This is not a sublime Dennis Bergkamp pass, stroked into the path of a cantering Thierry Henry, who opens up his body, leans left and in one movement, curls it around the keeper into the far corner. Nor is it a tsunami-like Nigel Winterburn tackle on a tricky winger, that tears ugly brown track marks across the touch line near the North Bank end of the East Stand. It’s nearer the latter than the former: it’s long as well (3k words) so give yourself a bit of time if you’re going to fly into this one…
Firstly, I can absolutely understand fans’ frustration. I get accused of dogmatically following Arsène Wenger, like I’m blinded by the light from his halo. That couldn’t be further from the truth: I have been a season ticket holder since before the “Arsène Who?” headlines. I have seen good and bad players come and go: some players do better than expected, some players do worse: and we only really get acquainted with them properly after they’ve been with the club a while. Like the media, as fans we are under no pressure to get these opinions and decisions correct. We sit on the sidelines or in our living rooms, expertly predicting one thing, and conveniently forgetting it if it doesn’t work out, and crowing about the skill of our own amateur punditry when it does. I do think Wenger makes mistakes – being a bit too rigid around formations and systems, predictability around selections and timing of substitutions, sticking with players for too long – but who doesn’t? And he definitely has some less than perfect traits – stubbornness apparently being one of them, a slight petulance being another (handshakes and bottle kicks). Although I stress I am seeing him about half the time through the media lens and I have never met the man in person.
That said, I believe he has a proven track record of delivery at the very top level in football management, and that given the correct resources he has the ability to turn this current situation around. I don’t know the ins and outs of what happens at senior level in the club – and I expect most of it will stay largely unknown. Certainly some of the things we are talking about now will only ever be known to the fans when Arsène (and other key figures, maybe) writes his memoirs, and I daresay those will not be that revealing as they will need the approval of the club for contractual reasons. I can’t say for sure if he is being given the resources and choosing not to use them, or if he is stubbornly sticking to “the project”.
To explain what I mean by “the project”, which I think is also called elsewhere the Wenger philosophy, or referred to as the sustainable model by Ivan Gazidis. I mean the idea of recruiting and nurturing talented young players, with the aim of keeping that talented core of youngsters together, and creating a winning, aesthetically pleasing football team. The shining example being our Catalan foes Barcelona, who have produced arguably the best European team ever seen in the Champions League era. This philosophy has partly been required at Arsenal, due to the need to fund a brand new £470 million stadium. But I also believe Arsène Wenger had a long held dream to bring this vision to reality. That is the primary reason David Dein selected and groomed him to be the Arsenal manager. Dein had a grand plan for Arsenal Football Club, and he knew Arsène Wenger had the skill set to execute the football part of that plan. The early double successes of 1998 and 2002 were probably a bit unexpected, and of course Dein leaving the board was probably not in their medium or long term plan either. None of these things have changed the overall footballing plan though. To be absolutely clear, this is a different and more extreme method to the tried and trusted “Arsenal way” of bringing local and international youth through the ranks, and blending it with signings. The latter has been the model since at least the 1971 double team, when every single Arsenal championship winning side has had at least one player who graduated through the youth system. I know for a fact from discussions with many other fans on this, over many years, that this nurturing of home grown talent is a source of great pride for Arsenal fans. I believe it is one of the key elements that defines the modern Arsenal.
The project has come under more and more criticism, as the length of time without a trophy has extended. Over the past three or four seasons, there have been chances which people feel should have been either taken – the Carling Cup final last year – or taken further – the championship challenge of 2007-08 which effectively came off the rails at St Andrews in March. One of the common complaints is that the Invincibles squad of 2003-04 was broken up far too quickly. The emphasis and faith in young players seemed to have become skewed to such an extent that no experienced players were kept even up until their “use by” date, let alone past it. The list of seasoned internationals, with Premiership experience, who were let go over the 4 subsequent seasons reads like a best ever XI: Lehmann, Lauren, Campbell, Cole, Gilberto, Ljungberg, Vieira, Pires, Henry & Bergkamp. The only player left at the start of 2007-08 was Kolo Toure. Lesser lights with experience were also allowed to leave like Flamini, Edu, Hleb, Adebayor, and finally Toure. Some of these were unquestionably released at the right time (Kolo Toure) but you only have to look at the recent impacts of the returns of Henry and Scholes to the premiership, and Ryan Giggs’ continued influence at Utd, to understand the value of experience at the elite level in English football.
