Let’s face it, most of us are not very ambitious. We settle down in fairly cushy jobs that present themselves in our early 20s; and we quickly become hooked to the safety of a monthly pay cheque that affords food, shelter, electricity, the odd drink, a Zones 1-3 travelcard, an iPhone, an unused LA Fitness membership, a download of the new XX album and a couple of pairs of grey skinny jeans from Uniqlo that you hate yourself for buying but everyone else is and oh they’re only £20 so fuck it.
And if there’s a spare £1,000-£2,000 left over at the end of the tax year after your hard-earned’s been constantly plundered by Her Majesty’s Treasury, then you can also afford an Arsenal season ticket.
But the point is this – while you, Reader, may be in the ambitious minority, destined to lead a FTSE 100 company or invent a revolutionary new kind of milkshake, the chances are that you’re in the 95% who, ultimately, just can’t be arsed.
And there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Ambition is difficult. It requires getting up every morning and striving to do better than nearly everyone else in the world. Frankly, I’m already exhausted just thinking about it. Ambition means treating every day like a race, doggedly striving for the latest goal you’ve set yourself, only to set another near-impossible goal once you’ve reached it.
Not only is that extremely tiring, it is also testing of one’s spirit and leads to the inevitable question of – why am I doing this? Why am I spending my only shot at life obsessed with doing more and more and more and clearing higher and higher hurdles, just to suddenly DIE at the end of it? Why don’t I chill the hell out and sit on a hill in Devon and watch the sun set? Maybe I could finally get around to making that pie from the River Cottage cookbook, the one with capers in it.
A verbose left-wing minicab driver once insisted to me that all a person needs to be content is: a home, half-decent food, someone to love, and some books or other artistic / intellectual stimulation. The somewhat less left-wing Charles Saatchi wrote something similar recently in the Evening Standard, arguing that obsessively-driven people tend to be far less content – forever beating themselves up over hitting their next target – than those of us who just sit back and soak it up.
Ambition often requires giving up the nice, varied things that arguably lead to a healthier, more fulfilled life. So perhaps it’s not surprising that most of us are not mega-ambitious.
Yet there is something in our strange monkey-souls that attracts us, compellingly, to ambition. And this is perhaps why we seek to attach ourselves to others’ ambition. This is why we cry at the achievements of Olympic athletes; it’s why we cheer on our favourite finalists in Masterchef; it’s why we go on Twitter to say how amazing Neil Armstrong was for landing on the moon.
It’s also one reason why we support football teams.
In supporting a club, one attaches oneself to the actions of 11 men running around a pitch. Their success becomes our own success and their failure leads to entire weekends (and sometimes subsequent weeks) of gloom and misery. We passionately want them to win, to achieve, and cheer them fanatically towards their sporting ambitions.
Yet most people’s football teams don’t win anything. Statistically the vast majority of sides in any division will end in either mid-table boredom or relegation. The FA Cup, to give another example, is won by just one single team, with hundreds of others failing along the way. Winning is the exception and failure the norm.
Back in January of 2005, I spoke to a Brighton-supporting friend of mine after he’d made his way back from a Cup tie against north London’s second team. I recall him saying how proud he was of their players for so nearly grabbing an away draw against the Totts, who at the time were placed over 20 positions higher on the league ladder and spent tens, if not hundreds, of millions more on players than little Brighton and Hove Albion.
The point was that they’d tried. Pushing aside flimsy reservations of whether or not it was “realistic” to expect to beat a Premier League side, Brighton had gone there and genuinely attempted to win the game. They put everything they had into delivering what would have been an albeit fleeting moment of glory for their club.
And this is where Arsenal’s transfer window becomes relevant (in case you were wondering).
A common charge against the Arsenal board in recent years has become that they lack ambition. It is a charge that chief exec Ivan Gazidis hit back at during the summer’s Q&A with fans, arguing that the stadium move signalled huge ambition and a willingness to gamble – traits that he insisted the current board still possess.
