It’s that time of year again. The off-season has not begun officially, but Gooners worldwide have already been playing fantasy manager with the Arsenal squad. But putting dream signings aside for the time being, Arsene Wenger has argued that the most important ingredient in the recipe for success is retaining the current squad. After a season that promised so much, I am inclined to agree.
Unfortunately, the joy of playing for arguably Europe’s most attractive football side will never be enough for some, and two of our key players over the last season have been strongly linked to a move to Italy. Alex Hleb and Mathieu Flamini have experienced mixed careers at Arsenal, but have emerged as world class talents over the last twelve months. Their development has inevitably led to some of the world’s biggest clubs attempting to add further impetus to Arsenal’s burgeoning reputation as a feeder club for Europe’s elite.
The ongoing saga of Flamini’s contract negotiations took a worrying development today, as according to the Independent, Flamini has been offered a five year contract worth 4 million Euro’s a year by AC Milan, and will join the Rossoneri on July 1st. Juventus, who had assured Wenger one month ago that they had no plans to sign Flamini, have had a change of heart, but their offer is rumoured to be trumped by Milan’s by 1 million Euro’s.
Flamini has a track record in negotiations that provides little hope. At Marseille, despite verbally agreeing to the club’s long-term contract offer, he signed for Arsenal, leading the Marseille manager José Anigo to state: “This is a beautiful treason. He used me.” But after four years fighting for his position at Arsenal, would he really walk away from a central role in the most exciting young team in Europe to join a crumbling giant that has been long delaying the necessary rebuilding?
Milan’s offer amounts to just over £60,000 a week. Arsenal, meanwhile, are rumoured to be offering closer to £50,000 a week. Flamini has long felt undervalued at Arsenal, and under the new contract offer, will still be earning roughly £25,000 a week less than Cesc Fabregas, who is three years his junior. Flamini deserves a wage on a par with Arsenal’s higher earners. Although he has had only one great season, the consistency, commitment and leadership that he has displayed over the course of this campaign justifies a significant wage increase, not the water-carrier earnings presented by Arsenal. However, this would set a precedent that would seriously disrupt Arsenal’s wage structure, a structure Wenger, with his master’s degree in economics, has great respect for. But compromising this wage structure is a necessary concession. The wage difference between Milan and Arsenal’s offers amounts to just over £500,000 per year. When you bear in mind that the only holding midfielder in the Premiership on a level with Flamini, Javier Mascherano, cost Liverpool £17 million, the wage increase Flamini desires would save us mountains of cash in comparison to the price of a potential replacement. Gareth Barry, who may be on his way out of Villa Park this summer, will demand a transfer fee of up to £15 million, but we all know Wenger is too canny/stingy to pay the exorbitant fees demanded for English players. Milan’s contract also includes a significant signing-on fee, but as Thierry Henry’s final contract at Arsenal was rumoured to include a £5 million pound signing-on fee, surely we could grant Flamini the bonus he deserves.
The alternatives of promoting from within are all flawed. Diaby and Denilson are attack-minded players, who lack the discipline and defensive positioning to replace Flaimini. Alex Song shone on loan at Charlton as a holding midfielder, while he was in the team the team of the tournament at the African Cup of Nations as an attacking midfielder. Wenger, therefore, naturally see’s his future at centre-half. Johann Djourou has claimed that defensive midfield is his best position, but he lacks experience in this role at the top level. Gilberto will likely leave this summer, and the obvious decline in tempo of the teams play has been evident every time he has replaced Flamini. Diarra would have been a perfect replacement, but unfortunately Arsene had to let him go. With the dubious potential of replacements both within the club and outside considered, the importance of Flamini staying is amplified. There is an ongoing debate over the captaincy for next season, and Flamini, with his obvious leadership skills, is my ideal candidate, and awarding him the armband would surely go some way to convincing him to stay.
My sympathy for Flamini’s cause leads me to accept his desire to leave for a contract he deserves, but I hold no such compassion for the plight of Alex Hleb. Flamini could have left last season, but has waited for his chance and shone when he received it. In Hleb’s case, however, we have been the ones waiting, with the Belarusian needing two seasons to demonstrate his influence on the team. And in return for our patience, Hleb goes on a date with Inter at the first sniff of gelato. Arsenal haven’t won anything in 3 tears, and if Hleb isn’t happy that he hasn’t kissed a trophy in his entire career at Arsenal, perhaps he should look a bit more closely at his own performances before this season . This has been the first season in which he has truly shone at the club, and his form has dropped alarmingly since January. At over £10 million, Hleb did not come cheap, and he has scored a rather pitiful 7 goals in 89 games for Arsenal, but Inter’s interest suggests that Arsenal are not the only club that could embrace an attacking midfielder who refuses to shoot.
Hleb seems more likely to stay than Flamini, but if he does go, I would love to see Arsene break the bank for the Bundesliga’s reigning player of the year, Diego, a playmaker who scores goals, and is a joy to watch, but seems set on a move to Spain. Ideally, both can be convinced to stay. If two of the foundations for our achievements this season are removed, the whole structure could collapse. Arsenal are in the midst of building something very special, but all our progress could be dismantled if the board refuses to compete financially with the established hierarchy or European football.