Arsene Wenger's economic downturn as priorities shift at Arsenal
It must not go on. It cannot go on. It does go on.
For Arsenal, this is a season of unnameable awfulness, the season in which even the most devout Arsene Wenger fan is beginning to doubt the club's French manager as the long slow drift into mediocrity nears a climax.
The trophy drought goes on: seven years of plenty have been followed - unless Arsenal do something utterly implausible and win the Uefa Champions League - by eight years of famine, something that was ensured by Saturday's FA Cup exit at home to Blackburn Rovers.
The excuses and explanations are well worn. Arsenal prefer to live within their means while other clubs with billionaire owners engage in financial dealings. Of course Arsenal are in a privileged position in this regard, being based in a wealthy corner of England's affluent capital and so are able to charge ticket prices that would be inconceivable in the post-industrial north.
Arsenal's transfer spending has been restricted by interest repayments on the new stadium, despite fans being told at the time that such spending was "ring-fenced" and that years of good financial results and the sale of apartments on the old Highbury site should have eaten into the capital.
Wenger's philosophy is to develop young talent rather than buy it, which was all very well, perhaps even necessary to the sort of intricate passing football he favours, before players began to realise they could earn more money and enhance their chances of silverware by moving elsewhere.
This season, though, a more fundamental question has presented itself: what are Arsenal for? What do their owners want?
At a hostile annual general meeting at the end of last October, Stan Kroenke, the majority shareholder, refused to rule out the possibility of drawing a dividend. Take that in conjunction with Wenger's bizarre claim that finishing fourth is the equivalent of winning a trophy and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Arsenal's aim is to qualify for the Champions League with the least possible outlay to maximise profits for shareholders.
The attitude clearly has some support among fans. In a poll on the club website last week, 52 per cent said they would rather qualify for the Champions League than win a trophy. But none of that explains why Wenger left Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott on the bench on Saturday.
Yes, it is understandable he did not want to risk them before tonight's Champions League tie against Bayern Munich but Arsenal are not a team who can afford such luxuries. When they are struggling to prove themselves the best team in north London, making sacrifices for a tournament for the best teams in Europe seems an indulgence.
It is living as though Arsenal are the team they were a decade ago when winning the Champions League was a realistic ambition.
Wenger may point out that Arsenal had never previously gone out of the FA Cup to lower-league opposition under his management but this season they had already been knocked out of the League Cup by Bradford City, from the fourth tier. They could not afford to waste another opportunity.
If they had lost to Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea, defeat could at least be put down to the inevitability of economics; losing to Bradford and Blackburn just highlights the sloppiness that characterises so much about Arsenal these days, from marking at corners to letting Juan Mata join Chelsea when the deal to sign him seemed done.
The US analyst Zach Slaton has shown that between 2003 (the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea) and the start of the 2012/13 season, Arsenal picked up 0.48 points per game more than would have been expected in terms of their expenditure on players, an indication of Wenger's value.
This season that figure has fallen to 0.19. Arsenal are still performing better than would be expected - but that seems less of a positive than evidence of just how paltry their investment in players has been.
Wenger was clearly seething on Saturday, speaking of mental weakness and hinting at widespread changes in the summer - when he should be able to spend at least some of the £150 million (Dh550.5m) Arsenal took from Emirates Airline for the renewal of their stadium naming rights deal - but Arsenal fans have heard such talk before.
And besides, attracting high-quality players will become much harder if Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League.
That would be the tipping point. Up to now, it has been possible to ignore poor performances and bad results because Arsenal keep doing enough to get into the top four. If they fail to do that, even shareholders may start to worry.
And then it really could not go on.
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Published: February 18, 2013 04:00 AM