Arsenal this summer have a great platform on which to build on. They have Champions League football to offer, a fine stadium, a young, talented team that finished last season like a train and finances that are in great shape. The club, on and off the field, is ripe for success.
But almost every summer, you could say that. Every season, they finish in the top four, have their finances in increasingly good order, a transfer budget that allows them to push on and challenge the Manchester clubs at the top of the tree, but they never do. They get carried away trying to keep their best players rather than bringing in the people who could both push them higher up the table and help persuade their top players to stay at the club and not seek success (and money) elsewhere.
Arsene Wenger’s refusal to spend the money and bring in the top class players Arsenal need must be incredibly frustrating for supporters who are subject to amongst the highest ticket prices in the most expensive league in the world. His philosophy, of a side playing attacking football based on young, talented, cheap players has perhaps taken hold of him too much since the heady days of the Invincibles.
His attitude could be compared to that of Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. Clough won a league title and two European Cups in his first five years at Forest with players like Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns, who were not the easiest to handle and didn’t necessarily comply with Clough’s footballing principles, but who were excellent players who gave Forest the toughness and resilience they needed to achieve success.
Later in Clough’s reign, as Jonathan Wilson points out in his biography of the great man, when the boozers and brawlers disappeared off his teamsheet and were replaced with goody two shoes who were more naturally suited to his preferred style of play (and all had uniformly neat haircuts, nicely tucked in shirts and Stuart Pearce aside a charming, almost cute air of innocence about them), they always finished in the top half of the table and even won a couple of League Cups, but never achieved the success they had previously. They often struggled against physical sides, the Wimbledons of the world, who outmuscled them in the sort of games you must win to sustain challenges for the league.
They didn’t play ‘football in the clouds’, won the hearts of neutrals, but didn’t attain the success they could and perhaps should have done if they made the occasional compromise and weren’t overly obsessed with footballing ideals.
Wenger’s reign at Arsenal has many similarities. His greatest successes came when he married his own ideals with those of his predecessors, his players playing the style of football he desired but in Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Tony Adams and others possessing those who relished a scrap and gave them the requisite toughness to achieve success. In the last few years, with Wenger building sides solely in his own image, they’ve come up short. The image of Arsenal as soft Southern pansies who don’t like a physical battle still lingers, and that isn’t the image you get from league winners and cup victors.
Another reason perhaps for Wenger’s reluctance to spend big is that when he has made big signings at Arsenal, they’ve not all been successes. The likes of Francis Jeffers, Richard Wright, Andrei Arshavin, Jose Antonio Reyes, perhaps even Sylvain Wiltord commanded big fees and did not contribute nearly as much as they should have done. The bargain basement signings, like those of Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Robin van Persie and others, have worked out best. With such an oddly Mark Hughes-esque transfer history, a reluctance to spend big is understandable.
But that was then. This is now. Arsenal are currently a good side who don’t need many more pieces to challenge regularly for honours, particularly in the season ahead when the three clubs who finished ahead of them will be under new management and hence may well start the season slowly.
The nettle is there for them to grasp. They have the money and the resources to bring in players in their positions of need – namely a centre forward who can relive the pressure off Olivier Giroud, a goalkeeper who can dominate his area, and a genuine defensive midfielder who can win the ball and distribute it neatly to Wilshere, Cazorla and others. If they could have three players from rivals Tottenham, in addition to Gareth Bale they’d surely take Hugo Lloris and Sandro, a top goalkeeper and combative midfielder respectively who’d elevate them to another level.
Wenger is a genuinely great manager, for not just his longevity at Arsenal but the respect he clearly commands in his players and the success he’s had. But if he has a weakness, it is his refusal to spend big and buy players with courage when necessary. Sir Alex Ferguson has always ensured at Manchester United there was a hard edge to his team and that they wouldn’t come out second best in a dogfight. You didn’t see Bruce, Pallister, Keane, Ince, Stam, Vidic etc come out of a scrap the worse for wear.
To be fair to Wenger, he has shown signs of changing in the last season or two. Per Mertesacker is not a prototypical Wenger player – he’s slow, can look both awkward and clumsy on the ball and with his height looks faintly like a giraffe at times. But his strength in the air, experience and ability to organise a defence have been priceless, especially when paired with Laurent Koscielny. Mikel Arteta too signed for Arsenal aged 29 – unusually old by Arsenal’s standards. But his ability to retain possession and distribute it neatly have made him a crucial part of the team, and also helped steady the ship when Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were long term absences.
Arteta and Mertesacker are proof of how bringing in experience can work. A summer of bringing in under-21 internationals who look promising in the Carling Cup but at the end of the season contribute little is simply not good enough. Players who can arrive at the club, contribute immediately and elevate Arsenal to challenge for the title and at least one of the domestic cup competitions are imperative. The attitude of merely settling for a top four finish has to cease.
Fans have been loyal to Wenger, and when you consider the success he has had, deservedly so. But the trophyless run they have endured since 2005 can’t go on. It has to end, and Wenger has to make compromises. If he does, success will surely arrive. If he doesn’t, he has to be axed.