Once-proud Arsenal is a club in crisis
Arsenal against Tottenham Hotspur is one of the most impassioned rivalries in soccer, dating to 1887.
But the implications of Sunday’s derby — it will be televised live by FOX Soccer at 11 a.m. ET and tape delayed on FOX later Sunday (check local listings) — stretch far beyond bragging rights for two sets of fans who live among each other, not always so harmoniously, in North London.
To use an American analogy, it’s the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox, only that the traditional roles have been reversed and at stake might be not just this season but next, too.
While an American pro sports team can finish at the bottom of the league with impunity, secure in the knowledge that there’s always next year (see: Kansas City Royals), there’s no such safety net at the highest echelons of soccer.
After each season, the bottom teams — in England, it’s the bottom three — are relegated to a lower division and need to earn promotion back to the big leagues the next season.
Some of them never make it back.
It’s hard to imagine the Red Sox or the Yankees finishing last in the American League East and suddenly finding themselves scouting the Toledo Mud Hens in Triple-A, but the equivalent could happen in the Premier League.
A few months ago, however, it would’ve been impossible to imagine such a fate befalling Arsenal.
The Gunners have been crowned English champions 13 times in their proud history and over the past decade consistently have been one of the best teams in not just the Premiership, but in all of Europe.
Now, however, Arsenal is a club in crisis.
The Gunners already have lost three times in this fledgling season, including a humiliating 8-2 pasting at the hands of Manchester United.
Another loss at Tottenham not only makes it unlikely that they’ll finish inside the top four — and thus earn a place in the lucrative Champions League for next season — but would entrench the Gunners at the wrong end of the table.
It’s too early to talk about relegation battles, but it’s certainly true that the Gunners will make the short trip to White Hart Lane — Tottenham’s stadium, only four miles away — looking very much like the Red Sox team that fell apart in September.
Why it’s all gone pear-shaped for Arsenal and its professorial manager — Frenchman Arsene Wenger, regarded as one of the sharpest minds in the game — is at the center of debates throughout the soccer world.
Some think he’s become stale, others believe his hubris is to blame.
In the 15 years since Arsenal plucked Wenger out of the relative obscurity of the Japanese league, he’s run the club his way, and with great success.
But the game has changed over the past few years, and he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge its new economics.
Even though Arsenal’s two biggest shareholders, American Stan Kroenke and Russian Alisher Usmanov, are billionaires, the club isn’t run as an indulgence; it’s expected to make financial sense.
The problem is that soccer no longer makes financial sense when, for instance, the sheikhs who bought Manchester City can throw vast amounts of petrodollars at any player they might fancy.
Wenger, who refuses to overpay for players, is constantly outbid for talent and, to boot, was forced to sell one of his creative playmakers, Samir Nasri, when Manchester City offered to almost double his wages.
Arsenal also lost its captain, the exquisite Cesc Fabregas, who finally got his wish to return to the club of his youth, Barcelona.
And the exodus may not end there as current captain, Dutchman Robin van Persie, has refused to sign a long-term deal with an obvious eye to the riches that lie elsewhere.
But where Arsenal has suffered most is that Wenger hasn’t brought in the right players.
He loves to buy poets, but soccer teams need to be a balance of artists and rottweilers.
His last great team, the 2004 “Invincibles” that went through the season undefeated, had the right blend of technically brilliant players and hard men, especially in defense.
Now, Arsenal’s defense is a liability. No lead is safe for the team’s shaky back four, as the Gunners proved at Blackburn three weeks ago when they dominated the game and yet lost 4-3 to a vastly inferior team.
Before the transfer window closed in August, Wenger hurriedly made last-minute buys to try and plug leaks — principally buying the tall German national team defender, Per Mertesacker — but the jury is very much out on how effective the new signings will prove.
Tottenham, meanwhile, is heading in the opposite direction. Long in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbors, Spurs are the deserved favorites heading into Sunday’s game.
Under the watchful eye of wily manager Harry Redknapp, Tottenham has turned into a genuine contender for one of England’s four Champions League berths.
Spurs were humbled by both Manchester clubs in their opening two games of the season but have rebounded with three straight wins, including a 4-0 dismantling of Liverpool.
The recent pickup of West Ham’s defensive midfielder Scott Parker has solidified the midfield, giving more freedom to attacking players such as Rafael van der Vaart, Luka Modric and the explosive Gareth Bale, while acquiring ex-Arsenal forward Emmanuel Adebayor has given Tottenham a world-class front man.
In Wenger’s 15 years in charge at Arsenal, Spurs — who have won two of their past three meetings with the Gunners — never have finished above their rivals in the Premiership.
If Arsenal doesn’t find a way to get something out of Sunday’s game, that record will be very much in danger.