In the dark last days of the transfer window Arsène Wenger lost his religion. With the wounds from the 8-2 caning at Manchester United still red, Wenger became Harry Redknapp with an economics degree, sizing up established pros such as Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun and leaving the undiscovered youth of the world to fend for itself for a change.
When the hyperventilating of another transfer deadline day ceases the dangers of chaotic late trading will be clearest in north London, where Spurs and Arsenal undermined their own starts to the league campaign with their brinkmanship. Both dashed around the market before closing time, with Spurs adding Scott Parker to the earlier loan signing of Emmanuel Adebayor, and pursuing Gary Cahill – while pushing a host of unwanted players towards other clubs.
As autumn slides across Wenger’s vision Arsenal will be unable to escape an inquest. This was the most disordered phase of his time in London. It lurched from pride and defiance to desperation, with defenders, especially, measured up en masse. The club’s supporters will be caught between relief that their manager has finally owned up to the bedlam at the back and dismay that it required an 8-2 hiding to confirm such realities.
Not all of Arsenal’s fancies were thought of overnight. But somewhere between Old Trafford and the end of transfer business Wenger lost his faith in youth’s potential and went hunting instead for men who could preserve his own reputation. After bidding too little for Cahill, Arsenal offered too much for Mikel Arteta. Per Mertesacker and André Santos were other moves that said Wenger has lifted his ban on pragmatism.
Tottenham’s Daniel Levy, meanwhile, attempted a mass clear-out while hoping to be able to present Adebayor, Parker and Cahill together as the players to restore Spurs to the Champions League places. Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United identified targets weeks ago and made decisive early moves. Tottenham worked off a typically long list while Arsenal allowed themselves to be embroiled in two sagas, over Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri.
When stubbornness finally gave way to acceptance, Wenger’s team were on the slide to the point of perfect vulnerability, and paid with an 8-2 thrashing, their worst league defeat since 1896. This hammering woke Arsenal’s talent-acquisition unit from their summer snooze, and brought Mertesacker (centre-back), Park Chu-young (striker) and Santos (full-back) to the point of signing, while Arteta, Christopher Samba, Yann M’Vila, Eden Hazard, Alex and Benayoun were also in the mix.
Spurs had their own Nasri/Fábregas epic to accommodate. Unlike Arsenal, whose resistance turned out to be futile, Levy appeared intent on attaining martyrdom for his stance on Luka Modric, who became so discombobulated that he went to pieces on the morning of Manchester City’s 5-1 win at White Hart Lane. As Chelsea’s bid for Modric rose to £40m at the weekend, even Levy must have felt a bead of sweat.
As Modric hoped for the turn of the key, Spurs set about purging unwanted players. Again, much of it was theatrically last-minute, with Wilson Palacios, Peter Crouch, Jermaine Jenas, Alan Hutton and David Bentley all encouraged to consider alternative employment.
Before Wayne Rooney or Jack Wilshere there was Joe Cole, the Camden street footballer whose wonder-boy years progressed in ever-decreasing circles to a season-loan at Lille, symbolically a halfway house between London and Paris.
Cole’s lustre was dimmed by the disappointment of a succession of top managers, from José Mourinho to Fabio Capello and Kenny Dalglish. To cast him as an underappreciated wonder boy ignores the verdicts of all those coaches who thought his talent lacked direction. Though Champions League football awaits in France, not even his old mentor, Redknapp, could save him from being exiled on a day when clubs across the Premier League distanced themselves from the unloved and unlovable.
Roberto Mancini, Sir Alex Ferguson, Dalglish and André Villas-Boas, largely, will have enjoyed the spectacle of two of the top six clubs trying to throw together teams amid the countdown cabaret. The last day of August makes gods of excitable Sky Sports News presenters. If TV needs someone to announce the end of the world but make it sound like the best fun any of us could ever have, it must hand the job to Sky’s Jim White.
Against the trend of long-term planning City took a late gamble on Owen Hargreaves, whose return to full fitness seems to have coincided with his Manchester United contract not being renewed, and Liverpool summoned Craig Bellamy from the Wales camp to discuss a possible loan from City. The final major instalment of Dalglish’s summer programme was the signing of Uruguay’s Sebastián Coates for £7m.
While spending rose on last year, the modern owner displays increasing angst at the presence on his books of people earning £80,000 a week for doing not very much, or refusing to conform. Joey Barton’s move to QPR left only Fabricio Coloccini and Alan Smith on Hollywood money at Newcastle. At the Loftus Road end Barton’s slightly joyless arrival encouraged an influx of players whose histories and personalities will keep QPR-watchers on full alert as Neil Warnock introduces them to his philosophies.
As fans of Spurs and Arsenal collapse in heaps with the stress of it all both sets may feel at least action was taken to avert a collapse. But they will also ask: why so late, why this bloody drama?