The project did go to plan for a few years. Wenger concentrated first on his area of expertise – the rich seam of talented French players who took home the World Cup 98 and Euro 2000, and French youngsters like Alidiere and Clichy. In time, the same methods that developed these would begin to produce top quality young English players like Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But things were happening that were radically altering the financial landscape in English football. The Premiership became attractive to foreign investors, and particularly one Russian oligarch. The staggering amount of money he pumped into Chelsea made it possible to prise a home grown player like Ashley Cole away. I don’t think this could ever have happened prior to the advent of the billionnaire owner: Cole would never have joined Man Utd or Liverpool for the amount more money they could offer: but the colossal discrepancy between fees and wages being touted made it impossible for Arsenal to keep the player, even when he’d been tapped up! This followed the departures of Edu and Flamini, and later Hleb, and the same trend has continued, culminating in the departures last year of Fabregas and Nasri. The latter in much the same way as Cole, lured away for 5 pieces of silver by the promise of gold, and no guarantee he’d be looked upon as one of the disciples. I doubt Wenger ever thought Cesc was going to stay, but I don’t think he realised or planned for them both leaving together. Nasri had a great season playing out wide, and he had been groomed to play in the free role behind the main striker, continuing the system that had been built around the Catalan. I think Wenger was in denial about Nasri doing the dirty until quite late in the day, and it was something he was powerless to prevent. That was the final nail in the coffin of the project: it had been obliterated in front of his eyes, and I think that hurt him a lot, and he has been recovering from it ever since.
There was an immediate reaction, with the purchases of Arteta, Mertesacker and Benayoun at quite literally the 11th hour of the window. I don’t understand why these deals were left so late: I don’t believe personally it was anything to do with the Old Trafford result. What was significant for me was that all three of those signings were seasoned pro’s, and two of them with bags of Premiership experience. These signings, so late in the window, were widely reported as panic buys. A great story, that sells papers and generates clicks and tweets, but it doesn’t feel like the truth to me. Arsenal and Arsène very rarely do things quickly at all. For some reason the deals all came together at the same time, and I think that is because they were dependent on Champions League qualification, which was only delivered on 24th August away at Udinese. If that’s the case, I don’t agree with it: the money was going to be available from the Fabregas and Nasri deals; the club had 11 consecutive years of Champions League stage qualification behind us (with Hill Wood recently saying that the budget had been set “expecting” to not qualify eventually… [?]). The fact is, money to finance deals should have been available. A lot of this is speculation of course, but if this was the reason then I think the criticism should be of the board’s decision to delay the funding, and not towards the manager, who obviously still managed to get some decent players in during the window.
Moving to the recent January window, I really can’t understand why the theme of experienced signings was not continued. The noises weren’t good, with Wenger stating he didn’t think January was a good time to sign players [although Adebayor, Toure and Eboue were all winter signings which Wenger would probably argue were successful]. It was an ideal time to confirm the change in policy and sign another experienced player or two. The gaping hole that everyone can see is cover for van Persie: Park is simply not good enough, and Chamakh, although he has done it for us, has not produced any form for a desperately long time. As if to reinforce this point, Thierry Henry has dominated talk in his brief spell, with goals from the bench, and crucial ones to boot. I manage risk at work, and in any sort of risk assessment of the squad, the striker situation would score highly, across a number of criteria: the recent performance of all three strikers, their delivery records, the injury history, current form, top level games played, likeliness of fatigue, etc. Almost by any measure you can think of, Robin van Persie comes out on his own. There is a huge risk to the club of relying on a single resource in that position, and it needs addressing urgently. There are various options available, of course, but by far the best one would be to bring in a backup, Premierhip proven striker. The players were available and two made moves in this window – Yakubu and Zamora. I’m not saying we should have signed either of these, but they surely must have been considered as options. I don’t think bringing either Nicklaus Bendtner or Carlos Vela back from loan was a good answer either – they’re out on loan for a reason. To me, this is such a clear gap that the board must have been made fully aware of it and have therefore authorised the decision not to buy: I just can’t see how Wenger would be able to build any sort of case to justify keeping the existing forward personnel the same.
Perhaps a reason for no signings is that the manager does not believe the squad needs strengthening, because of his faith in the players he has brought in – his alleged stubbornness. This might have been plausible, if we hadn’t done the late deals in August. Historically, when the money is available, and Wenger doesn’t want to buy, the message that tends to come out is that the quality players aren’t available, or our wage structure won’t allow us to pursue big names. None of this happened in January.
