It has begun.
For the past few days Arsenal fans have been reading stories linking a number of first-team players with moves away from the club. Yesterday, Gael Clichy became the first card to fall when he joined Manchester City in a deal valued at around £7m.
It’s a funny one really. Clichy is one of those players I’ve never really imagined leaving the club. I guess it’s because he broke in to the first-team squad so young, and is in some respect synonymous with Arsene’s reign, straddling both the Invincibles era and the current crop. It’s a bit like when Kolo Toure left – they’re players I imagined growing old at Arsenal, instead moved on to pastures new. And both have ended up at Manchester City. Coincidence? Probably not – they’re good friends, and a few quid doesn’t half soften the blow of leaving the club you love.
I remember when I first saw Clichy play as a seventeen year old triallist at Barnet. I couldn’t believe his speed and the similarities with our first-team left-back with the time: Ashley Cole. After some injury plagued early years, Arsene Wenger eventually saw fit to choose Clichy as Cole’s successor, with mixed results. Whilst Clichy undoubtedly gave everything and was occasionally a driving force from left-back, he was also prone to high profile lapses of concentration – never more so than last season.
With his contract a year from expiry and the player seemingly seeking a new challenge, we had little choice but to sell. There are, it seems, no hard feelings on Arsene’s part:
“We would like to thank Gael for eight years of terrific service to Arsenal, during which time he gave absolutely everything for the Club. He has grown and developed so much since joining us in 2003, and has been a crucial part of the team over recent seasons. Gael leaves with our respect and best wishes. We wish him the very best for his future career.”
Whilst Gael said:
“I have had eight fantastic years at Arsenal and made many friends. I have so many great memories from my time at Highbury and Emirates Stadium. I would like to say thank you to everyone at Arsenal for all of their support and friendship. I also want to send a big thank you to all the Arsenal supporters, who have always been so good to me.”
Arsene now has to decide whether to buy in an experienced replacement, or instead try to repeat the succession trick he pulled with Cole/Clichy with Kieran Gibbs. It’ll certainly appeal to the economist in him, and he might come out with a few quotes about how buying a left-back could “kill” Gibbs’ career. The problem is that Gibbs is so injury prone that he’s as likely to “kill” himself in a freak shaving incident.
Armand Traore is seeking a move, so we can’t possibly go in to next season with just one specialist left-back. Some have suggested moving Thomas Vermaelen across, but there seems to me little logic in displacing your best centre-back.
I think he has to buy. Both Leighton Baines and Jose Enrique have been mentioned, and both seem like sensible purchases: good going forwards and backwards, with Premier League experience. Wait and see, I suppose.
Any kind of signing strategy will be dependent on what happens to Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. Reading the papers today, the press discuss their departure as an inevitability. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as that, but there is a common thread between Clichy, Nasri and Cesc that worries me: Darren Dein. The son of former Arsenal vice-chairman David, Darren is working as a representative for all the mentioned players in their negotiations with our club and others. Worryingly, he’s also recently begun acting on behalf Robin van Persie. He’s the man who took Thierry Henry to Barcelona, and if he can repeat the trick with Cesc this summer he’ll pocket himself more than a few bob.
For so many stars at a club of our stature to want away speaks volumes. As the back end of last season showed, something is deeply wrong. Even those outside the club can see it.
Some reports say that the captain will meet Arsene Wenger today, and restate his desire to leave. Nasri is expected do the same when he returns to Colney on Thursday.
For now, we wait. Wait to see if Cesc and Nasri get the moves they want, and if Arsene responds accordingly. If they do go, this exodus will come to represent two things: the failure of an idealistic but ultimately flawed project, and the potential start of a new era for the club. One in which results takes precedence over prettiness and penny-pinching.
For now, though, we just wait.