Today, English club Arsenal are playing Turkish side Fenerbahçe in the first leg of the Champions League playoff round. The match comes four short days after the Gunners were beaten handily at home by Aston Villa, 3-1, in the first match of this Premier League season. And now, chaos.
Media outlets have stopped asking questions, and instead are just laughing at the rich club's sheer inability to improve themselves so far in the transfer window. Since the Saturday loss, Arsenal have been linked to a whole new set of B-listers to bulk up the alarmingly thin squad, and of course, none have arrived at the Emirates yet. Despairing fans are mutinying. Hated rivals Tottenham Hotspur won't stop buying really, really good players. All but the most devout Arsène Wenger supporters are calling for the legendary manager's head, not to mention the resignation letters of the team's entire board. The only thing that could stave off the anger and the fear is a win today. Today's match in Turkey is the most important since Arsenal's 2011 playoff tie against Italian side Udinese, because it'll be a direct indicator of where Arsenal are as a club now, and what the future holds.
This summer is a lot like 2011. Two years ago, if you'll remember, Gunners sold left back Gaël Clichy and star midfielder Samir Nasri to Manchester City, and club captain Cesc Fàbregas to FC Barcelona. Fàbregas would win his first trophy three days later; Clichy and Nasri would go on to win the Premier League title on the final day of the season. We didn't know that yet, though. All everyone knew was that Arsenal's board and manager thoroughly and inarguably fucked their club and its supporters.
A club's main objective is to win titles. With only a handful of titles to go around every year, though, few teams win. If a club doesn't win, the next most important thing it can do is try to win. When Arsenal sold its captain, as well as a starter and one of its brightest talents to a league rival without bringing any replacements in, Arsenal betrayed its remaining players and fans. They weren't being outcompeted. They refused to compete. Everyone thought the sales meant that the Arsenal that everyone knew, the Arsenal that was one of the best clubs in England, was dead.
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They weren't. They beat Udinese over two legs, and at the transfer window deadline, were able to sign Everton midfielder Mikel Arteta, Werder Bremen center back Per Mertesacker, and a bunch of scrubs. It was enough, and Arsenal finished the season third behind City and Manchester United, 19 points off the title and, more importantly, one point above Spurs.
But... that was a fluky year. Chelsea, who are better than Arsenal every year, somehow finished sixth, and only qualified for the Champions League the next year because they, mystifyingly, won the tournament. Liverpool were hanging out somewhere in the middle of the table. This year, though, Arsenal don't look to have that same advantage.
Chelsea are stacked again. Spurs, who finished one point behind Arsenal last year, are investing nine digits into strengthening their squad for. Liverpool are (kind of? maybe?) having a bit of a resurgence. The title race this year is going to be hectic, and the top of the table will be a clusterfuck, and so far Arsenal have sold or released over 20 players, yet haven't spent a single cent on improving the squad. This looks like the end. As in 2011 (and 2012), the Gunners already have no shot of winning the Premier League. The only chance the Gunners have to remain a relevant power is to add players. And the only way to do that is to beat Fenerbahçe.
Arsenal were unprepared for the transfer window. Now they have no depth. They're undersized, inexperienced in positions, and vastly overmatched by the best teams in the country and on the continent. Since selling Robin van Persie to Manchester United last season, they lack a top-tier player to attract other team's stars. Due to years of mismanagement and failure to compete in the offseason, the only thing they have going for them is the promise of Champions League qualification. Though they have less than no shot of winning the tournament, participation is still a big deal. It brings in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. It adds prestige. For Arsenal, mere participation in the group stage of the greatest club tournament in the world shows everyone that they're still worth a damn, even though they aren't.
But they have to win. As usual, they've left their transfer dealings to the last minute. Whether they win or lose, Arsenal will have to pursue and overpay for players to keep place with United, City, Chelsea, Spurs, and even Liverpool. But only with a win can they offer their transfer targets hope.
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