Jack: Free-spending Spurs firmly in Wenger's sight

Kristian Jack
8/30/2013 11:13:58 AM
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Alain Prost is known as one of the finest drivers to ever race a Formula One car.

The meticulous Frenchman not only won four world titles during his career but became known as 'the Professor' for his intelligence inside the cockpit.

The man who once said 'you can't always have the best team, it's about compromise' was the master at knowing just how much he could get out of his car, no matter how good or bad it was.

If he had the team to win, which he had very often at his time at McLaren, and his final year at Williams, Prost excelled, but he was almost equally as impressive when he didn't have the car to win, finishing a race in the best position possible, while many of his opponents made mistakes trying to turn their car into something it wasn't.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has more than just his passport in common with Prost. One of the most deep-thinking men in the game today, the 63-year-old has had to alter his ambitions for his club in recent years, guiding them to finishes, once thought as failures, that now he believes are successes.

Wenger's team, who this week qualified for the group stages of the Champions League for a 16th straight season, have enjoyed many a Premier League race at the front, but in recent years have fallen back, not coming close to glory in each of the last eight years.

In five of those campaigns the Gunners finished fourth, a position not too long ago that would have been seen as adequate, but far from acceptable for a big club like Arsenal.

However, since UEFA changed the rules for 2001-02 season, to finish fourth now means you get a spot in the following year's Champions League. For the first four seasons, following the change, Arsenal didn't need the extra spot awarded to such a position, as they raced ahead of the pack, finishing either 1st or 2nd in each of those seasons. Since finishing second to Jose Mourinho's 04-05 Chelsea pacesetters, though, Arsenal have finished fourth five times in the last eight years.

This has led those at the very top to accept mediocrity at The Emirates, simply because of UEFA's insistence on rewarding a lucrative spot to a position that hasn't come close to domestic glory.

Wenger sees it quite differently. Despite not coming close to winning a league title in eight years, where many Arsenal fans, quite rightly, believe they should be competing, fourth spot is a position the manager believes is an accomplishment.

"For me there are five trophies every season: Premier League, Champions League, the third is to qualify for the Champions League," Wenger said in a shareholders meeting back in 2012. "The fourth is the FA Cup and then the League Cup."

In Wenger's world, with 16 straight appearances in Europe's elite competition, all should be right at Arsenal, but it clearly isn't as he stands at a crossroads with the club's fan base surrounding their level of ambitions.

Told in June, by chief executive Ivan Gazidis, that the club will have a large escalation in financial firepower to attract big players, the fans finally thought the club's conservative approach in the market would end this year, yet with hours to go before Monday's deadline, there has still been no significant signings in this transfer window.
Fans and media alike have been left bamboozled by Wenger's nonchalant approach to potential transfers, accusing him of aiming high for unrealistic targets and turning down chances to get good, yet perhaps not great, players to come in and improve their squad.

Wenger gives little away towards his thought process towards the transfer market and potential targets but it is worth noting that he clearly thinks more of his current players than most – he did after all bring them to the club – and secondly, perhaps more crucially, Wenger will be aware just how big the gulf is between his team and the three super powers above him. Both these elements will be enough to bring doubt into his mind when assessing whether or not a potential new signing would improve his team.

In the last eight years,  Arsenal has finished behind Manchester United, after 38 games, every season and it's not been close. From 2005-2006 to 2012-13, the Old Trafford side have scored an incredible 116 points more than their rivals, an average of 14.5pts more per season. Only once during that span has the gap between the sides been less than 10pts by the end of the season.

Similarly, the race between Arsenal and Chelsea has been very uncompetitive, with the Blues finishing above their London rivals seven out of the last eight times, outscoring them by 62pts, an average of 7.75pts per season.

With the help of significant more horsepower, Manchester City have overtaken Arsenal in the last three years, finishing higher each season and outscoring them by 27pts, an average of 9pts per season.

It is clear the big three have left Arsenal in their dust and once again this season the Gunners have started the race to be 2013-14 Premier League champions in 4th place on the grid.

However, the line between success and failure, even in Wenger's judgment of how success is achieved, is a thin one for Arsenal and anything lower than 4th again this term would be a major disappointment and setback for the club.

That makes this Sunday's North London derby with rivals Tottenham even more interesting. Happening on the final day before the transfer window closes, the match gives Wenger, and his injury-hit squad, an opportunity to test his players out against the team most likely to threaten their monopoly on a top four spot.

With Arsenal idle in the market, Tottenham have been the opposite, turning this transfer window into an exciting period in the club's history, despite the imminent loss of their best player. Many of their new signings could have quite easily have been bought by Arsenal, who could have competed with their wages and offered them the chance to play in the Champions League.

They could have also spurred Arsenal into improving their squad to counter the improved threat their closest rivals have made. Yet, Wenger did neither. Aware he cannot compete with the top three in the league, Wenger, for now, has settled on the same group as last season to once again win the 4th place 'trophy'.

The last time these teams met, at White Hart Lane in March, Arsenal lost 2-1 and fell four points back of fourth place Spurs with ten games to play.

Tottenham dropped significant points during that run-in, which ultimately prompted Andre Villas-Boas and technical director, Franco Baldini, into finding major improvements this summer to attempt to improve on the 72 point tally of last season.

"We need to get to a point where we are qualifying for the Champions League regularly, that's our aim," Villas-Boas said last week.

Arsenal, who is already at that stage, will not give Spurs any kind of warm welcome on Sunday but their fans should privately be welcoming the new threat their neighbours are providing.

 In the last two seasons Spurs have opened the scoring at The Emirates but have gone on to lose 5-2, remarkably, in both years.
A similar scoreline on Sunday might just be the last thing Arsenal needs. Wenger has spent too much time lately being comfortable with the three teams ahead lapping his club, while sitting safely in behind them. Arsenal fans need a team to make a bold move up the inside heading into a fast corner. If Tottenham do that as early as Sunday it might just force Wenger into being more aggressive on the final day of the transfer window.

Join Luke Wileman, Jason DeVos and myself live this weekend for more Barclays Premier League action. On Saturday we will be live on TSN at 9:30am ahead of West Ham vs Stoke before we host Arsenal vs Tottenham on Sunday at 10:30am on TSN2. See you then.

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