A look across the majority of recent Arsenal blogs would find amongst the many conflicting opinions a general agreement that the mighty Arsenal FC have rather lost their way in recent seasons. Whilst some criticise the direction being taken both on and off the field, many simply bemoan that fact that they see no apparent direction at all. And this is what many people cry out for – firm, clear, decisive leadership that is transparent to the fans. Arsene Wenger is at the very centre of this debate of course, with many simply concluding that he has lost the plot or the capacity to adapt with the times. I’m a bit confused by this, on a number of fronts, so I thought I’d set out some of the tensions concealed within what many seem to see as an obvious truth.
Firstly then, the strategy question. I would argue that looking back over Arsene’s career there have been very clear and distinct phases of club strategy. His arrival heralded both new fitness and training regimes and the import of young overseas talent, in particular those from the French leagues. The team comprised power, pace and technique, and the mix of players provided arguably the most exciting football of the premier league era. Inevitably the formula was copied by every manager in the league. None matched the end product, but our strategic advantage had gone as every club looked for the best foreign talent.
The next phase was shaped by financial stringency resulting from the Emirates project, whilst oil fuelled clubs raised the competition levels. We can debate the timing of the Emirates venture – arguably in hindsight we might have been better waiting to higher earning times to reduce the proportionate debt load. But hindsight is just that. We adapted our strategy to live within a reduced budget and youth talent development became the central theme, as we could no longer buy the best from overseas, nor could we retain stars who wanted big pay rises. This was a great time in many respects, for the sheer excitement of the young talent we could bring in and the brilliance of the football played, albeit inevitably without the consistency. But any young player wanting to develop and get a chance to play in the first 11 of a Champions League side must have thought hard about joining us. We started players at 16 if they showed the talent, and regularly fielded several teenagers in the same team. Again, this strategy of trusting youth has been mirrored successfully by other clubs since Wenger introduced it.
As loss of key players continued to set us back intermittently we moved into a home-grown talent strategy, still operating within budget constraints, but trying to build our squad around a British core that could grow up together – in concept, much as we see the current Spurs side developing. Sadly this strategy did not bear the fruit that was hoped for – too many injuries and too many young players who never quite fulfilled their promise. The concept wasn’t necessarily a flawed one, but the players weren’t the right mix, for which all (Wenger included) must share the blame. The vision and plan was clear and purposeful however.
As our finances finally improved we broke out of the spending shackles and started to make significant strategic acquisitions, players of the very highest calibre in world football. The strategy has been to blend these in with the best of our established core, adding one or two a year. This is exactly what most fans have been waiting for through the last 10 years. The profile of our team changed accordingly, and the style of play also moved with this. We no longer play with so many youngsters in our team, and some of the brash flair has gone with it as a result I believe. As we bought big names expectations sky rocketed. And as these have not been met fans have turned and demanded further change – a new leader for one thing. And this is where the question of the next strategy arises, and is so important for us. We are a team that is currently in transition, but what is the transition that we actually want to see played out?
I am struck reading so many articles that implore us to sign up Jack and Rambo. I like them both, so I can’t object to that can I? Then I see articles about the players we would like to see bought in the summer – midfielders from Germany like Meyer, or wingers from the PL like Zaha. Good players no doubt, no reason for me to not want them in the squad? Then I read articles expressing deep frustration for our failure to play the young talent that has been shining in our youth teams – players like Nelson. Surely we should be playing these stars of the future? And we seem to be at risk of losing such young players to other clubs because frankly there are too many current stars in our squad already for them to have any chance of playing.
So what’s it to be? We can’t have all of these at once – we need to make some hard choices. And I think there is a clear strategy to that effect being played out at Arsenal, that we saw glimpses of last summer and then bit hard in January. We are now going to create space in our squad to either buy the very best talent or to allow the best of our youngsters to come through. This means playing hard ball over contracts with those who marginal in our squad, and selling those who do not make it or are not willing to take less than stellar terms. But we will pay top dollar to the very best. Our strategy has hardened, and I applaud it. It may well mean that Jack or Rambo, or even both, go in the summer if they aren’t prepared to fight for a place in this team – but if that opens the way for Nelson or another then sobeit.
I’m excited about this transition. We have a lot of top talent, in particular in our attack, and we need to give these players time to get used to each other. But we have lost some of that youthful dynamism that came when we played a few teenagers, filled with cocky confidence and out to impress. I want some of that back. And if that means letting some established stars and fan favourites go then I’m up for it happening. We do still need to buy, but for now only at the back in my view – unless the proverbial ‘exceptional talent’ suddenly becomes available.
So what do we think, is it time for pruning this squad and making space for some youth as well as top imported talent, or should we keep all the current team and try to add to it as well? Are we prepared to let some of our favourites go in order to fund these changes?