With just two league matches remaining to be played in Arsenal’s 2008-09 season, talk concerning the club has already begun turning to year-end reviews and outlooks on player transfers for the next campaign — with views expressed by everyone from TV pundits to obscure Web bloggers to a large Russian man whose shares in the club have grown considerably in recent years.
Yes, Alisher Usmanov has surfaced again, with the Russian billionaire claiming (through a spokesperson) that Arsenal must step up its transfer dealings in order to remain competitive with England’s and Europe’s other big clubs.
Now owning 25% of the club’s shares, Usmanov has supposedly even offered to provide some funds, saying “the debt at the club appears to be an impediment … and we are ready to help address that if the board asks.”
But, Arsene Wenger has again reiterated this week that he doesn’t feel the need to splash the cash for big-name signings to improve things at the club. Instead, the manager says he is looking to find just a couple replacement players who will fit the right areas for improvement, while also focusing on retaining the services of some current Arsenal stars who may be coveted elsewhere.
One such Gunner is veteran Kolo Toure, who was rumored to possibly head to Manchester City in the recent January transfer window. The Ivory Coast defender endured a dip in form during the first half of the season while his defensive partnership — and personal relationship — with William Gallas seemed to suffer. Reports even surfaced that Toure had put in for a transfer request, which was withdrawn after some talks with Wenger.
But since that time, the Ivorian has certainly returned to form, serving as a rock at the back during the team’s 20-plus match unbeaten streak and leading a patched-up back four in these final months. In an interview that first appeared in Arsenal’s official matchday program, Toure claims his love of Arsenal remains strong, though he did question his future with the club at points earlier in this campaign.
“I have been here a long time, and when I saw some players leaving the club last year that was difficult for me,” he said. “Then when we didn’t start the season well, I was scared. You start to think that maybe the club don’t need you anymore. When it’s like that and you are 28 you have to think about yourself as well. But I came back, I’m playing at the moment and I hope that will carry on. There is still time on my contract and I hope the club will show me that they need me.
“When you love somebody it’s important that they love you back,” continued the Ivorian. “I have loved this club for years, and I always give everything for the team. Since I’ve been here I’ve just tried to do my best, but you can’t be at the top all the time. Sometimes your level will drop a bit. That’s when you need to be strong and bounce back and that’s what I tried to do this season.”
Toure added that he believes “you can only truly love one club in your career, and my club is Arsenal. It doesn’t matter if I ever move on to another team, Arsenal will always be the one in my heart. When my career is finished and I’m older, I will always think of myself as an Arsenal man.”
While Toure is “looking for love” from his club, Robin van Persie is hoping for some continuity to remain as the club looks forward to the 2009-10 season.
Calling on Arsenal to keep its top players this summer after losing the likes of Mathieu Flamini, Alex Hleb and Gilberto Silva in the off-season a year ago, van Persie believes “the main thing for me is that we stay together. If we lose three or four every year it is hard to get the spirit in. Hopefully we can stay here and have a real go at it.”
The forward from Holland added (in an interview with arsenal.com) that “if we can produce games like we did this year there is room for improvement — if you look at our midfield it is between 20 and 22.”
And the recent news that one of Arsenal’s young stars — Theo Walcott — has already signed a new contract to remain at The Emirates should be encouraging for van Persie, who is in talks with club executives to renew his own contract with the club.
Securing the services of the young England international Walcott before season’s end, along with attempts to finalize van Persie’s contract, do provide evidence that Wenger and club officials are intent on maintaining that continuity at the club — by keeping and rewarding its current stars as Arsenal looks to overcome its four-year drought without silverware and bring more trophies to North London in the near future.