Arsenal: Is Wenger's Greatest Strength Also His Greatest Flaw?

Arsene Wenger, architect of scintillating Arsenal football but too economical for the modern transfer market. Has that always been the case?
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Arsene Wenger, architect of scintillating Arsenal football but too economical for the modern transfer market. Has that always been the case?

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Casting a lonely shadow: Time for Wenger to leave?

Arsene Wenger, architect of scintillating Arsenal football but too economical for the modern transfer market. Has that always been the case?

The following was first published at the beginning of February 2011:

It’s been a week since the January transfer window closed. One of the sides in the league to make just one signing were Arsenal. In true Wenger fashion, the signing of Ryo Miyaichi represents one of Wenger’s biggest strengths – signing an exciting young footballer with the sole aim of turning him into a good first team player at minimal cost. Is Wenger’s greatest strength his biggest flaw though?

Track back to the 1996/97 season, Wenger’s first in English football. Arsenal finished third – incredibly the only time that Arsenal haven’t qualified for the Champions League under Wenger – despite a scare in 2005/06. With Wenger in charge, Arsenal brought in 11 players that season (NB Vieira and Garde were technically signed before Wenger joined but he requested their signings upon signing a contract with Arsenal) – these signings would provide a fascinating insight into how Wenger would initially work in the transfer market.

In the first ten years of Wenger’s reign (the period pre-Emirates), 109 players left Arsenal at an average sale of £1.12m per player.

There was the marquee signing – Marc Overmars; the safe signing – Emmanuel Petit; the young talents – Matthew Upson, Nicolas Anelka and Luis Boa Morte; and there was the bargain risk – Patrick Vieira (Vieira cost £3.5m; this was considered a lot for a player who was struggling to break through at AC Milan but like the Henry signing later on, it was a risk that turned out to be priceless). There were other signings too, squad players like Alex Manninger and Remi Garde would play their part over the next few years.

Spending on a marquee player, a lot of talented youth and a couple of cheap risks is a pattern that is repeated right up until the move to the Emirates stadium. Like other clubs, Arsenal’s net spend over the 10 seasons Wenger managed them at Highbury is a positive figure – £5.3m per season. It’s not an extravagant figure and it’s far from a critique. I, like many football fans believe a club is entitled to spend whatever they make from player sales on new players; and a bit more. The ever increasing prize money, TV revenue, merchandise sales and sponsorship has allowed clubs to be able to spend more than what they make just from player sales. So much so that only Portsmouth have a negative net spend since the start of the Premier League.

Whilst happy to spend and reinvest all the money he got from transfer sales, Wenger and Arsenal were successful. Seven major trophies came their way along with numerous title battles; not to mention arguably Wenger’s greatest achievement to date – “The Invincibles” and their 49 match unbeaten league run.

Spending on a marquee player, a lot of talented youth and a couple of cheap risks is a pattern that is repeated right up until the move to the Emirates stadium

Wenger’s pattern of spending big and bring in the bargains continued – there was decent money parted with to sign Reyes, Wiltord, Henry, Van Bronckhorst, Lauren, Hleb, Walcott and even Jeffers; but then there was also Van Persie, Ljungberg, Gilberto and of course Fabregas signed for relatively little. Wenger’s attitude to selling though was somewhat different. There were big profits made on Vieira, Overmars, Anelka and David Bentley. There was also money lost though as Edu, Pires, Jeffers, Kanu and Van Bronckhorst were sold for under half of what they were bought for. In the first ten years of Wenger’s reign (the period pre-Emirates), 109 players left Arsenal at an average sale of £1.12m per player.

There has been an obvious change in attitude to both buying and selling since the stadium move. Arsenal have a financial policy that attempts to see them become debt-free as soon as possible. When that day comes (it’s not too far off), it will represent an incredibly fast turnaround by Arsenal and they will become hugely powerful in monetary terms.

Since the move 39 players have left Arsenal, at an average price of nearly £3m a player. Comparing that figure with the one stated just before would be wrong on some levels – transfer fees are considerably higher today and the figure of £1.12m covers a much longer period of time. However, in the three years leading up to the stadium move, 42 players left at an average price of under £1m a player – so to some extent, saying the £3m figure solely represents inflated fees isn’t necessarily true.

It is a testament to Wenger that Arsenal have remained in the top four positions in this period – it’s fair to say that success in the Premier League requires spending

The biggest change in policy by club and manager represents not investing all the money received from transfer sales into new signings. The club’s net spending in the five seasons since being at the Emirates is -£5.5m. It is a testament to Wenger that Arsenal have remained in the top four positions in this period – it’s fair to say that success in the Premier League requires spending. It’s therefore feasible that Arsenal could have dropped out of the Champions League positions and missed out on vital revenue.

Arsenal have continued to spend, Vermaelen, Arshavin and Nasri are just a few of the players have cost a sizeable fee (although compared to what United, City, Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea have spent on individuals – Arsenal’s bigger signings are not actually that expensive). Is being the only club not reinvesting all the money gained from sales a good thing or a bad thing? When your main competitors are spending considerably more, is not spending all that is available the right thing to do?

It’s very easy now to say Wenger did the right thing, but with Arsenal on the verge of winning a first trophy in nearly 6 years is Wenger a genius or has he had some luck (just imagine had Arsenal not got 4th place in 2005/06 and had missed out on CL revenue the next season; this current policy would have surely seen them slip backwards then)?

