Some interesting stuff from Arsene Wenger doing the rounds this morning in most of the papers. He talks about his thoughts for the new season, the job itself, how consuming it is, the finances of football, and loads more.
Wenger will be 66 in October, at some point retirement beckons, but it’s something that obviously causes him some consternation:
Retirement? Yes, it crosses my mind sometimes but for no longer than five seconds because I panic a little bit. When we played at Man United, he [Alex Ferguson] came to meet me after the game. I said: ‘Come on, you don’t miss it?’ He says: ‘No.’ He had enough. He goes to every game. But he has horses. I have no horses.
It could almost be an epitaph: ‘Here lies Arsene Wenger – he had no horses’. But it speaks to his commitment to the game – football isn’t just part of his life, it revolves around it like it’s the sun. Much has changed since he took over in 1996, in particular financially, and he’s quite blunt about the effect of money on the competitiveness of the game:
In Spain only two clubs can win it, in Germany only one club can win it and the different rule changes have changed that. We will certainly not see Nottingham Forest winning the European Cup any more and we can analyse the reasons, but it is just down to financial resources. The clubs who have better financial resources have the better teams.
Which has always been the case really, but it’s never been so obvious. There is also room for a team like Atletico Madrid to crack the duality of La Liga, but part of why that was so much fun was because of how rare it is. Ultimately, there really are only four teams in England that could win the league, and the only way that group will expand is if somebody else gets a huge amount of investment to allow them to compete.
Arsenal, of course, haven’t enjoyed the cash injection of a Man City or a Chelsea, but set out on a different path just as those things started to happen in the game. The fruits of that are ripening now, with new commercial deals, new TV deals, and a less restrictive financial landscape, and that we’ve now got a more competitive squad is obvious because of that.
The desire to grow elements of his team from within, rather than pick and choose from the shelves, is still at the heart of Wenger’s philosophy:
We want to continue to combine stronger financial resources with faith in our philosophy and policy. That means giving chances to young players and building from inside our club with our culture. After, if we can buy the exceptional players, we can compete today. But that will not be the basis of our policy.
Stability is undervalued and that is what we want to show. I believe Chelsea has good stability, especially defensively, and they took advantage of it from the start of the season.
Some of that might be about buying ‘exceptional’ young players and hoping they make the breakthrough, and I think there’s a lot to be said for having an academy from which young players can see a path to first team football. To shut that off completely surely can’t be a healthy thing, but it will become even more challenging for that pathway to remain open when the club have the finances to buy better players.
Simply put: as the quality of the players we buy increases, so too does the difficultly of making the breakthrough from within. We’re seeing big names coming in from the biggest clubs around Europe, rather than having to make-do and mend with mid-level purchases, some of which will pay off and some of which just won’t.
It demands an improvement at youth level, in terms of coaching and preparation, and the quality of young player coming through. That in itself is a positive thing, and over the last 18 months we’ve seen that process begin to take place with new appointments to the coaching and administration staff, as well redevelopment of, and investment in, facilities.
Their job, as it stands right now, is to identify and generate players who can come into a side with players like Ozil, Cazorla, Alexis, Ramsey etc. That’s not easy by any means, and it might be a case that a young player who has come through finds himself out the door when a better option comes along (as seems to be the case with Wojciech Szczesny, although he’s been pretty much the master of his own downfall).
Maybe I’m naive or some kind of purist, but I like a philosophy that provides young players who have come up through a system a chance. When you ask folks of my age who their favourite players of days gone by are you’ll hear about the signings, the flair players, like Bergkamp, Limpar and Wright, but also just as much about Tony Adams, Ray Parlour and David Rocastle – guys who came up through the ranks. We have a long, rich tradition of that at Arsenal and it would be a shame to turn our backs on that.
The attrition rate will be higher than ever, the talent, dedication and, perhaps, luck, you need to join a football club like Arsenal and make it from youth level to first team regular means that very few will ever do it, but we ought not to close the door on them the way other clubs have. The majority of players we produce will play elsewhere, but there’s still something a bit special about a youngster fulfilling their potential and making the grade.
As Wenger says:
Most of the clubs who have been successful are clubs who have done that well. You can take Barcelona or Manchester United, who had a generation and built their success on players who came from within. These are our values and it is our DNA and it’s important we keep that.
It doesn’t mean that money won’t be spent. You only have to give a cursory look at what we’ve done since the signing of Mesut Ozil to see how things have changed. How many times have we heard the refrain ‘Spend some fucking money?’. Well, we’ve been spending it, seem more inclined to spend it, and I don’t think we’re going to stop – but as I said before, there comes a point where signings have to be from the top drawer to improve your side and for obvious reasons those are more difficult to make.
What comes across most clearly from this interview is that Wenger is, perhaps to his own detriment at times, somebody whose view is always long-term. Inevitably, his time will come to a close sooner rather than later, and he says:
I want to do well for the club and, as well, when I leave one day, leave the club in a position where the club can go on and on. That is why I always fought for the financial fair play – that is vital so the guy who comes in has top quality players, a strong financial situation and can work with his ideas. That, for me, is very, very important.
It’s at odds with the increasingly short-termism that permeates football these days. He’s not above criticism by any means but other managers make decisions (Falcao and di Maria, for example) that are, essentially, expensive mistakes, driven by their desire to impact the now, rather than the later.
And look, there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m not suggesting there’s only one way to do things, but even with more money at his disposal and the freedom to do what he wants with it, Arsene Wenger will nearly always be the man who thinks about how what he does will impact things in the future, not just today or tomorrow.
In some ways he is a leopard whose spots have changed. He seems more open to new ideas, to the vagaries and demands of the modern game, because I believe him when he says he wants to do well for the club. Part of that is embracing modern methods, changing things around, addressing issues that won’t just away on their own. I think we’ve been a bit too slow to do that at times, but it does seem to be happening more now.
This season ahead his challenge is to build on the back to back FA Cup wins and challenge for the title. I’ve long said that much of the frustration people have felt over the years is because we’ve fallen short of the standards that Wenger himself set in the first half of his managerial career at this club. The old caviar/sausage thing. His long-term vision, including the stadium project, was made at a time before oligarchs and billionaire investors whose arrival shifted the landscape entirely (remember, it came at a time when only United and Arsenal could win it).
He, and Arsenal, stuck with it – for better or worse is another argument entirely – but that long-term vision now has to become short-term success. Two cups are some evidence of that coming to fruition, the next step is the Premier League.