Another reason put forward is that players must leave before we can bring players in. The recently introduced innovation of the “home grown” rule, makes this more than a distinct possibility. There’s a full explanation here news.bbc.co.uk but I’ll do it briefly: for a player to be home grown he needs to have played 3 seasons in England before he is 21 (basically). It’s not exactly clear but, for the Premier League only, 25 man squads are registered of players who are over 21 years old. Of these, only a maximum of 17 players are allowed who are not home grown, leaving the remaining 8 to be home grown. I have read that 8 “must” be home grown but that can’t be true Arsenal only registered 5 last time (Djourou, Gibbs, Mannone, Song and Walcott). The non home grown is a bit of a tight squeeze for Arsenal at the moment, as it’s got the bulk of the squad players Almunia, Arshavin, Benayoun, Chamakh, Diaby, Fabianski, Park and Squillaci. (NB it also contains the core of good experienced players as well Arteta, Gervinho, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna, Santos, van Persie and Vermaelen). According to rumour, there are a lot of players in the £50-60k a week bracket [see forty-nine.co.uk], and a lot of those players are either out of form or injured, so couldn’t have been sold during this window. This could be the crux of the issue: any big name players coming in would take one of these players’ places in the squad, which would mean wages going down the pan. I believe there is more than a ring of truth around this one.
Finally, the board don’t care about the club and the fans, they are running the club for personal profit or are even embezzling money out of the club. Partly true, I don’t think they care about the club or the fans, but this one doesn’t get very far down the track. Huge shareholdings worth millions of pounds are not taken by these people lightly – they are hard nosed, successful business people. They know that success on the pitch leads to increased revenue, and profits, and bigger share prices. They also know that investment is key to driving any business forward. Arsenal have traditionally not been major investors in big name players on big contracts. All of our title winning teams since 1989 have contained home grown players, quite a few of them blended with quite modest signings (Marwood, Dixon, Petit, Ljungberg, Kolo Toure). This approach is based on sound business principles, and has kept the club in the black for a long time. You only have to look at some of the high profile deals in the last couple of years to see they can go spectacularly wrong: Carroll, Torres, Shevchenko. I think the board are very conservative, very risk averse, but that’s no different to 20, 30 or 40 years ago, and they certainly will know the law and have been involved in litigation in their business careers – I can’t see them taking money out of the club illegally.
A more realistic possibility is that the money’s there and the board are holding back because of uncertainties around the future. Consider the situation yourself: if you were about to get divorced, would you be looking to take the other half on that long awaited holiday of a lifetime to Barbados? I doubt it. The lock down on selling shares ends this summer, and that means changes are going to happen. It’s more than possible this is making it very difficult to make decisions for anything but the very short term. Another issue creating uncertainty at board level is the future impact of the UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations, which are coming down the line. Due to Arsenal’s relatively parsimonious history, and successful youth programme, this is likely to impact other clubs more. BUT the real issue here is uncertainty, for a very risk averse board. The implementation of things like FFP will play out over quite a long period, with the passage of time perhaps leading to a watering down of the rules, and they are also subject to legal challenge in the courts, which can take years. Although this isn’t a reason for Arsenal to be worried, it’s probably creating quite a bit of uncertainty for long term contracts.
Whilst I want to blame the board for all the ills, I think they are currently in quite a tight spot. There’s a power struggle going on, and no one wants to commit funds until the shake up this summer. The board have done a reasonable job until now, steering the club through some dangerous waters with the stadium move [and what a fantastic stadium it is, if you ignore the name]. But the sustainable model is just not cutting it with more and more fans, as each year passes without a trophy. They don’t want to finish 3rd or 4th every year, watching the Manchester clubs hoover up all the trophies. Arsenal fans believe that we should be up there with the best. We have won the title at least once every decade except one (60’s) since the 30’s. No-one else can match that record and it’s that consistency, based on the production of home grown talent, that’s core to the club. That’s what the board need to understand is a clear and present danger now: that of them being the men who preside over the gradual and persistent decline of one of the top 3 clubs in England. When the history books are written, when fans make banners, when clubs put dates around a stadium, they don’t record Champions League qualification in 3rd or 4th place. They proudly and loudly record the glory days, forever etched in the memories of their fans, of glittering prizes being raised high into the night sky, of red and white ribbons, of parties in the streets, of smiling faces and sore heads in the morning. Unless the board get their fingers out and sort things out in time for this summer, I fear it will be a long time before any more of these memories are made.
If ever there was a game for all Gooners to Keep The Faith and stick together it’s Sunday. So Wear your Red and White Scarf with Pride.