An outsider’s perspective of Arsenal
At the moment it’s worth listening to football phone-ins just to hear what Arsenal fans have to say, because 9 times out of 10, it’s hilarious. Some seem to think they have a god-given right to finish in the top 4, while others are happy to go down with Arsene Wenger’s ship defending him to the last thanks to his past glories. It’s all very confused and confusing.
So let’s get this clear – Arsenal haven’t won anything for 6 years. Last year’s League Cup Final was their first cup final for 5 years. Any other club of that stature probably would’ve binned their manager by now after a run like that. I should imagine even Sir Alex would have left Manchester United with that length of a trophy drought. The same complaints keep appearing – the team is spineless, can’t hack it against physical sides, has no killer instinct, tries to walk the ball into the net etc. To me, that shows that there is something fundamentally wrong at the football club, and Wenger, being the manager, has to take some of the responsibility for that. Every season has been deemed a “transition year”, but if every season is like that, what’s the transition to? It’s not as if it is showing any signs of getting anywhere, unless it’s a transition to no Champions League football.
That’s effectively one side of the story. The other side is also valid – that Wenger is (or at least was) a very good manager who revolutionised Arsenal and effectively single-handedly established themselves as one of the biggest football clubs in Europe. Without him, who knows where they may have ended up? The title-winning sides he built were outstanding teams.
However, this is where it gets a bit complicated. Wenger may have brought in this “youth first” policy, or at least that is the perception. But look at those title-winning sides, particularly the 97-98 and 01-02 ones, and you’ll still see a lot of bought players – not only ones that were bought very young but established names as well, like Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, and arguably Thierry Henry who was already a World Cup winner. The famous back four of Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and Bould/Keown, as well as goalkeeper David Seaman, were all in place before he arrived. Sol Campbell was bought from Tottenham where he was already well-established despite his youth. Numerous other regulars during Arsenal’s great years were bought – Ljungberg, Pires, Wiltord, Lauren, Kanu, van Bronckhorst, Gilberto Silva…the list goes on.
Even a significant number of the current faces were brought in from outside such as van Persie, Vermaelen, Rosicky, Nasri and Arshavin, not forgetting those bought as youngsters like Walcott, Ramsey, Fabregas and the latest, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Very few products of the Arsenal academy during Wenger’s time in charge have actually gone on to break into the first team. It’s not so much trusting the Arsenal academy production line – it’s trusting other team’s production lines, and then buying from them while still young and putting them into the Arsenal academy or reserves for a couple of years. It’s like Mazda slapping their badge on the Ford Fiesta and calling it the Mazda2 – ultimately, it’s still a Ford Fiesta.
I honestly believe this whole notion of Wenger backing the kids is, to a certain extent, a misnomer, certainly from the perspective that this is how he made Arsenal successful to start with. Unlike what some Arsenal fans would have you believe, he has bought players, and a lot of them too. He has, in recent years, simply bought the wrong ones. Whereas Ferguson has moved with the times and brought in some quality players, Wenger has bought some duds, or, in the case of Rosicky, been unlucky with injuries but then not covered that off. It’s also worth noting that more genuine products of the Manchester United academy have made the first team than with Arsenal, which speaks volumes if you consider that Wenger is the one commonly perceived to be focusing on youth. And in the time that Arsenal have gone trophyless, Manchester United have won the Premier League 4 times, the League Cup twice and the Champions League once, as well as making the final of that competition another twice. Arsenal, meanwhile, as well as winning nothing, haven’t even finished higher than 3rd in the league.
OK, so some fans would point out that that’s a lot better than their form prior to when Wenger arrived, but that’s missing the point – in terms of their wealth, infrastructure and fan base, Arsenal should be doing better. The game has changed since Wenger took over – Arsenal timed their success to perfection, which has allowed them to be locked into the elite group of clubs in the Premier League who perpetually battle for the top 4 or 5 places. I don’t see it as much as Arsenal fans losing perspective by thinking they should be up there fighting for trophies every year – for once, I think they’re right to expect, although obviously that requires winning matches.
For me, Wenger’s time as manager is drawing to a natural conclusion. This lack of success is down to the loss of the winning mentality (also due to a lack of success – chicken and egg anyone?) and the manager not moving with the times, not some mythical over-reliance on youth. This is typified by the returns of Sol Campbell and Jens Lehmann in the last couple of years – a lack of ideas when it comes to signing players. He never replaced the key figures in the last title-winning side after they moved on – there’s no Vieira, Henry or Campbell, and they’re about to sell the closest thing they had to Pires. If Wenger had gone at the end of last season, it wouldn’t have been a surprise or to the detriment of the club. Actually, I think by staying on, it is prolonging this torture and Arsenal could find themselves slipping behind some their rivals, including their dreaded enemies from North London, which could damage their prospects further – Champions League football is a must if you want to attract quality players, which would make any incoming manager’s job a lot more difficult. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of good managers out there that they could sign – Ancelotti, Benitez, O’Neill, and soon Capello. I’d even be willing to bring in a young English manager from the lower leagues. They just need to try something different.