I must admit that in past seasons I have had some sympathy for Gazidis’ argument that finishing 3rd or 4th is not the same thing as being happy to finish 3rd or 4th. I have wondered: isn’t it unreasonable for fans to assume that seasons that end with narrow Champions League qualification but without silverware are somehow part of The Great Plan, rather than just the regular accidental failure, that – as I wrote above – afflicts 95% of teams each year?
Who are we to demand glory every season? How can we expect the Arsenal to simply brush aside rivals who spend tens of millions more on their squads each season that we do?
Well the truth is that we don’t. But much like my Brighton-supporting pal, what we do expect is for the club to try. To make a go of it. To show ambition.
It might sound childishly spoilt, but for me Arsenal is inherently a club that tries to win the league title every year. Older fans than I, who lived through our long barren patches, may disagree – but the fact is that even during years of failure in the 60s, much of the 70s and 80s, the club was still trying to win the league. This is why they bought Joe Baker, and then Alan Ball. This is why they bought SuperMac, and then Charlie Nicholas. Often Arsenal’s pampered and egocentric players may not have given all they had to win the title, but the club itself – no matter how badly managed – appeared to set a title-victory as its goal.
And let us not forget that Arsenal have won league titles in every decade since the 1930s with just one exception (the ‘60s).
Admittedly, winning the league now is possibly harder that it ever has been, for kleptocrat-fuelled reasons that we’re all aware of. But Arsenal have the second highest annual income of any side in the Premier League, and so it is not unreasonable to expect them to attempt to win the competition.
Just say, at the end of the season, the team has been pipped to the post by Man City (“£100M JANUARY SIGNING FALCAO DELIVERS TITLE TO MANCINI” etc. etc.) I’m sure I and thousands of other Gooners would proudly stand and applaud the boys’ efforts.
The problem is this: after the last two weeks, there is simply no way that Ivan Gazidis, Stanley Kroenke or Arsene Wenger can claim that Arsenal are trying to win the league this season.
Having failed to replace the team’s top assist-provider from last season, a regular in the centre of the park, they cannot turn around and say: “Yes, I expect the team to be better now. Without this player, or any replacement, we are in a stronger position to close last season’s 19 point gap between us and the Manchester teams.”
I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong at the end of the season, but for now the argument that we can compete for the league seems farcical. The team has lost its two primary sources of goals from last season, while the third (Theo Walcott) is four and a bit months away from being able to agree a Bosman deal with another side. In response we have brought in fewer players than any other PL club this summer.
In mitigation, I think Arsenal’s three main signings are extremely promising. But standing alone, they look like three signings intended to keep the club’s head above water (or, some might say, keep the club narrowly bobbing above the Champions League qualification cut-off point). Just two or three weeks ago it looked as if the capture of Santi Cazorla was not an end in itself, but a means to push on and strengthen other parts of the squad too. Yet now we’re one injury away from Cazorla lining up alongside, say, Francis Coquelin and Abou Diaby. Would that be good enough to take to the Etihad or Old Trafford?
There was a time when I would vehemently defend Arsene’s caution in the transfer market. I agree that deals are complex and that every signing by every club is a gamble. Splashing money around à la Liverpool is that last thing I want to see the Arsenal doing.
But the bottom line is this: a club trying to win the league does not consistently sell its top players and then sit on the profits.
One summer of net profit making is perfectly understandable under certain circumstances. And hey, profits are a good thing. They strengthen the club, provide stability, reassure business partners and provide the scope for future signings. But in football their primary use is to strengthen the team and thus when they go unspent year after year after year, the policy is sure to raise eyebrows.
There is a feeling that this latest window has been a snapping point for some Gooners. Last season’s debacle was so frantic, with the late departures and uber-late arrivals, that it was possible to put it down to disorganised mismanagement (at worst) or “just one of those things” (at best). But this time around there appears something more calculated about Arsenal’s approach.
