely running sweepstakes on when Wenger would reel out the infamous, “Crocky McInjured-all-the-time will be like a new signing” line.
It made me wonder how out of touch Arsene has become, that he could recite such mealy mouthed sentiments without a hint of self awareness. If we the supporters already know what he’s going to say well in advance of him saying it, you begin to wonder how that translates to the playing staff. It made me sad because it made me realise that I don’t really enjoy listening to him like I used to.
The manager was rather more forthcoming in his assessments of Nasri and Fabregas. Quite astoundingly, it appears his resolution to keep Nasri-bayor is stronger than it is to keep Cesc. This despite the strength of Cesc’s contract in comparison to Nasri-bayor and, you know, the fact that Cesc is roughly ten times the player. It leads me to believe that Arsene and Cesc had some kind of a gentlemen’s agreement last summer to let him go in the event of another barren season.
To let Nasri-bayor go for free next summer when we could potentially juice City for £20m this summer is a startling decision, financially and “footballistically.” That doesn’t even make Nasri, “like a £20m signing” to adapt a Wengerism, but effectively a £20m loan deal. Is Nasri really worth that? I have my doubts. It says to me that the manager is scared of losing his captain and doesn’t want to let both players walk out of the door. His proclamations on the subject on Monday make it very difficult for him to back down on that stance now.
Whether there’s an element of politicking there I don’t know. Personally, I would be ok with selling Nasri-bayor so long as the money was invested in a quality replacement, but I have the increased sense Wenger has become jaded by the market. Arshavin, Gervinho, Nasri himself, these are all deals that took an age to complete. I recall Wenger saying something last summer about even the signing of Koscielny from a mid table French side being a maddening effort. (This is a phenomenon by no means unique to Arsenal, deals for Henderson, Jones, Young etc. all took weeks to conclude this summer).
With such a lot to discuss, it made for a lively Arsenal Supporters’ Trust meeting on Monday, which I had the pleasure of attending. The main jist of the meeting was to discuss the results of the Annual AST Survey. It was a rather illuminating evening, with many points discussed, as I imagine you can gather. I won’t retread old ground that has already been discussed ad infinitum, but there were some very thought provoking points raised.
The main theme I garnered from the evening was the extent to which the club are really hanging on in there until 2014 when some of the commercial contracts can be renegotiated. Treasurer Nigel Phillips explained that of the three main revenue sources for any top flight club, Arsenal are pretty much at the ceiling of their capability as far as matchday revenues and television income are concerned – short of raising admission prices even further of course.
Our two billionaire owners are hardly rushing to their chequebooks, so we are relying on developing more organic sources of revenue growth. That the players are currently performing before the click clickety of Malaysian cameras forms a part of that, as well as some recently signed commercial deals with Thomas Cook and Indesit. (They’re just like new signings, apparently).
There of course remains a great deal of unease over the ownership situation. Usmanov looks intent on moving to the 30% mark, which gives him access to club accounts and gives him license to become a sort of inverse cheerleader, barracking from the sidelines. Kroenke’s continued silence and distance can only aid and abet that aim.
One of the points discussed touched on a vacuum present in the boardroom. If the majority owner of the club is based thousands of miles away and does not engage a dialogue with the club’s fans, then he needs a front man, whether it be Gazidis or someone else. But somebody needs to have that power conferred on them. It’s not necessarily the David Dein shaped hole many have been swooning over since time immemorial; but the identifiable members of the board; Fiszman, Edelman, Dein, Bracewell-Smith- have all gone. There is no Board of Directors to speak of anymore and that makes people uncertain.
As I said after the Q & A with Gazidis last month, it looks rather like he’s trying to spin plates between two warring owners, an autocratic manager and an increasingly unhappy fan base. I think the club needs to appreciate that the supporters are at something of a tipping point with regards their faith in the club. I’m the last person in the world that would expect them to kowtow to a set of fans that, to my mind, are by now bordering on hysterical. (Generally speaking you understand). But that’s not to say there are not genuine concerns that the club could take small steps to allay.
I know the club are watching developments with regards to Manchester City’s translucent stadium naming rights deal keenly. This is the real litmus test for UEFA’s Financial Fair Play legislation and a make or break moment for its credibility. Should UEFA fail to be as great in act as they have been in thought, then the reality of what we are competing with becomes even starker. That said, there is an argument that such inflation of the market could strengthen our own bargaining arm when we come to renegotiate our own naming rights deal.
Before I leave you for another week, I would like to bring attention to the fact that the Premier Reserve League fixtures were published this week. Arsenal will be playing their first four home fixtures at Barnet’s Underhill, prior to hibernating into their Colney cocoon for the winter months. Please do try and get along to some if you can, they’re free of charge and usually represent a good opportunity to nurture young kids into the environment of live football. Matches finish before 9pm, so even people like me that live rather more at the Southern axis of the Northern Line don’t have to endure too late a night. Until next week. LD.
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