Pre-season optimism is already starting to make way for the familiar sense of discontent at Arsenal

The off-season is a surreal and odd period for football fans irrespective of who you support, but it seems especially tough on those of us who support Arsenal. When the previous campaign ends it’s a liberating feeling to have some time off from following your team, as nine months and fifty or so games of passionately celebrating every triumph and mourning every loss takes a certain emotional toll. The chance to switch off and forget about it all for a few months at first feels like an incredibly welcome opportunity. All of that considered, however, as absence makes the heart grow fonder, and even with some international football and a bit of tennis to distract you for a while, it doesn’t take long before you’re endlessly scrolling through Twitter looking for the juiciest new transfer rumours. You find yourself listening to old episodes of the Arsecast as Mr. Arseblog himself has had the nerve to bugger off on holiday for two weeks. You go and Wikipedia and start reading about Yoann Gourcuff and wonder why he never did sign for Arsenal. When things get really bad, you religiously check out Instagram to see what Calum Chambers and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are up to on their holiday in Ibiza, meaning at this point you are basically the footballing equivalent of a drunken tramp picking through used cigarette butts in the streets in search of a quick fix. There’s no doubting that the withdrawal symptoms are potent, but thankfully mid-July rolls around pretty quickly and before long Arsenal.com is updated with exclusive photos of the players who aren’t good enough for international football running around at London Colney. Finally, we’re back.

The dizzying few weeks without Arsenal in your life makes the reintroduction something of a strange but euphoric experience, and with the final days of last season now feeling like a distant memory, the upcoming game between what is essentially the Arsenal B-team and a second tier French side you’re not sure how to pronounce nonetheless feels incredibly exciting. Mesut Ozil might well be on holiday, Alexis Sanchez’s leg is still wrapped in a cast and there’s still no word on Takuma Asano’s work permit yet either, but it’s still an Arsenal game, right? No new signings, sure, but there’s a brand-spanking new Puma kit on show – I hear they’ve added 24% more white to the sleeves this season! – and hey, perhaps Yaya Sanogo has returned from his loan spell at Charlton with a case of Coquelinitis that will undoubtedly release the inner Thierry Henry in him next season. This is where it all begins, you start to think. When through tear-sodden eyes you’re watching Per Mertesacker defiantly lift the Premier League trophy over his comically large frame next May, you’ll think back to this hard-earned 1-1 draw with RC Lens and see it as the genesis to the greatest season of your Arsenal supporting life. After two months without club football to obsess over,these are the sorts of thoughts that begin to permeate your consciousness, but as the endorphins that come from watching Arsenal for the first time in months begin to subside, the significantly less fun reality begins to come into focus.

In seasons gone by this feeling of excitement would last a lot longer, even into the first few weeks of the season in some cases, but in recent years as an Arsenal fan, the optimism soon gives way to a more objective analysis that actually, perhaps, this won’t be the year that all of your dreams come true. To get real for a moment, it appears today that as in many recent summers, Arsenal seem to be slowly losing the war before the starting gun of the first battle has even been fired. Any optimism you feel at this point seems to simply be because no actual football has been played yet, and you start to realise that maybe you’re just fooling yourself that things will be different this time around. It was telling that last summer, after winning every game and wrapping up every pre-season competition they entered – including an incredibly cathartic victory over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Wembley in the Community Shield – Arsenal still went on to defy conventional wisdom and limp to a pitiful 2-0 home defeat to West Ham on the opening day of the Premier League season. A second consecutive FA Cup victory in May had allowed for a great deal of good will to steadily build over the course of the summer, yet all of it was gone in 90 painful minutes. As it did in 2013 when Aston Villa won 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium on the first day of the new season, the defeat to West Ham saw all of those who had expressed concerns over the lack of transfer activity sound an awful lot louder. When the transfer window slammed shut two weeks later, with no outfield players signed whatsoever, they were deafening.

Granit Xhaka’s arrival alone will not be enough to placate restless fans.

One of the worst things about Arsenal’s inaction last summer was that the same thing had happened in 2013 and no lessons appear to have been learned, and to the dismay of many, the early signs are that we are witnessing it happen this window too. Whilst the early and decisive acquisition of Granit Xhaka calmed the fears of many concerned fans and gave encouragement that perhaps it would all be different this time around, it has been two months now since his transfer was confirmed and, one unknown J-League striker aside, no further signings have been made. It looked at one point that Jamie Vardy was going to be joining too in a shock move from champions Leicester City, but after his rejection over a month ago there seems to be no credible sources suggesting that alternative potential targets have been identified, and that has certainly set the alarm bells ringing. It is a sobering thought that during his first few years in north London Arsene Wenger was considered to be a pioneer in English football when it came to his transfer dealings, whereas now it is tough to escape the feeling that he has become the most out of touch manager in charge of a big club when it comes to the current state of the transfer market. It has long since seemed that he has been unable to change his notoriously stubborn approach and adapt to what is an admittedly inflated and engorged player market, but that nonetheless hasn’t stopped Arsenal’s rivals from conducting business in this new age.

Arsenal fans this summer have had to make do with a continuous cycle of new articles linking the club to a swathe of players, yet none of these links have bore any fruit. I reject the notion that Wenger does not want to bring players in or that he isn’t actively trying to do so, but with the opening game against Liverpool creeping ever closer, it’s undeniable now that Arsenal have slipped behind their rivals when it comes to their preparations. It’s tough not to look at Manchester United with envy, who after already securing big-money deals for Eric Bailly, Henrik Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now look set on bringing in Paul Pogba for a world record fee. Across the city Pep Guardiola’s new look City side is beginning to take shape in his image, whilst even down here in London both Chelsea and Spurs have gone about their business with far more conviction than Arsenal have shown up to now. It’s fair to note that perhaps Arsenal cannot compete with the likes of United and City when it comes to these eye-wateringly expensive deals, but after spending less than £20m on transfer fees last season and with the new Premier League TV deal coming into effect this season, there is no doubt that there are good players out there who could be acquired for fees that Arsenal could comfortably afford. The major worry is that Wenger simply does not want to risk the club’s money on players he isn’t sure about, which is an incompatible philosophy to hold when you consider the current state of the market in which demand far outweighs supply. The depressing truth for many Arsenal fans is that this transfer window is already beginning to feel awfully familiar to the ones endured in 2013 and 2015 especially, both of which were characterized by stifling inaction, and with the upcoming season looking to be the most competitive we’ve seen for some time, the club might well be sleepwalking to disaster.

This all comes with an asterisk attached, of course, as despite concerns there is still plenty of time to go until the window shuts. An awful lot can happen between now and the start of September, and this article might well become incredibly out-dated and irrelevant if the club was to announce the £70m acquisition of Gonzalo Higuain tomorrow. Now, if I thought that was in any way likely to occur I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this article, but I respect the fact that such a statement of intent remains within the realm of possibility. The last minute, big money signing of Mesut Ozil three years ago showed that Arsene Wenger does indeed have a trick or two up his sleeve despite all the odds, and for the sake of both the club’s season and his legacy as well, you have to hope that Ozil’s signing won’t prove to be his last big surprise to really rally the fans. Until he proves otherwise though a certain cynicism will continue to hang over the club, even during a pre-season period which is supposed to invoke fresh hope and fevered optimism. It’s almost impossible to know what Mr. Wenger is planning right now, but whatever he’s doing, I hope he remembers that the clock is ticking.

Callum Perritt

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