Arsenal: Close But Just Not Quite. Again.

With the trophy monkey finally off their back, there is little doubt that Arsenal have improved once more. Still not enough to beat the financially-doped top two though...

Last Updated: 14/08/14 at 11:09 Post Comment

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LAST SEASON
Premier League
4th, 79pts, 27 GD Champions League Last 16 FA Cup Winners League Cup Fourth round Top league scorer Olivier Giroud 16 Bookings 53 (18th) with four red cards

Manager Arsene Wenger (since September 1996; age 64) Odds on being first out of his job 33-1 (15th=)

Players in Alexis Sanchez (Barcelona, £30m), Calum Chambers (Southampton, rising from £11m), Mathieu Debuchy (Newcastle, £12m), David Ospina (Nice, £3m), Elias Chatzitheodoridis (Mas Kallitheakos, undisc), Hugo Keto (HJK Helsinki, undisc), Ben Sheaf (West Ham, undisc), Georgios Spanoudakis (Barcelona, undisc), A Trophy Polisher (name and fee undisclosed)

Players out Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona, £15m), Bacary Sagna (Manchester City), Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea), Johan Djourou (Hamburg, £2.5m, from loan), Wellington Silva (Almeria, Loan), Carl Jenkinson (West Ham, loan), Benik Afobe (MK Dons, loan), Nicklas Bendtner, Chu-Young Park (both released)

Club turnover in 2012-13 £283m, 2nd

Wage bill in 2012-13 £154m, 4th

Finally, Arsene Wenger wins some more silverware; no longer will that 2005 FA Cup final be repeatedly cited, after May's dramatic win against Hull. So here's the new statistic with which to beat the Arsenal manager: it is 10 years and counting since they won the Premier League title. Can that sequence end?

Wenger has spent heavily this summer, and with Alexis Sanchez has the kind of major signing supporters always crave, a year after Mesut Ozil, the one man who has cost the Gunners more. Had Arsenal been signing players at that level for the past few years then the balance sheet would not look so healthy - look at the £129m gap between income and wages in 2012-13 - but on the pitch and in the stands everything would surely have been rosier.

Ozil did fade in his first Premier League season but there is a bizarre desire out there to denigrate the Germany midfielder, a belief that because he did not carry all before him that his transfer was a failure. The absurdity reached its zenith with the Mail Online article after the World Cup semi-final headlined "Mesut Ozil barely registers an important kick as Germany destroy hosts Brazil 7-1 in World Cup semi-final", which was quickly deleted but screamed "Agenda! Agenda!" in its short life.

The presence of Ozil will help Sanchez. The arrival of Sanchez will help Ozil. At the moment that is a virtuous one-two; what Arsenal need if they are to challenge for the title is at least a virtuous triangle, or quadrilateral, or pentagon. But a one-two will help.

The fundamental problem for Arsenal remains the same as it has since 2004: that they have been consistently outspent by rivals who either generate bucketloads of money (Manchester United) constrained only by the debts of their owners, or have owners with bucketloads of money (Manchester City and Chelsea). It is not simply about transfers but wages, too. In 2012-13, Arsenal were a distant second to Manchester United in income (£283m to £363m) but ahead of Manchester City and Chelsea; the blue two were well ahead on wages, though. Throw in Liverpool punching above their weight after years of doing the opposite and Everton's outlying shrewdness and you had a hostile environment in 2013-14, assuaged only by David Moyes's fumbles.

Financial fair play should help Arsenal, as Wenger has long hoped. His sniping at Manchester City over Bacary Sagna and especially the transatlantic loan deal for Frank Lampard shows that he is anxious for the policy to bear fruit. But at best FFP will narrow City's advantage, not wipe it out, and Sunday's Arsenal win in the Community Shield is unlikely to be a portent of the season to come.

The loss of Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen - even at an eyebrow-raising £15m for the latter and after only 14 league games last season - deprives Wenger of considerable defensive experience. The arrival of Mathieu Debuchy offsets that but, while Calum Chambers brings plenty of promise, one wonders how a 19-year-old with 22 Premier League appearances will cope with the burden of the £11m plus add-ons fee and the pressure of the spotlight. Not instantly, seems a sensible guess.

Of course besides the Premier League trophy, there is one other cup that Wenger would love to land, that could send him into retirement happy. The Champions League play-off draw was fairly kind, Besiktas being one of the weakest two sides Arsenal could have faced, alongside FC Copenhagen. Last year another Turkish team, Fenerbahce, were brushed aside with ease. Still, next Tuesday's first leg in Istanbul will be a slightly nervy affair and these games are a distraction from the start of the Premier League too.

Arsenal kick off at home to Crystal Palace at Saturday teatime and there should be no repeat of last year's embarrassment by Aston Villa - though we should remember how inaccurate an augur that was of how the two clubs' seasons panned out. The trip to Everton, between the two Champions League play-off legs, is of an altogether different order: the 3-0 defeat in April's corresponding game threatened to leave Arsenal out of the top four. This is another Saturday 5.30pm game, followed by an easier 4pm Sunday date at Leicester.

September begins with something of a grudge match, with Sagna returning to the Emirates with Manchester City, before a trip to Aston Villa. September closes with the home derby against Spurs, meaning Arsenal face three other members of the top sextet in the first six games. We should quickly get an idea of where Arsenal stand. And where, at a guess, will that be?

Victory in the final five league games after that Everton defeat, accompanied by the FA Cup win, spread smiles across the red part of north London in the end. But there was a run of two wins in a nine games, including the 5-1 and 6-0 demolitions at Liverpool and Chelsea, coinciding with Bayern Munich delivering the European coup de grace. The FA Cup winning run featured victories against three of the top six but Spurs, Liverpool and Everton all had to travel to the Emirates.

The table was remarkably tight at the top last season; reaching 79 points and finishing fourth tells the tale of the dominance of the leading sides over everyone from eighth down. Yet while Sanchez adds to Arsenal's strength, all their rivals have invested too. Liverpool may not cope with the loss of Suarez and having to bed in so many new players but it is hard to see Arsenal getting past the financially doped two.

This time next year it will be 11 years and counting since Arsenal won the Premier League.

Philip Cornwall

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