Quo vadis Arsene and Arsenal?

By Paul Gardner

Is it OK to feel sorry for Arsene Wenger? That 8-2 rout by ManU was a humiliation that he surely did not deserve, a sad, sad moment in the history of Arsenal, a cruel game that I found it almost agonizing to watch.

Over the years Wenger has earned great respect with his devotion to skillful soccer -- the Beautiful Game -- and his determination to play that way in the face of immense skepticism and outright ridicule. Remember -- he determined to have his Arsenal play the Beautiful Game in England, never exactly fertile ground for anything other than manly, robust, no-frills soccer.

But Wenger persisted and for several years he made Arsenal -- by quite a margin -- the best team to watch in the EPL, and a team that won. In his first nine years with the club, between 1996 and 2005, Arsenal racked up three EPL titles and three FA Cup wins, a string that included the extraordinary 2003-04 team that won the EPL without losing a game.

In 2006 Arsenal got to the Champions League final, where it lost to Barcelona, no disgrace, but that game turned out to Arsenal’s swansong, its last memorable climax. Nothing has been won since. For six years Arsenal has been an also-ran team -- has, in fact, become something of a joke in that respect.

To repeat: is it OK to feel sorry for Wenger? Well, during these bleak years, Wenger has never faltered in his devotion to the Beautiful Game. But something has gone wrong, seriously wrong, with his ability to field a team that plays the Beautiful Game and wins while doing so.

From being a team that was always a serious contender for the EPL title, Arsenal has become little more than a mess of a team, a patchy assembly of good but mostly not-good-enough players that has built up a formidable reputation for being incapable of winning crucial games -- even those against obviously inferior opponents.

Wenger has also stuck religiously to his belief that he does not need to spend big in the transfer market, that he can spot good young players before anyone else, and get them on the cheap -- Cesc Fabregas being the prime example. Backing up that policy has been Wenger’s oft-proclaimed faith in the ability of Arsenal’s youth academy to supply the first team with a stream of top class youngsters.

At this point it’s OK to start wondering about feeling sorry for Wenger. Because, on those last two points -- not flashing the cash in the transfer market, and relying on homegrown youngsters -- Wenger has clearly made a hash of things.

To take the second point first, the youngsters. There’s an old saying in soccer, that “You don’t win anything with kids.” An old saying, but one that is still around because it has stood the test of time and experience. The exception -- Manchester United’s “Busby Babes” who won the English first division with an average age of 21 -- is much talked about, but it remains just that, a mighty exception. Pro soccer is not a sport for teenagers; the average age of World Cup-winning teams is invariably around 29 years.

Relying on youngsters, then is not a good idea. But even if it were -- where are they, these shining products of the Arsenal academy? Jack Wilshere, yes. But neither Theo Walcott nor Aaron Ramsey qualify, as both were established players, with some first team experience before joining Arsenal.

In short, Arsenal’s vaunted academy (vaunted by Wenger, that is) does not have much to show for its efforts -- which is not really as bad as it sounds, as very few pro team academies do any better.

Then there’s the transfer market. Wenger claims he doesn’t really need to join in the annual spending sprees of the big clubs. Certainly, he is reluctant to do so -- which means he has minimal experience in the market. Logically then, his purchases are far too frequently inadequate. Think of them -- Aleksandr Hleb, Thomas Rosicky, Emmanuel Eboue, Marouane Chamakh, Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou, Sebastien Squillacci, Andrei Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner -- all of them highly rated players, but none of them up to what Arsenal needs to remain among the elite of the EPL.

And there is something about that list of names that needs emphasizing, because it remains for me one of the great anomalies of modern soccer, something I simply cannot understand about Arsene Wenger.

It is a list without Brazilians. Indeed, without South Americans. This is the anomaly: Here is Wenger, one of the foremost proponents of the Beautiful Game, yet he clearly has some sort of aversion to signing players from Brazil -- the country that invented the Beautiful Game, the country whose players are spread the length and breadth of Europe, exciting Germans and Russians and Spaniards and Italians and Frenchmen and Portuguese and Dutchmen with their intricate skills.

