Ghosts of Chelsea past and present haunt Arsenal
I have a really complicated relationship with the idea of Chelsea football club. As a London native and Arsenal fan in my late twenties, there has been no club more dominant as a force in London for at least the last decade and a half. While Arsenal have generally plummeted out of contention of everything worth mentioning in that same period. It wasn’t always like this. Chelsea couldn’t for love nor money beat Arsenal, and then IT happened. 6th April 2004, yes, you may ask why pick the season most widely known as the greatest in gunners history? I feel it is the most symbolic for how the West Londoners capitalise on momentum and go up a level, while Arsenal toil and struggle to reach clarity.
There are obviously mitigating factors for all of this. The frankly absurd way of financing stadium debt, which was a millstone around Arsenal, in an era where the so called “Invincibles” were split up/retiring or sold. Roman Abramovich’s billion pound investment into Chelsea. In the midst of this, however you have to ask the question. Why does this all look rather similar? Take your pick. Senderos/Drogba, Costa/Gabriel, and now Lukaku/Mari. Lukaku has gone away had a career, become one of the world’s best number 9s and Chelsea still beat Arsenal the same way on their way to bigger prizes. Water is wet and the sky is blue.
Chelsea have had the clearness of mind since that fateful day in 2004, but were not always like this. Chelsea transfers during the late 1990s reflected their position as also rans in English football but also a lack of plan/willingness to just get by. There was this perception that the blues resided in the part of London that epitomised an easy life and somewhere to end your career in the rapidly commercialised environment of the English game. Chelsea picked up a number of players on fairly high contracts, who were past their best at that point. Marcel Desailly had won the Champions league twice with Marseille and AC Milan respectively, as well as being a world cup winning defender in the summer before he came to West London, but effectively he was not going into his peak as a Chelsea player. There were several other transfers during this time which became a theme; the likes of Frank Leboeuf, Mark Hughes, Gianluca Vialli and even George Weah on a loan contract. All with incredible reputations in the game but epitomised the lack of plan at Chelsea to push on and challenge at the top of the Premier league at this time. Sound familiar?
It is not beyond doubt that Arsene Wenger had a monopoly on the European market when he arrived in September 1996. He was able to bring in highly capable players who also had the capacity to grow within the traditionally stable environment at Arsenal, one of England’s biggest and most historic clubs. Players such as Nicolas Anelka, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry developed under his tutelage and became better players at Arsenal. There seemed to be a common goal, a blend of talented, determined players from the continent with room to blossom alongside the sensibilities of local, British based players who had a sense of what it meant to represent the club. This resulted in a period of unparalleled success. What happened after this? The game simply moved on. Tactically, financially and culturally. The Gunners were now not a step ahead but potentially in danger of being left behind after their move to the emirates in 2006.
What have Chelsea done well? They are aware that they are not self sustainable and have adjusted ruthlessly. There have been attempts to overhaul their youth system, cynics say this is a stockpiling exercise, but there is no argument about how successful this strategy has been for the West Londoners. The Blues have competed in 8 of the last 11 FA Youth cup finals, winning 6 of them. There is no doubt they produce Premier league ready footballers. For all the plaudits that those responsible for the development of the youngsters at Hale End get, there is work to be done to be acknowledged as a success on the level of what has transpired at Cobham.
Chelsea’s cycle can be easily refreshed due to readily available resources. There is a resilience associated with their adherence to the talismanic striker as the spearhead of a battle-hardened team. Didier Drogba expertly lead Mourinho’ miserly ruthless first teams, was a reference point for Ancelotti’s double winners. Diego Costa had a similarly devastating impact for Mourinho and Antonio Conte’s league winning sides. Many see the recent re-acquisition of Romelu Lukaku as having a transformative impact on Chelsea’s title aspirations, that may well be the case, if you take a quick peek at those who have come before him. I hear you, but why should Arsenal be compared to Chelsea? Chelsea can buy whoever they want. Arsenal don’t have those resources right?
So how can this be fixed? Arsenal’s revenues have shrunk after a lengthy absence from the champions league, which will only widen after this this season’s absence from Europe altogether. Former Arsenal chief scout, Sven Mislintat has said:
It was also special for me to move to Arsenal because of Arsene Wenger, with whom I was able to work for a year. For me, he was the benchmark for how to develop Dortmund.
The first step is to know who you are in the current climate, you need to also know what you will do. Borussia Dortmund buy on the continent via good data analysis and scouting, they are one of several good examples in Europe. They buy to a vision of attacking football and get the necessary components to enable this to happen.
Arsenal, indicated by this summer’s business know who they are at the moment, judging by the age profiles acquired. They know what they need to do. The largest caveat is that they compete in the strongest league in the world. Traditionally big clubs like Leeds, Aston Villa and Everton are investing in their infrastructure and are generally richer than clubs on the continent because of tv money. They’re so bullish that Aston Villa, who bid for Emile Smith-Rowe as they see Arsenal as a weak member of the established hierarchy. Leicester have a sophisticated data approach that ensures they consistently outperform clubs with bigger budgets even though they make a big sale every summer.
It is going to be difficult for Arsenal and patience will be required but the club know that this is a long term process and protecting the future of the team is important. Now the bulk of the summer business is done. It is time to develop clarity of vision. No gooner is expecting to go toe to toe with the big players of premier league football, but there is no substitute for effort and knowing to a tee what your manager requires from you. Can the Coach make the players do it? That might be the most important question. Man City on Sunday. Brace yourselves!