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Player exits haunt Arsenal

Team becoming less relevant as its top talent picks up, leaves

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Something Andre Villas-Boas said in his remarks ahead of today's north London derby caught my attention.

When asked about the pressure Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was under to deliver a first trophy in seven years, the Tottenham Hotspur boss offered that Wenger "might be paying the price" for the lofty expectations he set during his first few years at the club.

Adding that Wenger had come under similar scrutiny last season, Villas-Boas ventured that the 63-year-old "has raised expectations by being a winner in the past and what Arsenal fans expect is seeing trophies and seeing them back where Wenger put them."

Searching for ways to frame Arsenal's descent in relevance is a mean little hobby of mine, and Villas-Boas' explanation is as good as any.

Here's another:

If you compiled a starting XI using players that have left Arsenal over the last four years you'd get a team looking something like this: (4-4-2) Lehman; Eboue, Toure, Callas, Clichy; Nasri, Song, Fabregas, Flamini; Adebayor, Van Persie.

I call it the Arsenal sold-since-2008 XI, and it would probably wax whatever team Wenger was able to cobble together from his current group of Gunners. For a club that looks to contend in the Premier League and Champions League each season, that's a very scary thought. At least it should be.

At the club's AGM late last month, chief executive Ivan Gazidis tried to build a case for Arsenal as a financial force. And he made some good points.

Unlike Manchester United, for example, Arsenal's shareholders have not burdened the club with obscene amounts of debt. And unlike Manchester City, the Gunners are in a far better position to adapt to the new Financial Fair Play regulations, which will phased-in gradually beginning next season.

Beyond all that, the club manages to pay a healthy dividend to the investors who own a piece of it.

That said, the notion that Arsenal Football Club somehow operates on a superior economic model is absurd, and the proof is in the losses -- both on the field and in the dressing room.

Coming into today's showdown with local rivals Tottenham, Arsenal are eighth in the league with just 16 points from 11 rounds -- a total that represents their worst start to a season since Wenger took over in 1996. They're also a whopping 11 points back of a league-leading United side that owes much of its current position to the eight goals scored by Robin van Persie, who joined the Red Devils from Arsenal in the summer.

At the time of his £24 million move, van Persie was the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year, Fans' Player of the Year, FWA Footballer of the Year and had just come off a season in which he bagged an impressive 37 goals in all competitions. Yet, at the peak of his powers, the 29-year-old did what so many of his former teammates had done before him: he left Arsenal.

The exodus will likely continue this summer as Theo Walcott weighs his options, and that's a good thing for me. My sold-since-2008 squad could use another winger.

But, in all seriousness, these annual exits represent something very wrong at Arsenal, something rotten in its core. For it seems that if you're a player of any ability and renown (never mind ambition), the only way you will win anything in your career is if you leave the club. And that's bad business.

Sure, for now the profit margins are good and the dividends healthy. But what about two or three years down the road? Will Arsenal be able to command the same sponsorship revenue -- both domestic and foreign -- and Champions League television money if player exits leave them in mid-table mediocrity?

Obviously not. And when that happens, when the first Champions League berth is missed, irrelevance is only a short fall away.

Yes, profit is as vital in the running of a football club as it is in any other business. But as any Arsenal fan will tell you, the most important investment a club can make -- one that will secure that profit for the long term -- is winning. Twitter @peterssoccer

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 C7

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