What ever is it with Arsene Wenger and the Latin Americans? Because, here we go again -- but this time it really does look as though Wenger is having us on.
I know, I know -- I’ve been on about this before. How Wenger, in charge of Arsenal since 1996 has always been the champion of skillful soccer -- at times, he has been almost the one brave, lonely voice for the Beautiful Game. This, mind you, in a country with a strong, traditional affinity for a thud-and-blunder type game, and the joys of getting stuck-in.
But, after eight highly successful years Wenger’s magic touch disappeared. Last year’s FA Cup win was the first trophy Arsenal had won in nine years. During those barren years an anomaly became increasingly apparent: Wenger’s reluctance to sign Latin American players. An oddity indeed, given that it was the South Americans -- in particular the Brazilians -- who had virtually invented the beautiful game.
Wenger never made any reference to this -- at least, not that I’ve seen -- and I’ve been looking. There were some Latinos -- Gilberto, for instance, but he was far from being a typically skillful Brazilian. Then there was Carlos Vela, a young (17-years old) Mexican. Wenger signed him, loaned him out, brought him back, kept praising him, but rarely put him on the field.
It almost seemed that Wenger was incapable of deciding whether Vela had talent or not. Eventually, Vela went to Spain, where last year, playing for Real Sociedad, he was voted one of the three best strikers in La Liga -- alongside Ronaldo and Costa.
The only other creative Latino signed by Wenger was Eduardo -- the Brazilian-naturalized-Croatian whose short English career was abruptly ended by a brutal tackle that broke his leg. And all the while that Wenger was assiduously avoiding Latinos, they were turning up all over Europe, usually as star creative players, often as top scorers.
Surely Wenger must have known this. But he never mentioned it, and showed no sign of being interested. Until now. Suddenly we have a new Wenger. As though Rip Van Wenger has finally woken up and recognized reality.
On the field, reality has arrived in the form of the Chilean Alexi Sanchez. At last, a genuine South American forward, with all the subtlety, skill and artistry that implies. Off the field, a more astonishing reality has set in. Wenger now finds it possible to talk about Latin players.
And how. The more Wenger talks about Latinos, the stranger things get. For instance: “If you look across Europe, South America is the only continent that develops strikers. Across Europe, at least 80 percent of strikers come from South America.”
In his newly evident liking for Latinos, he’s probably exaggerating, but in essence what he says is the truth. But Arsene, it’s been the truth for about a decade now. Where have you been?
He says “Sanchez and [Luis] Suarez, they played street football, park football,” and is even to be heard suggesting that European players could learn from the competitive attitude of their South American teammates.
What makes this doubly odd is that during his 18 years at Arsenal, Wenger has signed a raft of young French players, many of them from African backgrounds -- which, with its basis of street soccer, is surely similar to what he is now seeing as the key to Latin superiority.
I’m far from complaining about any of Wenger’s comments, I happen to abundantly agree with them. But there is absolutely nothing new in them: “If you go 30, 40 years back in England, life was tougher. Society has changed. We are much more protected than we were 30 years ago. We have all changed. We have all become a bit softer ... When the game is all a bit more formulated then it is developing your individual skill less, your fighting attitude. We have lost that a little bit ... We have to question ourselves, what can we add to our academies to develop strikers again?”
Can Wenger possibly imagine he is coming up with anything new, when all that has been said before, many times? How can one not be skeptical when one of the most intelligent coaching minds in the game can systematically ignore the Latin talent pool for over a decade, then quite suddenly become super-enthusiastic with a rush of comments that others (and yes, I’ll include myself among them) have been making all the time.
Maybe there really has been a Rip Van Wenger dozing off for a decade. Rather alarmingly, the sleep may stretch back a good deal further. I find this recollection of his almost archaic: “If you look at the 1960s, 1970s in England, even when I arrived in 1996, in every club you had strikers. And I mean strikers. Guys who could head the ball. They were on every cross. We have less now.”
Is that really Wenger’s definition of a striker? Someone who head crosses? That is wedded to a steadfastly, and hopelessly outdated, British view of how soccer is played these days. Can Wenger really be saying that Sanchez and Suarez prefer to be “getting on the end of crosses,” than to have the ball played to their feet?
At the moment, we have just one Latino -- I mean a real Latino with the trademark Latino “beautiful game” skills -- at Arsenal. Obviously, I’m hoping that Wenger means everything he says about the pedigree of Latin players. If he does mean it, then more Latin signings for Arsenal must certainly follow. Mustn’t they?