Arsenal Can’t Avoid Collapse, or Paying Its Stars

Theo Walcott, middle, scoring Arsenal’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Manchester City on Sunday. Credit Carl Recine/Reuters

MANCHESTER, England — It is late in coming, but it has at last arrived.

According to Premier League lore, there is one month more than any other in which Arsenal is likely to collapse. Now, just when it seemed that this year might be the exception, the team is experiencing its traditional November implosion in mid-December.

“We have had a horrible week,” Manager Arsène Wenger said. “Absolutely horrible.”

That is no exaggeration. At midday Dec. 11, Arsenal sat proudly atop the Premier League. Seven days and two defeats later, Wenger’s team was in fourth, trailing the runaway leader, Chelsea, by 9 points.

Those bare numbers are bad enough; worse still, as Wenger acknowledged, was the manner of the collapse. At Everton on Tuesday evening, Arsenal was coasting, sailing serenely to victory, all the way up to the point that it dashed itself against the rocks.

An early lead provided no protection. “We did not look like we could lose the game,” Wenger said. Arsenal, though, can always be relied upon to find a way.

There are mitigating circumstances, of course. After a 2-1 loss to Manchester City at Etihad Stadium on Sunday, Wenger pointed to the contentious nature of Manchester City’s goals, either of which could have been negated by an offside call. He also cited Arsenal’s arduous recent schedule to explain why his players seemed to wilt “physically and maybe mentally.”

“We have played four out of five games away from home,” he said. “We played in Basel, against Stoke City, then played on Tuesday at Everton, so we had one day less recovery than everyone else. There are plenty of big teams who are not in Europe who could have played on Tuesday, and we could have played on Wednesday. I believe it is the accumulation of games away from home.”

Raheem Sterling, middle right, scoring the go-ahead goal for Manchester City in the 71st minute against Arsenal. Credit Dave Thompson/Associated Press

It is not exactly cast-iron logic — Arsenal might have had only three days between appointments with Stoke and Everton, but that does not adequately explain any fatigue the team had at Manchester, after a five-day rest — and it is not likely to hold much water with Arsenal’s supporters. This sudden sinking feeling is far too familiar for that.

Arsenal may have held out for longer than normal, but that does not disguise the fact that it is happening again: a genuine title challenge downgraded from realistic ambition to fanciful aspiration; that cocktail of frustration and despair rising in the belly; the sense of the season, so recently so rich in promise, fluttering from the club’s grasp.

The outlook would be gloomy enough if that were the only cloud on Wenger’s horizon, but the storm front is broader still.

Sunday’s game was not, it is safe to say, one in which either of Arsenal’s crown jewels did a vast amount to justify his demand for a salary increase. One of them, Alexis Sánchez, created a Theo Walcott goal with a flash of inspiration and buzzed around with his usual intent but struggled to make much of an impact as City seized control. The other, Mesut Ozil, was little more than a peripheral presence, a mere observer of the proceedings for great stretches of the game.

Each was overshadowed by his opposite number: Kevin De Bruyne, City’s most dynamic figure, always bristling with ingenuity, and David Silva, as impudent and imaginative as Ozil was plodding and pedestrian.

While neither Sánchez nor Ozil will instruct his agent to use highlights from this game as part of his negotiating strategy, it would be a knee-jerk reaction in the extreme to suggest that the match provided a compelling case for Arsenal to hold its nerve and deny its stars the wages they believe they warrant. After all, it could just as easily be said that this serves as proof that it is only when one of them slips into gear that Arsenal does the same.

Certainly, if Arsenal ever wants to escape this seemingly inexorable existence on the fringes of success, the club must do all it can to retain both, for the performance they provide and for the intent they symbolize.

Each has 18 months to go on his existing deal. Both players — conveniently for their representatives — are apparently desired by clubs in the cash-soaked Chinese Super League. Each is said to be demanding double his current contractual pay to keep him from walking away.

It is always difficult to sympathize with athletes asking for more money. Ozil, after all, is already Arsenal’s highest-paid player, earning 140,000 pounds ($175,000) per week. Sánchez is just behind him, at £130,000 per week. Neither is exactly on the bread line.

Soccer salaries at the elite level, though, are only rarely about pounds and pence. They are, essentially, about respect. Players want to know how much their clubs value them — what they are worth in relation to their peers.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, that suggests that Ozil and Sánchez are in line for a sizable increase. Both are among the 15 highest-paid players in England, but Sánchez, for example, earns only half what Wayne Rooney does at Manchester United — in return for what many would suggest is about twice the effect. Ozil, too, is well short of the £290,000 picked up every seven days by another of Manchester United’s pricey stars, Paul Pogba.

Thanks to the Premier League’s new television deal, the sums being paid to Sánchez and Ozil — and a clutch of others who signed contracts before that £5.134 billion arrangement was announced — are now a little on the low side, compared with what others receive. It is hard to conceive it, given their wealth, but both are now underpaid, given how the market has shifted.

Arsenal will, ultimately, have to accept and reflect that, if that sinking feeling is ever to be lifted.

Source: NYTimes