Arsene Knows... An Extract From Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub

Alex Flynn's critically acclaimed dissection of Arsenal FC is one of the seminal biographies of the club. Now it has been updated with four new chapters, up to the end of the fruitless 2010/11 season. Here he examines how Wenger has been the architect of his own undoing.
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Based on unprecedented access granted to the authors, including exclusive interviews with Arsène Wenger and key Board members, current and former players, Arsènal looks in detail at the Gunners’ transformation into a global superpower under the stewardship of their French manager and what has gone wrong over the last few years. The book analyses the state of the club, both on and off the pitch, and the authors give their opinions on what needs to be done by the Manager and the Board to keep Arsenal at football’s top-table….

The real eye-opener regarding Arsène Wenger’s teams since the move to the Emirates is not that they have so far failed to clear the final hurdle, but that they have so often approached the home straight in contention despite having so many non- world-class and inexperienced players in their line-up.

To underline the point, how many of the post-2004 personnel would have forced their way into the Invincibles? Sagna, Fàbregas, maybe Nasri and Van Persie. But that’s it. And Sagna arguably owes his selection to Lauren being the weakest link in that great side rather than his own world-class status. More to the point, how in 2010/11 could the manager believe he had a potential title-winning squad when it depended on a spine of Almunia, Squillaci and Denílson?

Prioritising invention and trusting that victory will be its natural consequence is all very well, but winning trophies is an esteemable end in itself and one that has arguably played second fiddle to style for too long. Pound for pound, Arsène Wenger has probably given his employers more value than any other manager in the history of the English game, but comparisons, however favourable, do not pick up championships. In absolute terms of winning the top-ranked trophies, he has in recent seasons finished behind Ferguson, Mourinho, Hiddink, Benitez and Ancelotti.

Certainly, Arsène Wenger can point to the plentiful number of goals scored and to the fact that they arrive from all over the place, but how many opportunities were squandered by unnecessary elaboration? And the combined goal haul of Arsenal’s midfield in 2007/08 was just over half of the 42 Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo managed on his own. Alexander Hleb was not able in three seasons to equal what Robert Pires scored in one.

Nevertheless, the goals which were scored would have sufficed if so many hadn’t been given away so readily at the other end. Arsenal’s lack of aerial dominance at the back and the capacity to succumb to elementary errors exposed a crucial vulnerability. Since when did an uncapped or immature goalkeeper and a less-than-world-class central defensive pairing anchor a championship-winning side?

Unfortunately, there was also no indication that the manager was prepared to face up to these and other deficiencies. Prospects needed to be given the opportunity to play, to demonstrate the skills learnt under his tutelage, but rarely were. Loans can be beneficial both to the individual and the team. Wenger just has to make sure that if he can’t find room for his boys he is sending them to the right club with the promise of a starting role. And with the passage of time the right placements, wherever possible with Premier League clubs, have started to pay dividends.

Without his stay at Bolton, Jack Wilshere would not have been able to step up with such aplomb when injuries forced his inclusion. As Wilshere often emphasises, however many reserve games and few-and-far-between cup appearances you might play, there’s no substitute for top-flight experience where winning is paramount because every point matters.

The faults are apparent but who will tell Arsène what should happen? Certainly not Boro Primorac; it’s not his job. Nor Pat Rice, more assistant than manager. Unlike Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, where former top bosses have been happy to take a supporting role, Arsenal do not have the highest calibre of back-up. At these clubs, despite his status, the manager does recognise he might be wrong on occasions.

When there was past talk of him leaving, it was accompanied by the fear of how his exit might precipitate a similar reaction from his players. Now the fear is more of leaving a young squad bereft of a father figure.

What began as a necessity to be financially stringent to facilitate the stadium move and proceed with caution while the debt was being paid off, has led to an unhealthy degree of stubbornness in the Arsenal manager. His glorious first decade instilled a perception – fed by the directors and the media – of his infallibility. His distaste for buying success (“financial doping”) led him to adopt prudence as a personal project, which saw its perfect expression in the attempt to build a successful young team playing pure football without the corrupting influence of big-name, big-money transfers. The tunnel vision of his ambition enabled him to avoid clinching the obvious moves, thereby passing on the opportunity of acquiring key men for key positions such as goalkeepers Mark Schwarzer and Shay Given, and midfielder Xabi Alonso. A strong number two, if he had one, would have questioned the strategy. If nothing else he would have certainly felt that he could delegate more and indulge himself in his love of inter- national talent-spotting. How many more bargains might he have picked up?

However, unchallenged on and off the field, there is no indication that Arsène Wenger will change his way of working. So just as there is no one to tell him that on occasions his selection and tactics might be questionable, no one on the board has forced him to face up to certain fundamental issues which could shape the club’s future, the main one being his succession. Wenger’s legacy in bricks and mortar – the training ground and the stadium – is an infrastructure that should provide a conducive working environment for whoever follows him. The process of planning for this eventuality should have begun long ago, yet it is still not an item on the agenda at board meetings.

When there was past talk of him leaving, it was accompanied by the fear of how his exit might precipitate a similar reaction from his players. Now the fear is more of leaving a young squad bereft of a father figure. Now more than ever the board should insist that one of Wenger’s main tasks is to put in place a three-year plan for his succession.

Whoever takes over should do his utmost to persuade Wenger to remain involved. His successor would surely benefit by welcoming him as a director of football whose main task would be to determine the strategy for the playing side and develop a conveyor belt of young players.

However, finding talented footballers is not an end in itself for Wenger. Would he be satisfied with turning them over to other people to work with and forego his coaching and managerial duties forever? And would his presence not intimidate his replacement, which was the effect Matt Busby had at Manchester United when he vacated the managerial chair and why Bill Shankly was not invited back to Anfield to help Bob Paisley.

'Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub' by Alex Fynn & Kevin Whitcher is available from Vision Sports Publishing.

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