But not at Arsenal. Never at Arsenal. Yes, Wenger has signed a handful of Brazilians -- but never real Brazilians, never the creative midfielders, or the crafty goalscorers. Sylvinho was a defender. Edu and Gilberto were robust defensive midfielders. Denilson, maybe, had some promise, but Wenger has already shipped him back to Brazil, on loan to Sao Paulo. The only true exception was Eduardo (I shall, of course, refrain from mentioning the canard that Wenger thought he was Croatian), the poor, unfortunate Eduardo, who when he returned from his ankle-shattering injury, was quickly unloaded by Wenger.

What sort of madness is this? The Beautiful game without Brazilians. Worse, the Beautiful game from which Brazilians have been methodically excluded. You can make a case for it working in the early Wenger years, but the Beautiful Game has been slowly ebbing away from Arsenal for some years now, while Wenger mulishly refuses to countenance Brazilians on his team.

Wenger has always preferred French players. About one third of the current Arsenal roster consists of French, or French-speaking players. Not a one of them, in my estimation, should be playing on a team that wants to win the EPL by playing skillful soccer.

So, no, it is not OK to feel sorry for Wenger. The disaster of the 8-2 rout is largely self-inflicted. It was the result of a blind devotion to two policies -- youth development and a refusal to buy top players -- that now have a six-year spell of failure.

For the game at ManU, it is perfectly true, Arsenal was missing five or six regular starters. Time for the youngsters to step in, a great moment for the academy players. But the players were just not there, the Wenger-Babes turned out to be no match for ManU. Worse, much worse, for Wenger to face up to, was that Alex Ferguson also put out several of his young players -- Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck, plus two newcomers, Phil Jones and Ashley Young. A pointed statement from Ferguson that he can do what Wenger seemingly cannot: Produce good youngsters, and spend wisely on newcomers.

For a top-level team such as Arsenal to be missing a slew of regular starters should not immediately turn into a fiasco. Surely all the top teams, these days, have enough talent on the bench to add up almost to another first team? Not Arsenal. That is the true measure of Wenger’s failure. When the team needed the youngsters, it turned out the cupboard was bare.

How has Wenger, how have his collaborators, allowed that to happen? Why, when it’s been clear for a year that Cesc Fabregas would be leaving, was no superstar replacement lined up? Ditto for Samir Nasri.

So we have the unedifying sight of Wenger forced to do what he has always scorned as unnecessary -- to wade into the player market. Having to do so in desperation, right before the transfer window closes, does not sound like the ideal way to do business.

The result is, once again, a mixed bag of OK players. There’s Per Mertesacker, a huge, lumbering German defender, so you can forget about the beautiful Game with that one; There’s Andre Santos, a Brazilian no less but -- you’re not going to believe this -- another defender; There’s a Korean goalscorer (we are told) Chu Young Park, and there’s Yossi Benayoun -- neither of whom is likely to play a major role in landing trophies. And more youngsters -- though not from the Arsenal youth Academy: the Japanese Ryo Miyaichi, age 19, and the 19-year-old Costa Rican Joel Campbell, immediately loaned out to French club Lorient. A mixed bag, did I say? More like a grab bag.

But there is one name that stands out: Mikel Arteta, the Spaniard signed from Everton. This is a bit more like it, a skillful, creative midfielder of proven value in the EPL.

Maybe all that last-minute buying will work for Wenger. He’ll be judged lucky if it does. What are, in effect, panic buys just before the iron-curtain of the transfer window slams down is no way to build a team. He’s already riding his luck -- after all, so far there has been little talk of him losing his job, but he surely won’t be able to survive another poor season. It’s been six years since Arsenal won anything. Seven years sounds like a year too far.

13 comments about "Quo vadis Arsene and Arsenal?".
  1. Talley Berry, September 1, 2011 at 1:31 a.m.

    I like the Per Mertesacker signing. I think Arsene should settle for less Beautiful Game from his defenders, and the Merterer would never have let that ball bounce for Danny's goal. It wasn't a lack of commitment to pretty football that lost on Sunday; it was an overcommitment to it without the resources. Sometimes you have to park the bus.

    By the way, you KNOW that is not an old saying. Alan Hansen said it about "Fergie's Fledglings" in 1995, not the Busby Babes of the 50s. It's not a well-respected footballing truism as much as it is a famous example of how wrong soccer commentators can be (very wrong).

    ps I agree the diving witch hunt should take a back seat to concern about horror tackles.

