Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Suddenly, This Summer

A year ago, my post entitled "Platform or Plateau" considered whether the Arsenal Football Club had reached a static position or had established the foundations for greater success. Although its 2013-14 campaign brought silverware in the form of the FA Cup, featured a long stay at the top of the Premier League, and finished with the most league points since 2008, the question of progress persisted because of the way the title challenge faltered and because manager Arsène Wenger had not yet agreed to renew his contract.

Wenger's signature on a three-year contract extension may not have quieted those who complain because they enjoy complaining or who criticize him due to francophobia or an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Any reasonable analysis suggests, though, that the Arsenal is back to a level of competitiveness not seen since the move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006.

Top-level talent arrives and signals a renewed intent 

The most obvious indication of the upward trajectory is this summer's transfer activity: Four headline players have arrived since the current transaction period began, while none has been sold. That's a significant change even from this point in 2013, when the inexperienced Auxerre striker Yaya Sanogo had been the only acquisition.

The cost of these 2014 acquisitions stands at £56 million according to the Arsenal Report's Transfer Centre; the club has never entered an August with a transfer bill even remotely near that figure. That points to a confident, proactive approach to the playing staff and validates CEO Ivan Gazidis's contention that this summer would see enhanced revenues deployed to strengthen the team.

The level of investment and the obvious quality of the players recruited, forward Alexis Sanchez, fullback Mathieu Debuchy, goalkeeper David Ospina, and defender Calum Chambers, have rightly received the attention. What's struck me, though, is the change in Wenger's image and emphasis.

The manager recrafts his image

I try not to make assumptions about people's thoughts, feelings, or intentions, particularly those of individuals whom I've never met or interviewed. Doing so leads to facile analyses and conclusions that are both flimsy and irrefutable.

It's not presumptuous, though, to remark on the image public figures present. In the past three months, Wenger has stopped giving the appearance of a drawn, tense man and has (re)established the look of a relaxed, assured one.

Whether he felt any differently about himself or considered his future in a new light after beating Hull City in the FA Cup final, we can never know. What most observers will say is that he has appeared revitalized. It didn't hurt that he displayed the skills and physique of a much younger man in a much publicized video of his beach football exploits during the World Cup.

Emphasis and strategy emerge as different

Wenger's recent comments also reveal a return to confident competitiveness. He is no longer bemoaning the irrationality of the transfer market or downplaying Arsenal's prospects of landing recognized, world-class talent. He is instead stating the assumption that the players he wants want to join the club.

When asked about the Ospina deal before it had closed, Wenger did not redirect the inquiry or wait for the official announcement. He said: "There were four candidates, and I decided on one." When? "It was during the World Cup."

"I decided on one," and I was confident he would join us. Not "we had to negotiate with his club, convince his agent and entourage, court him, and get him to accept our financial terms." This is not a tenuous stance or a nervous message. 

What the manager said as the signing of Chambers drew close was similarly telling. The Telegraph reported these remarks from Wenger: "He hasn’t played many games, no, but the English players on the market in England are very expensive and at the end of the day I was ready to take a gamble because he is a player for the future."

"I was ready to take a gamble" -- those are not words common in Wenger's public statements about players in recent years. It's a fair and revealing characterization, though, of the potential £16 million outlay for a 19-year-old defender.

It's one thing to break the club's transfer record to secure Mesut Özil. Wenger and Gazidis knew then that they were getting a mainstay of the German national team and a star at Real Madrid. I think it's even more consequential to acquire an unproven Chambers with potentially one of the club's five highest transfer fees to date. This move reverses nearly a decade of aversion to transfer risk and emphasizes the desire to be a serious contender.

Future titles aren't guaranteed, primarily because the difference between victory and defeat at Arsenal's level of competition is so fine, but the intent to engage the contest on advantageous terms has certainly reemerged. Supporters should watch with less trepidation, while opponents approach more warily.

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