In 2011, midfielder Samir Nasri left Arsenal to join Manchester City, insisting he wanted to play for a club capable of winning major trophies. Outraged Arsenal fans accused Nasri of selling out, and when City visited The Emirates in November, the home crowd booed Nasri mercilessly. Months later, after City clinched the Premier League title on the final day of the season, Nasri fired back at his critics. “I hope they are watching me now,” he said. “They should celebrate their third-place achievement, and I will focus on winning titles.”
Arsenal has not won the Premier League since 2004, when Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry led the team to an unbeaten campaign. Indeed, before defeating Hull in the 2014 FA Cup final, Arsenal had gone nine seasons without winning a single tournament. Over the years, the club’s long dry spell became a social media touchstone, the easy 140-character punch line to a joke that never seemed to get old. One popular website invited fans to tweet about everything they had accomplished in their personal lives since Arsenal last claimed silverware. Special 1 TV, the satirical talk show hosted by a Jose Mourinho puppet, dedicated numerous episodes to the travails of Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger. When Arsenal finally broke the streak, the real Mourinho, who once called Wenger “a specialist in failure,” responded with his signature brand of sarcastic condescension: “In the last nine years, Arsenal won an FA Cup. That is nice for them.”
Arsenal’s trophy-less run was not just a lesson in sustained athletic humiliation. It was also a graphic demonstration of the changing economics of English soccer. The taunts flying across Twitter, however trivial they seemed, were indications of a profound power shift. The influx of billionaire owners to the Premier League has elevated clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, underperforming minnows for much of their histories, to awesome new heights, often at the expense of less wealthy competitors. Indeed, City’s newfound ability to poach star players has fundamentally destabilized Arsenal’s on-field development: Since 2009, Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure and Bacary Sagna have all left Arsenal for the stadium formerly known as Eastlands. Earlier this month, City was rumored to be monitoring Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere.
It’s no coincidence that Arsenal stopped winning league titles just as Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge, desperate to fill his luxury yacht with silverware. The strategic innovations that Wenger pioneered in the late 90’s – nutritional guidelines, adventurous tactics, sophisticated youth programs – had been widely adopted. And over the last decade, Wenger has failed to outthink the rival teams that now regularly outspend him in the transfer market.
But this summer, after years of frustrating setbacks, Arsenal is finally showing signs of a timely resurgence. Yesterday, Wenger announced the purchase of Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, whose experience and consistency should help ameliorate the team’s longstanding defensive vulnerabilities. Arsenal’s best attacking players – Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain – are tied to long-term contracts. There will be no mass exodus this summer, no months-long tug-of-war with Barcelona. Moreover, at the end of last season, 24-year-old Frenchman Francis Coquelin began to establish himself as the hard-tackling defensive midfielder Arsenal has needed for years. In May, with Coquelin running midfield, Arsenal beat Aston Villa 4-0 at Wembley to win its second consecutive FA Cup.
Wenger still has plenty of work to do before the season kicks off in early August. He needs to sign a top-level center back to cover for the talented but injury-prone Laurent Koscielny. And Wenger has never really replaced the goal-scoring prowess of Robin van Persie, who left for Manchester United in 2012. Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema has been linked to Arsenal, along with every other French player on the planet. It will be interesting to see whether Wenger, whose old reluctance to pursue big names has clearly faded, launches a concerted bid for Benzema’s signature.
Arsenal’s possible revival is good news for the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement seemed to mark the collapse of English soccer’s final bulwark against total domination by super-rich powerhouses with shady owners. Liverpool is busy rebuilding its squad after a disappointing campaign, and Manchester United is still about half a dozen signings and at least one more “season of transition” away from a legitimate title bid. Arsenal probably won’t win the league next year. But a serious challenge to the City-Chelsea duopoly could help reverse, or at least postpone, the league’s financial stratification.
And whatever Samir Nasri might think, that would be an achievement worth celebrating.