Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Pain in the Arsene: First Flamini, Now Hleb

The hits keep on coming for Arsenal; first Mathieu Flamini latches on with AC Milan and now it appears Alexander Hleb is headed for Inter Milan. The Times of London reports he has leaked word to teammates that he's gone, agreeing to a four-year deal, same term as Flamini's in the same city. Nice they can keep each other company. The rub is that Hleb has two years left on his Arsenal deal and manager Arsene Wenger is ready to grieve to FIFA.

Arsenal's firm stance on contract extensions is prohibitive. The club offers only one-year extensions to footballers closing in on the big 3-0. Flamini said thanks, but no thanks to the shackles the London club places on its players and stands to make 50,000 pounds a week at his new club--and he's only 24. Hleb is 27, and sees the writing on the wall.

The cynic says well, "what have they won with these guys anyway, let them go." The optimist counters "what have they won with these guys anyway, here's a chance to get new blood." Problem is, what strain of new blood would want to play at Arsenal under those constraints? And if Arsenal abolishes those constraints now to accommodate new players, why not keep Flamini--and Hleb for that matter--one of its brightest stars. And what of Cesc? He'll be a ripe ol' 24 before you know it. Will Arsenal squeeze Fabregas too?

This has been a most discouraging season for Arsenal. The club was in front, it looked, to stay in the Premiership. And its style, flair and dominant results in the Champions League looked like it was destined for a precious double. All of that quickly vanished as Arsenal's form diminished. The team couldn't close out quality opponents, Wenger started playing with his starting eleven, sacrificed the FA Cup and league cup, and in the end will end up with zero silverware.

With Flamini and Hleb gone, Arsenal has suddenly become the team to watch this summer once the transfers begin. Wenger has huge holes to fill, and a less-than-inviting pay structure to offer topnotch players. Will Arsenal shift its business model to accommodate the on-field product? Or is the debt incurred with the redevelopment of Highbury and the construction of the Emirates Stadium too demanding?

To quote the unforgettable Hyman Roth:
"This is the business we have chosen."
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