We started last year in 5th place, with hopes for the title thoroughly dashed. The property market had just cut £50m or more from Arsenal’s future bottom line. Critics were questioning the probity of building a stadium without outside financial backing. It looked unlikely that Arsenal would secure CL football in 2009, placing further questions over Arsenal’s financial future. Its football future looked insecure as well, without CL football, it seemed only a matter of time until the best players left.
With three of our European conquering midfield not on the pitch, two of them, the most senior, decided they wanted out of Arsenal, at the same time taking a large part of the squad’s experience, heart and self belief. The young men left behind would soon be led by a 21 year old after an all too public airing of the team’s laundry; their demoted captain would remain a presence at the heart of the defence. His partner at centre half was about to publicly cite internal disharmony grave enough to prompt a transfer request. Other’s who’d left the club 6 months earlier, included our two most experienced players, a world class goalkeeper and a World Cup winning and key Invincible defensive midfielder.
Our two most important attacking players at the time were injured until March, our second best attacking midfielder suffering on the sidelines from an undiagnosable chronic injury, our third choice striker training with screws in his leg, our first choice striker mutinous in his attitude and about to pull a hamstring and miss the second half of the season bar a CL semi final where he appeared in name only.
Our second choice striker had spent the first half of the season recovering from another injury plagued season, presciently, including one incurred playing in an international friendly for his country. He would miss the bulk of the following season because of another friendly injury.
Our midfield for the majority of the season featured a 20 year old Brazilian who’d started less than 10 PL games prior to 08/09 season, a 21 year old central defender who’d played only a handful more games in an Arsenal shirt, a tempestuous right back masquerading as a midfielder, an immature 21 year old lanky and natural no. 10, playing as a central midfielder and a 19 year old Frenchman playing away from his home town for the first time in his life.
What happened next has rarely been acknowledged as an achievement and is more commonly regarded as another trophy less campaign.
Our rival for fourth place had just bought a proven forward and preferred choice of Capello for the national team. The upstarts in Manchester would spend 20 m in January. The other top 3 teams had spent each over 30 m in the offseason. Arsenal remember had made a 10m transfer profit in the summer (a bulk of that coming from the £16m Spurs spent on a Highbury reject) – a £40m difference, in one transfer period.
The entire football world and many outside of it were adamant that Arsene must buy at least 3 players in January, if they were to reclaim their CL place and progress in the Cups. None of them were adamant that one of those players should be a 5`4″ Russian playmaker. All of them were adamant that two of them should be hulking 6’6′ defenders, the other should be a hulking 6’6′ defensive midfielder.
The entire football world, for all its wisdom was ignored. Wenger opened negotiations for the Russian. The entire football world offered their opinion on this transfer, pay up. This opinion too was ignored. The best player to move clubs in 2008/09 was ultimately secured for £12m, £6 m short of his market price 6 months earlier.
With the aforementioned midfield leading the line, Arsenal would go on to play 23 unbeaten in all competitions, including a win on penalties in Rome. The demoted captain would put ego aside and score winning goals in injury time twice. The side would make it as far as the CL semi final, where despite abject performances from the mutinous first choice striker, the absence of 2 of its preferred back 4, our most senior player doing a poor job of imitating a defender and 6 players starting under the age of 22, we were one goal down against the best team in Europe for 100 minutes of the 180. A slip on the turf and a goalkeeper’s mistake would end the tie at the 100 minute mark.
We would ultimately end the season with a whimper, as our best paid players showed their true colours. They would later be granted their ticket out of town. It is here where Wenger showed why this would be his best year.
So Wenger enters the 2009 summer period, looking to offload two of his players. He does so by making £40m in the process. And it turns out that neither player is worth half that amount, yet Wenger managed to make the football world believe Arsenal was strengthening a rival. To be fair, the market was on steroids with Madrid and Citeh’s money, but £40m for two players in their prime is good management in any market.
Wenger then buys an unknown full back for £10m and it turns out he is a reincarnation of Ronald Koeman and the buy of the year. He then again defies all opinion and makes this his only purchase. He starts the season with all but people inside the club, predicting Arsenal would fall out of the top 4 and continue the ‘decline’ that begun when Arsenal sold Vieira. What’s happened instead, we’ve seen the financial ramifications of irresponsible spending catch up with Chelsea, Utd and Liverpool, as predicted by Wenger. The field has come back to Arsenal, just as Arsenal is catching up with the field. All the while, Wenger has made tens of millions in transfers for the club, and stocked the squad with world beaters in every position.
He’s also converted the club to the 4-3-3 system, a potential epoch moment for the club.
He’s done this amidst ridiculous, but all the same very vocal questions about whether it was time for Wenger to move on from respected members of the press and some of the fans. He’s not wavered and blamed the board, or his players, or referees, he’s faced public ridicule at Old Trafford and kept his civility, while at the same time creating a piece of theatre to underline the insanity of the ridicule that will live long in the minds of football fans everywhere.
Despite all of this, Arsenal start the year of 2010 in contention to win the Premier League, one of the favourites to win the CL, and with money to burn for years to come, just as the market starts to settle down. Not that he’ll need to spend much, because in 2009, just as in years before, he’s blooded young talent, only in 2009, the stable was full of thoroughbreds, Wilshere, Gibbs, Merida, Ramsay, Fabianski, Bendtner, Song and Denilson.
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