  2. Charlie Day, September 1, 2011 at 2:56 a.m.

    I agree with Alex Barwick (surely a made up name). If you compare Lord Ferg's record with Wenger's without taking the financials into account then you aren't comparing like with like. Not just transfer fees but also wages, sponsorships and the rest. Also it's an unavoidable fact that any manager will come up short when compared to Fergie. the main problem for Wenger is that he has set the expectation too high by producing the results that he has up to 2005. Arsenal is a club that has been punching above its weight for a very long time (sorry for mixing metaphors). It's clear that at times the teams grasp has been longer than its reach but the fact is that Arsenal remain a consistent feature in the Champions League, are regularly in the top 4 of the EPL, have good runs in the cup competitions, are financially stable with a good stadium and sensible board members and above all have some managerial stability. Yes Wenger needs to shake it up a bit, there is always room for improvement, but the philosophy is sound. Now if they could only win something.

  3. gary walker, September 1, 2011 at 4:11 a.m.

    The bigger promlem we have at AFC is not Brazilin's but the lack of homegrowen English Players. The invicibles, Seaman , Adams, Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, Kewone. You look at the top clubs. Chelsea, Lampard, Terry, Cole,, Lverpool, Gerrad, Carragaher,Carrol,Man Utd,Rooney, Carrick, Smalling the list goes on.You need the steel,knowledge,experiance of homegrowen English players.The Academy at Arsenal is run by a former great AFC Liam Brady for the last 12 years How many players have the Academy produced ? Two in my opinion Wilshire and Gibbs, why arent we producing any more? , need to ask Liam. Why isnt the scouting system working on English players maybe we should ask Steve Rowley(Head Scout). To my knowledge Arsene as only been to the academy in East London once in his reign at AFC.

  4. Chris Mitchell, September 1, 2011 at 4:26 a.m.

    It's not as easy as you might think to just go out and get Brazilians.
    Firstly, lots of them just don't want to come to England because it's too cold and the aggressive tackling is not conducive to a long productive career.
    Secondly, England's work permit regulations make it difficult to buy players who are not already in the top bracket.
    The two Brazilian creative players Wenger has brought in - Julio Baptista and Denilson - had plenty of potential but just couldnt deliver.

  5. Mark Edge, September 1, 2011 at 8:34 a.m.

    See how many times PG contradicts himself in this article. I counted five.

  6. Brian Something, September 1, 2011 at 8:42 a.m.

    Given what I've seen of Brazil in several recent tournaments, I can't think of too many top Brazilians that contribute much to the Beautiful Game (Neimar, Kaka and Pato being notable exceptions). Maybe Wenger isn't buying creative Brazilians because there aren't nearly as many as there used to be. Also bear in mind that in the EPL, creative players need a bit of toughness due to the attitude of English refs (no broken bones, no foul)... a big reason why Fabregas succeeded there and Denilson and Rosicky failed.

  7. Jonny Sinclair, September 1, 2011 at 9:17 a.m.

    Another article trying to batter the English style of play, but consisting of poor knowledge of the country's league and history. To repeat what others have said - "you win nothing with kids" is absolutely nothing to do withe the Busby era, it is a famous comment by TV pundit Alan Hansen from the mid-90's when Beckham, Scholes, Butt, the Neville Brothers, and Giggs were all coming through the ranks and United got beat 3-1 against Aston Villa on the opening day....we then went on to win the title and Hansen was made to eat his words. You then mention at least 5 Brazilians that apparently Arsene Wenger doesn't buy??? Arsenal probably sign more Brazilians than ANY other team in the Premier, they get the Romario's, Ronaldo's, Rivaldo's, Ronaldinho's, Carlos's, Kaka's, Robinho's of old...because guess what....they all go to Spain! Why would the truly best creative Brazilian players come to the EPL when they could play for Barca or Real, be protected by referees and live in a Spanish climate and culture? I'm a United fan and have grown to see Arsenal as a rival over the years, but you absolutely cannot blame Wenger for not buying big name Brazilians....think first Paul...except for Juninho of Middlesbrough in the 90's, there just aren't any star Samba players in England. It is simply too physical for them, so why would they risk it?