The club has quite clearly decided to go into the first half of the season with the current squad. We know that they could have signed Nuri Sahin, but decided against it due to the cost. That may be a reasonable decision in isolation, but there appears to have been no Plan B. The decision to sell Alex Song was taken several weeks ago, at the very least. Finding a replacement of equal or better quality may not be easy, but it is something that top clubs have to be able to do. And if you’re not able to do it then maybe selling your key first team players isn’t the greatest of ideas.
A Gooner friend of mine yesterday expressed annoyance at the apparent puzzle as to what goes on behind the scenes during weeks in which our top players leave and we fail to bring in adequate replacements. Messages are constantly conflicting. One minute we’re told by the manager that he will only look at “top, top, top players”, the next we discover that Arsenal made an enquiry for perma-cripple Michael Essien.
It’s not much use the club telling us that we only sign exceptionally talented players when we’re staring at a squad sheet that includes Sebastian Squillaci and Marouane Chamakh.
While there’s an element of enigma surrounding all this, some things seem certain. The club is essentially interested in bargain deals and loath to cough up a transfer fee unless it believes it is getting a 30%+ discount. This is not a bad thing in itself – and you cannot criticise the bargain-hunting one minute, and then laud the incredibly-cheap capture of Cazorla the next. But the approach need not be so puritanically consistent. It’s possible to bargain-hunt, but also recognise that sometimes it’s worth your while to pay full whack. You can shop at Aldi and watch your pennies closely from Monday to Friday, but when it’s your girlfriend’s birthday on Saturday it makes sense to just buy her the bloody £180 Jimmy Choo shoes that she wants. Keeping the £180 in the bank may look nice to your accountant, but it won’t help you get laid.
If you’ll excuse the metaphor, it doesn’t look like Stanley Kroenke wants to get laid. He just wants the club to keep ticking over while the money pumped into top level football continues to rise. Thus the value of his asset steadily increases, aiding the sensible, gradual expansion of his financial empire.
A tougher question concerns the manager. I remain convinced that Arsene wants Arsenal to win each game more than us fans do. I’ve seen, in person, what he’s like after a defeat. I feel sorry for his wife, I really do. And yet he appears to be content to keep busting his gut to keep the team in the top four while simultaneously producing annual profits from the transfer market – all at the expense of seriously challenging for the major honours. Why would he do this, so selflessly, for Kroenke?
The only explanation to my mind is that Arsene decided at some point that it would be impossible to compete financially with Abramovich & co. so instead adopted an obdurate obsession with being parsimonious with transfers. Given that all signings are risks, he may be preoccupied with the idea that the larger the fee, the larger the threat to the squad’s long-term wellbeing. As someone once said: Jose Mourinho manages a club like he’s concerned where it’ll be next week; Arsene Wenger manages a club like he’s concerned where it’ll be in 90 years. The £14.5m signing of Andrei Arshavin – generally considered a mistake – has probably cemented his uber-cautious approach. Better, then, to stick to risk-free signings as much as possible. This arguably clashes with the high-risk approach of remunerating some players so generously that we can’t then get rid of them when they fail to perform – yet that’s a question for another day and another blog post.
While we don’t know exactly what happens behind the scenes, the situation seems to be as follows: the club’s majority owner urges fiscal restraint; the team’s manager has become parsimonious in character; the team’s top players are increasingly likely to leave each summer, whether due to their own greed or the club’s ineptitude in tying them to contracts.
The result, alas, is the feeling that the club isn’t really competing for the league anymore. This doesn’t mean that we should lessen our support for the XI players that take to pitch each week – some of them, at least, will be genuinely trying to win every match. But it does explain the frustration felt by many Gooners last night.
Whether ambitious – or not – in our own lives, we look to Arsenal to show some ambition each season. We want them to make us dream, but increasingly the dream is broken by a groundhog day-style awakening where everything is the same as it was last time around.
This isn’t by any means a disaster, but also isn’t great for our morale. After yet another disappointing transfer window, the board’s report again reads: “Must try harder.”