Monday, 29 August 2011

In Arsène Please Trust

Arsenal's league record since their League Cup final defeat to Birmingham last February: DDDWDDWDDLWLLDDLL. I could list the reasons behind that miserable form but I would be wasting everyone's time. The complaints are all too familiar; Arsenal need a physically-strong centre-back, an assured goalkeeper and a hard-tackling midfield terrier (or two). With the departures of Fàbregas and Nasri, a strong case could be made for the need of another attacking midfielder. The 8-2 annihilation at Old Trafford highlighted their flaws right down to the most excruciating minute detail. There are three days left in the transfer window and the received wisdom says Arsenal need to invest. But do they?

Arsène Wenger knows something about football. He also knows a fair deal about football management, having managed at a high level for 27 uninterrupted years. Since 1996, he has been one of English football's most prominent innovators and successful managers; three Premier League titles (including that unbeaten 2003-04 season), four FA Cups and two doubles betray the influence of the greatest manager Arsenal have ever had, Herbert Chapman included. Wenger's staggeringly prolific trophy haul in his first decade at Arsenal cannot be refuted or ignored, but nor can the barren spell that has followed.

In the six years since Arsenal beat Manchester United on penalties in the FA Cup final, Arsenal have failed to win a trophy not named the Emirates Cup. Such a dry period is infinitely more pronounced at a club as accustomed to success as Arsenal. Criticism is much more keenly distributed as a result, and minor disappointments are distorted into major catastrophes. From Vieira and Henry leaving, to Champions League and League Cup final defeat, Arsenal appear to have lurched from one disaster to another. But upon closer inspection, these "disasters" aren't nearly as significant as many would have you believe.

When Vieira left for Juventus, Arsenal's midfield was criticised as too weak. Cesc Fàbregas and Mathieu Flamini then came to the fore and Arsenal reached the Champions League final, beating Juventus and Vieira along the way. After defeat to Barcelona in the final, Arsenal managed to keep most of the squad together while adding Tomáš Rosický, Emmanuel Adebayor and Alex Song. When Thierry Henry left for Barcelona the following summer, Arsenal were a capitulation away at Birmingham City from winning the league without spending obscene amounts of money.

Wenger's financial prudence has been derided and lauded by certain sections of the media in near equal measure, but its long-term benefit to the club must not be disputed. Of course it is ridiculous to suggest that financial prosperity is, in itself, cause for happiness for fans, but it is equally ridiculous to say that fans' happiness and a healthy financial state are mutually exclusive. Many feel that Wenger's reluctance to spend money is a major hindrance to any ambitions of success that can be measured in silverware. But Wenger, rather than throwing money at problems as a short-term solution, is simply taking the long-term view that will be most beneficial to Arsenal.

His faith in the youth team is well-documented and has produced quality players such as Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczęsny and Kieran Gibbs. Another manager may have neglected these players and instead spent upwards of £40 million on less talented alternatives. This fails from both a footballing and financial perspective and is the main reason why Wenger has chosen not to spend large amounts of money on areas that need improvement. Would Arsenal really be any better off had they spent £10 million on Scott Parker rather than develop Alex Song, Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin? Did they really need to sign an ageing Shay Given when they already had Szczęsny on the books? This is the logic behind Wenger's reluctance to spend. It really is not that difficult to understand.

None of this is to say that Wenger never buys players for large sums. In the last four years, Wenger has spent £10 million or more on Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and, most recently of all, Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. While Nasri and Vermaelen subsequently vindicated Wenger's decision to spend, Arshavin and Koscielny have never consistently convinced while at Arsenal. This serves as evidence that spending millions of pounds on players does not necessarily guarantee a higher performance level than, say, backing a youth-team graduate. He may have cost £10 million, but Koscielny has not showed enough to suggest that he is a better option that Johan Djourou, an academy graduate who joined Arsenal when he was 16.

Wenger knows the risk he is taking by not bowing to the demands of fans. Most managers would not survive the ire directed at his transfer dealings. Wenger is not most managers, however, and his utter devotion to his philosophy* may be his saving grace. Upon intitial inspection, the unexpected signing of Park Chu-Young may give the impression of a manager making it up as he goes along, but Wenger is far too intelligent and wily for that. It should not be forgotten that Arsenal are in the Champions League for the 14th successive season, hardly an indicator of a club in crisis. A crumbling Tottenham team and an average Liverpool side are the only genuine competitors for a top four finish and an FA Cup or League Cup run is not out of the question by any means, as last year's run to the final shows.

I appreciate Arsenal fans' frustration after six trophyless years, but they must exercise patience for the benefit of Arsenal in the long run. Replacing Wenger now would waste all of the groundwork he has worked so hard to put in place and would guarantee nothing but a dent in Arsenal's budget. The pathetic defeat to United was demoralising, sobering and chastening but not cause for managerial change. Rather than dwelling on the recent poor Premier League results (which I am convinced are nothing more than a blip) focus on the attractive football under Wenger, the talented academy graduates and the vital European away wins. Calling for Wenger's head threatens all of these things; but most dangerously of all, seeking Wenger's dismissal is to agree with Piers Morgan.

*also known as His Plan or The Project

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