Gooners fear the lack of a world-class match-winner"We have lost world-class performers before and we have survived," said Arsene Wenger this week, reacting to the news his club had sold their principal asset, Robin van Persie, to Manchester United.
And he is right. Survival is an apt term for how Arsenal have coped since they became a feeder club to others' ambitions. Since they lost Cole, Henry, Fabregas, Toure, Nasri, Clichy and now the best of the lot they have kept calm and carried on. Every summer as they have been obliged to stand back while others pick through the bargains on offer, every transfer window over the last few years has been clouded by the misery of knowing the squad is to be depleted. But Arsenal have survived.
It is to Wenger's immense credit that his team has done so. Somehow, despite watching a trickle turn into a flood of departures, a brain drain of tidal proportions swell over his head, the manager has dragged them into Champions League qualification year after year. That is some achievement.
Survival, though: is that really what Arsenal fans — and indeed Wenger himself — want? Does survival stir the soul? Does it take you to the edge of the seat in quite the manner that ambition does? Or competing for the top prizes?
Arsenal have the largest matchday take of any club in England. They have the biggest turnover and income of any club in the capital. Is survival all their followers can hope for from all the cash hosing into the Emirates current account?
At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson has this summer pulled off a superb transfer coup in signing Van Persie. It has done the two things a proper transfer should do: it has strengthened his resources while simultaneously weakening those of the selling club. This was what sent Piers Morgan into comical meltdown on Twitter. What stuck in his craw was the idea that the player would dream of going to the bitterest of rivals.
Yet, never mind that traditionally Arsenal's bitterest rivals are Spurs and that most Gooners didn't much mind when the traffic was in their direction - as it was with Sol Campbell - Morgan has surely overstated the point here. Thanks to the succession of sales over the past four summers, Arsenal can no longer really cast themselves as rivals to United. In truth, Ferguson's only serious rivals for the title are Chelsea and Manchester City. Arsenal's days as challengers disappeared back in 2005. They are now survivors.
Of course Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski are excellent signings by Wenger. Giroud in particular has long looked a Premier League centre forward waiting to happen. But he is not Robin van Persie. Just as Podolski is not Fabregas or Nasri. These are survival signings, sufficient ballast that with a following wind and Jack Wilshire recovering, they should project the club into the Champions League once again. But enough to win the title? Dream on.
Van Persie may well not turn out to be the signing United hope for. There is a risk inherent in his injury record, a risk that he might not fully dovetail with Wayne Rooney. If he does turn into this season's Dimitar Berbatov, however, it does not diminish Arsenal's loss. There might be a hint of schadenfreude for a moment, but it will not alter this fact: losing Van Persie ends their title hopes before the season has started.
For much of last season he carried the team almost single-footed. I saw him in a game against Everton which was heading towards weary stalemate when Alex Song's delicate chipped forward pass found him timing his run in behind the visitors' backline to perfection. As the ball came down over his right shoulder, the Arsenal captain met it with a volley of such joyful conviction that Tim Howard in the Everton goal conceded defeat from the moment it left his laces.
What was interesting was the reaction of the Arsenal fans. In among the celebrations at the glory of what they had just seen, you could sense a real fear. What if we lose him? What then? What hope do we have? Back in January, the fear was largely provoked by the player's blighted injury record rather than worry about an imminent transfer. But the pessimism was palpable: who else do we have who can do that? Who else can pull the stuttering enterprise up by its bootstraps and convert one point into three?
Well, now they are about to find out. Arsenal will undoubtedly survive after this latest defection. They have too many good players, too fine a manager for any other likelihood to ensue. But is survival really the best a club of this scale should offer?