On such results a season can hinge. Whilst the ensuing outpour of support and praise for Arsene Wenger is somewhat galling given the questions raised recently, yesterday’s victory over Udinese was more significant than simply ensuring entry into the group stages of the Champions League.
Whilst qualification for the Champions League proper is now assured, the problems for Wenger remain. Granted, the result last night will help him to convince his reported targets (M’Villa, Cahill, Hazard, Albiol, Martin) that The Emirates is somewhere that they can achieve. Yet, inescapably, Arsenal are a selling club. And whilst Ramsey, Frimpong and Wilshere have the complementary strengths to form an exceptional triumvirate, it is those players in the age and experience gap between Wilshere et al and Van Persie at 28 that Wenger must now retain and attract to provide balance to his squad. You can win things with kids, but they must complement an established team, rather than form the nucleus.
For failing to maintain a team of established players in their mid 20s, Wenger must shoulder the blame. It has been apparent that Fabregas would become a Barcelona player sooner rather than later. Yet the succession planning has been conspicuous by its absence. Samir Nasri played his best games at Arsenal last season when he was deployed in the central berth, vacated by Fabregas through injury. Nasri was displaying the necessary aspects of his game at the right time to both succeed Fabregas and soften the blow of his departure. Yet Wenger allowed his contract to run down, gambling that he would stay loyal to Arsenal, and has lost the most exciting talent in his squad as a result.
Wenger’s approach to completing transfers recently is another area of considerable question. Manchester United have gazumped him to both Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, players that cost a combined £26m, but in 3 years will grow to be worth that sum each. His method of placing smaller, incremental bids is derisory and creates ill feeling amongst selling clubs. Juan Mata was so sold on Arsenal that he had asked Fabregas about the club, and areas of London in which to live, yet Wenger hesitated and was beaten to Mata’s signature by Chelsea. The prospective deal for Gary Cahill smacks of the same lack of foresight. As Wenger deliberates and tries to squeeze every last penny of value out of the deal, Liverpool are lurking.
For all Wenger's faults, Arsenal's medical team must receive greater scrutiny. Thomas Vermaelen played 3 games of last season before receiving an injury to his achilles. He didn’t play for the first team for 9 months. Tomas Rosicky’s hamstring injury in 08/09 ruled him out for a bewildering 18 months. Fabregas had regular muscle injuries, meaning that he averaged 26.5 league games per season at Arsenal. The list goes on, and whilst the argument that Wenger buys less expensive players and by nature cheaper players break more easily, the above cost around £50m to buy/sell and spent large periods of time not on the pitch. Injuries have been a feature of Wenger’s time at Arsenal and it is surely his duty to rectify this.
Such is the nature of the managerial merry go round, that recent events at Arsenal have ensured it is Wenger’s turn in the stocks. It is worth noting his overbearing, almost autocratic presence at Arsenal has ensured he is alone as he fights on all fronts to sustain the success of the project that has consumed him for 15 years. When Sir Alex Ferguson or Harry Redknapp have come under fire from fans and media, their respective Chairmen have come out in support; not to provide the dreaded ‘vote of confidence’ but to shoulder some of the flak and vitriol that clubs inevitably attract as they ride the undulations of top flight football.
What is apparent is that Wenger has created a situation seemingly of complete control, and has engineered a management dynamic that no longer suggests partnership with a member of the board a la Ferguson/Gill and Redknapp/Levy. Wenger wants it this way, and as a result can take credit for what is ostensibly ‘his club’. Yet more recently it has become almost cliché to refer to Wenger casting a ‘lonesome, forlorne figure’. He is a principled and studious man, and has done more for English football than even Sir Alex Ferguson. Yet there is clear discontent at the situation in which his club currently finds itself. Financially hamstrung by a lavish stadium, the talk of trouble at the senior management level has been cast off as scaremongering, yet Wenger’s comments about not being considered a big club if they sold Fabregas and Nasri are telling. As Annie Eaves has mentioned, Wenger understands that the club must generate £24m per season in order to pay off their stadium debts within 17 years. Yet Wenger is evidently disconsolate that this money is principally delivered through selling his best players. The comments are therefore surely interpreted as a message to the board to stop using Arsenal’s squad to pay down debt, or risk Arsenal dropping out of the upper echelons of European football.
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