Arsenal paying a high price for lack of activity on transfer market
The champions come May this year, Manchester United lost their first game last season. They lost at Goodison Park to the same manager who will occupy the home dugout at Old Trafford for the first time a week today, David Moyes.
All of which is meant to place Arsenal's opening day defeat to Aston Villa in perspective. Granted, you would go a long way to find someone who expects them to bounce back and win the title. In fact, you would have had to go a long way to find someone who thought they would win the title before that defeat. Even so #WENGEROUT was trending on Twitter by Saturday evening, which may be a record, even by his standards.
That first-leg Champions League qualifier against Fenerbahce in Istanbul looms. And, above all, the impression of incompetence on the club's part in the transfer market. "Spend some money" they shouted at Wenger on Saturday, the cri de coeur of the Emirates years.
Except that, unless you are talking Chelsea in the summer of 2003; or Manchester City at the tail-end of the 2008 summer window, and the next two that followed it, the complete transformation of a club's fortunes is never going to be achieved in one window alone.
Those two clubs' situations were anomalous. Their budgets were phenomenal and, in the case of Chelsea, there had never before been a club given such a huge injection of cash. A smart transfer policy is built on the long-term. Good acquisitions make the club more attractive the following window to a better class of player. Momentum is built. Successful signings are given new contracts. Others are shipped out.
Arsenal have accomplished some of that in past years. This window they have moved out around 25, either permanently or on loan deals. But in terms of signings, they are trying now to play in a different league, with what Ivan Gazidis, their chief executive, called an "escalation of financial firepower". What is becoming clear is that, to extend the analogy, they have finally brought in the tanks only to find that the war is being fought in fighter jets.
Their trading position has slipped so radically over the years that they no longer even have the leverage of a great player to sell. Even last season, with Robin van Persie to trade, they had some influence on the buying and selling of elite players which can sometimes feel like the movement of chess pieces around a board. You sacrifice one to take another. You sell to a certain club to block a rival trade elsewhere.
Napoli can sell Diego Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain – not only to raise the money to buy Gonzalo Higuain from Real Madrid but also to ensure that the French club is not a rival in the process of buying the Argentine. Who knows, perhaps there was even an agreement brokered that PSG would leave Higuain to Napoli.
It takes a phenomenal amount of money, or a phenomenal player to trade, to take a seat at this poker game. Preferably both. Arsenal have neither. Assessments vary but the received wisdom is that there is around £70m to spend. That sort of money does not enable them to start forcing clubs such as Madrid or Bayern Munich into making difficult decisions.
There are caveats. They are not the only club to have found the going hard this summer. Just look at United. Wenger may yet pull off a transfer coup by 2 September. Saturday's result is just the first of 38 games. And yet, it is just one more small disincentive for any prospective player to join the club. A club who look that little bit more desperate than they did at 3pm on Saturday.
Those inside Arsenal will tell you that at the end of the 1990s, the club's board took a radical decision: to push forward with a new stadium. It was a determinedly long-term view – admirable – that would put the club on a much better footing in the years to come.
Arsenal could have stayed at Highbury, bought better, more expensive players, fought with United for the title and left the worries over updating a pre-war stadium to another generation. Instead, they looked at the numbers, considered the economies that would have to be made and took the gamble.
The plan could well have worked perfectly. Then in 2003, along came Roman Abramovich and five years later Sheikh Mansour entered the fray. The intervention of those two, in particular, bust the calculations Arsenal did around 13 years ago. In many respects, Arsenal deserve credit for having stayed competitive against clubs who have spent around £500m to create title-winning teams.
Yet as Higuain, Luis Suarez and Luiz Gustavo have slipped through the net, a sobering reality has dawned on Arsenal in the last month. The summer of 2013 was long anticipated as their year zero at the elite level of the transfer market. But this is not a game you can simply pick up overnight having abstained for so long. Not unless you have a lot more money than Arsenal do.
Well-placed sources have said that in private, when the possibility of Arsenal bidding for Robert Lewandowski has been raised this summer, Wenger tends to mention the time – unspecified – when he could have bought the Borussia Dortmund striker for £300,000. Like a man who regrets not buying an Islington townhouse in those long-distant days when you could pick one up for a song, it sounds like a pointless lament.
Morally wrong. Financially doped. The biggest bubble market in history. You can make a case for modern football being all that and more. But it is what it is. One is not obliged to participate and for years Arsenal made a virtue of avoiding the big player auctions and the record transfer fees.
This summer they decided otherwise and yet, as the days go by, their belief that they are now major players in the market on the basis of one year's budget are looking very thin indeed.