Arsenal’s persistence in buying youth has left them short of experience and leaders

I believe as good as Wenger is at identifying, buying and nurturing young talent who either go on to play and contribute or get sold for a profit; Wenger is also flawed in the transfer market. The very sudden change in transfer policy by Arsenal since the move has not allowed Wenger to properly replace and strengthen certain areas of the squad. Has this recent policy change actually hindered Arsenal’s progress? Should they have been at this stage a few years ago? I think it seems rather obvious that Arsenal’s persistence in buying youth has left them short of experience and leaders. Over 5 years now there is more than £25m they’ve not reinvested – in Wenger terms, that’s two good footballers.

I’m told time and time again by Arsenal fans that there is no money – I would be able to understand this if Arsenal’s net spend was £0 – but the risk of compromising the team’s progress for £25m by saying that should go to paying off debt rather than on a new squad seems a mistake. Even if Arsenal win the league this season they will surely have to invest – those teams around them will no doubt do so in an attempt to become even stronger. Whoever wins the title this year will do so as much because the other teams have been erratic as opposed to because they’re the best team. Flip the coin over; imagine if Arsenal had won the CL in 2005/06 and the league in 2007/08… perception is a funny thing! As I said earlier, it’s little surprise that Wenger’s most successful years are those where he’s spent more than he’s received.

Faith in youth and blooding youngsters is one thing; but striving for success and to become the best is another. The latter doesn’t happen overnight and it can take time. A combination of luck and a brilliant manager has meant Arsenal in terms of league position haven’t regressed since moving to the Emirates but in terms of being regularly competitive they have (until now). Long gone though is the marquee signing we once saw; long gone is the safe Petit, Gilberto or Sylvinho type signing – Wenger needs only to look at just what kind of signings bore the most successful years for him at Arsenal.

it’s little surprise that Wenger’s most successful years are those where he’s spent more than he’s received

Wenger may seek inspiration from his once arch nemesis and now respected rival, Sir Alex Ferguson. Only last Friday after the announcement of Neville’s retirement, Ferguson spoke of the importance of having levels of experience in a squad. According to Ferguson, at all times a squad must have three levels – the elder statesman able to give advice and show the correct attitude (Giggs and Scholes); the players at their peak ready to take on more responsibility when those above them retire (Fletcher, O’Shea, Ferdinand and Vidic); and the younger players who should be inspired and learn from those above them (Nani, Rafael, Smalling and Evans). Needless to say, it’s a winning formula.

For sure, Wenger is a genius. No one finds players like him and his scouting team and no one buys them so cheaply (and makes the profit when they’re sold) like he does – it’s no doubt one of his greatest strengths as a manager and coach. Certainly it would be hard to imagine anyone but him doing so (relatively) well with Arsenal in the past five years considering how little they’ve spent compared to others. But how many Arsenal fans were hoping that their one January signing was a commanding centre back or a tough experienced centre midfielder rather than Ryo Miyaichi?

Genius? Yes. But all geniuses have their flaws.

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Within a year not much has really changed. Arsenal were on course to challenge for four trophies last season and ended up with none whilst in the summer their most expensive signing was, unsurprisingly, a teenager. Key players in Clichy, Nasri and Fabregas left and weren’t properly replaced. With Gervinho signed Arsenal headed into the last 48 hours of the transfer window and surprisingly panic bought – spending nearly £30m on Santos, Arteta, Mertesacker and Chu-Young.

The somewhat harsh truth is that Wenger’s philosophy of buying young and cheap, coupled with a predictable style of football, hasn’t worked

No Arsenal fan could really have been happy with that; at the start of the transfer window there’s no way any of those players would have been identified by fans as signings they’d have wanted but desperate times called for desperate measures.

Despite a poor start to the season, Arsenal have recovered but the possibility of finishing outside the Champions League places is a very real one. The somewhat harsh truth is that Wenger’s philosophy of buying young and cheap, coupled with a predictable style of football, hasn’t worked. Injuries haven’t helped but for the first time, the fans have started to question both the board and the manager for what they’ve been put through the past seven years.

This season has amazingly seen Arsenal lose every third league game they’ve played – what now for Wenger? He’s let key players go and never replaced them? His faith in youngsters has proven to be brave but not successful in terms of silverware. I personally found it amazing to learn that for a manager lauded as one of the best, he’s only won three Premier League titles.

Fellow professionals (Ferguson in particular) are rightly quick to praise and defend Wenger because of what he has achieved but there is only so long a manager can live off past successes – particularly when the present day represents such a huge reversion from the good times.

I personally found it amazing to learn that for a manager lauded as one of the best, he’s only won three Premier League titles.

I still have a huge amount of respect for Wenger but there’s little doubt that his time at Arsenal can be split in two; and the latter spell is for me somewhat tarnishing his reputation. It’s sad to think that someone dubbed a “great” has gotten things so wrong.

Who is the real Wenger - the genius that brought Arsenal success when buying well? Or the somewhat stubborn manager, who along with his board has chosen to cut spending and admirably invest his faith in youth but fail to win anything since 2005?

I welcome all debate on his topic – yes, I’m a Man United fan but I also have a genuine interest in football beyond my club. I’m particularly keen to hear from Arsenal fans on whether they feel Wenger (who at the recent AGM admitted full responsibility for Arsenal’s expenditure) or the board are more to blame for what’s gone on at the club – or are they as culpable as each other (as I believe they are)?

Other Arsenal stories you might like:

Arsenal Can Take Positives From The Loss To Manchester United

Arsenal: Six Deep Flaws Exposed By Manchester United

The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw: Arsenal’s Ray Parlour v Chelsea, 2002

If Hazard Is Going To Chelsea, Arsenal Have To Sign Andre Ayew

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