  8. Rick Figueiredo, September 1, 2011 at 10:08 a.m.

    Two things stand out here: 1) After 10 years at the same position things become stale. 2) There is a solution to his midfield and maybe organizational problems: Ganso from Santos. Exceptional and will fix a number of issues taking Arsenal apart. Ganso will control the game. It's more a matter of whether Ganso would be interested in english football.

  9. Kenneth Elliott, September 1, 2011 at 10:31 a.m.

    Paul is as enamored with the Brazilians of old as Wenger is with French players. You have to admire each's tenacity, I suppose. Arsenal have continued to compete at the top, even after the era of Henry and the Invincibles. They have come close to winning the league for the past 3 seasons, being at or near the top with less than a dozen games to go only to lose their nerve for some reason and slide to fourth. THAT'S what Arsenal needs to improve upon, their nerve. Most are saying they need to strengthen in the back, and I don't disagree. Perhaps with a John Terry/Jamie Carragher combo we would be more ruthless back there, but we had a decent combo with Gallas and Toure. Toure leaving hurt us as much as anything . . . that and Vermaelen being out all season last year. The other area that needs to change, whether we're playing with youngsters or experienced strikers, is a ruthless attitude in front of goal. Henry had it. Bergkamp and Ljundberg had it. Van Persie has it, but right now he's alone. An overwhelming quick-strike force that capitalizes on the wonderful mid-field build-ups and terrorizes defenses with an unrelenting assault on goal. Instead we overwhelm in the middle only to stagnate in front of goal too often.

  10. Andres Yturralde, September 1, 2011 at 10:36 a.m.

    Good take, Barwick. And I agree, Figueiredo, Ganso would be nice for Arsenal-- actually, he'd be nice for any team. More to the point: Wenger's time is up. If Arsenal want to go anywhere anytime soon, they need someone new. Wenger looks very dry and very tired and very frustrated. If he would only add a little color to his repertoire. Literally and figuratively.

  11. David Huff, September 1, 2011 at 2:03 p.m.

    I like what Arsene Wenger has done during his tenure at Arsenal, bringing attractive flowing soccer to a league that mainly prides itself in "long ball over the top", frantic dashes of athleticism and then getting "stuck in there" against opposing players. That said, the club (whether its Wenger or the Board) needs to figure out ways of holding onto quality players such as Clichy, Fabregas, Nasri, etc. and also methodically acquiring some key players on a timely basis so that the player cupboard doesn't go bare. London is a very rich market and the Arsenal brand has an international following, so what is the real root of the problem here? Is it just a lack of personnel savvy or is a lack of $$$ the real reason? Is Arsenal in dire financial straits?? I would really like to know what the problem is in this area. ??

  12. Chris Ogle, September 1, 2011 at 7:58 p.m.

    Paul definitely has an obsession about Brazilians that many times just isn't valid any more. Especially in today's game which features highly skilled players from countries like Germany that in the past were,like England, all about the robust,manly style of play. You don't have to have a lot of Brazilians in the lineup to win championships and Barcelona,whose best player is Argentine, is a prime example of this.The main reason for the lack of Brazilian talent in the Barca lineup is the abundance of Spanish talent.Barca has always had their foriegners but the fact is that Spanish players are now every bit as good or not better than the best Brazilian(watch the U20 WC game last month between Spain and Brazi).On top of that, Brazilian clubs only win the Libertadores club championship periodically,not every year.

  13. Karl Ortmertl, September 3, 2011 at 12:39 p.m.

    I'm not sure why Gardner turned on Wenger seeing how Arsene is the only EPL coach who tries to play the game the right way - which is what Paul keeps saying he wants. Considering the finances, Wenger has done an excellent job and Arsenal are always a good and entertaining team. He may be correct in that the team has been too young to seal the deal at the end of the day, but Arsenal, at this point in time are really nothing more than an overachieving feeder team to those with the $$$$. Maybe Arsene should make a move to the Spanish or French leagues. He's wasting his time in England. Soccer in England (and Germany and Holland, for that matter) are very much like NFL football in America to the fans. It's a channel for young people in a violent society. That's why you'll never get the beautiful game in England, the fans want goon soccer, and that's why Wenger simply doesn't fit.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications