Friday, June 2, 2023

Erase and Rewind

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Arsenal are nearing the end of a cycle with the current squad, with most of their clutch players either exiting their prime years, or departing for pastures new. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez were the poster boys for this iteration of the Arsenal team and they will symbolise its swift disintegration too.

The nomenclature of Arsene’s other squads have been easy to assign. There was the early ‘Double’ winning side of 1997-98, with its perfect mixture of British steel and Gallic flair (and a pinch of Dutch genius). Then there were ‘The Invincibles’ of course, from around 2001-05. The early Emirates period is known as ‘Project Youth’, as stadium debt forced a change in the club’s transfer policy.

The jewels in the ‘Project Youth’ crown, Fabregas and van Persie, both left the club in quick succession, bringing the curtain down on that stanza of Arsene Wenger’s reign. Painful though those departures were, once sponsorship deals were renewed in 2013 and Arsenal’s cashflow stabilised, they were quickly able to procure Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez.

Now, of course, we find we have come full circle as the headline acts of this Arsenal generation are soon to shuffle off into the sunset. On the one hand, at least the Gunners will have availed of some of their prime years. On the other, the club are not going to get paid for either and it’s quite likely that both will pitch up at Premier League rivals.

So how will we look back on the “Özil and Alexis era” in years to come? Indeed, what will we call it? While disgruntlement has grown in the fan base during these years, the club did at least end its trophy drought, securing 3 FA Cups in 4 years (there is, of course, the possibility of adding to this prior to the pair departing this summer).

Both players played a significant part in those cup triumphs too, to the extent that it is difficult to imagine that Arsenal would have broken their trophy hoodoo so emphatically without them. The signing of Mesut Özil had huge symbolic importance for the club, it was a sign that the financial shackles had loosened and Arsenal could compete for the world’s best players again.

In the immediate aftermath of the signing, I wrote in this column “This is the sort of player we built the Emirates for.” Mesut’s cerebral nature makes it difficult to gauge how successful his signing has been. My own personal opinion is that he has been very good, but he has slightly under delivered given his talent. Some of that is down to him, but a large portion of it is down to Arsenal really.

Seb Stafford Bloor explains this conundrum very precisely in this piece. In hindsight, one would say that Özil is the sort of player that completes a team, he isn’t a first building block. The German needs intensity and organisation around him to thrive, so that he can be the ghost in the well-oiled machine.

It is fair to say that Arsenal have not built that structure for him. It is easy to imagine that he will find it if he moves to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, which is a sobering thought indeed. He has never totally fitted in at Arsenal, partly because he is a maverick surrounded by mavericks, but also because of who he is.

Mesut is not the engine of a team, but if the motor is running, he will make it purr. His reputation has suffered because he was a marquee signing, but that runs at odds with his style. He is more condiment than main course. At times, at Arsenal he has had the appearance of a frightfully expensive Cheval Blanc asked to compliment a serviceable nandos dish.

Of course, Arsenal followed up on the acquisition of Özil by procuring Alexis Sanchez a year later. Shaking the apple tree at Europe’s super clubs and seeing what pleasures might drop promised to be a sustainable transfer policy. The problem was that Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern settled into their cycles.

Between them, Bayern, Barca and Madrid stockpiled the world’s foremost attacking talent in their respective primes, so they did a little less horse trading as a result. The summer of 2015 proved to be a pivotal one for Arsenal, as they purchased only Petr Cech from Chelsea. Arsene spent the summer casing Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, but the orchard wasn’t ripe for the raiding on this occasion.

The manager has struggled to build a coherent team around both of his stellar talents. He has relied a little too much on their individual qualities in lieu of a functioning team. Wenger has eked more out of less talented squads. Star players are difficult to manage, that’s just the trade-off for having them. Neymar, Ronaldo, Robben et al are not nice, submissive boys. You cannot change someone’s personality, a good manager understands personalities and manages them accordingly.

Arsene probably felt more comfortable managing the ‘Project Youth’ team because they were more malleable. If you tell Denilson or Abou Diaby that they are playing on the left wing today, they do it. If you tell them you want them to play in defensive midfield, they do it. When you play Mesut Özil on the left wing, Mesut’s ‘people’ will brief against you.

Similarly, Sanchez’s strops are, by now, legion. The Chilean has always been demonstrative; he was at Barcelona, he is for Chile and he has been since he joined Arsenal. Much like Thierry Henry, Sanchez has a highly tuned sense of theatre. He has fared better than Özil with Arsenal’s tactical indecision, but that’s largely because he plays on instinct more than instruction. Wherever you play him, in whichever formation you play, he is going to do the same thing anyway.

You don’t slot Alexis into a team, you put him on the pitch and have the team slotted in around him (which is why I think the number 10 position is probably the best one for him, on balance). As I wrote a few weeks ago, both Alexis and Özil thrive away from the structure of the team, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that a manager like Arsene Wenger has not been able to put the scaffolding around them to turn their individuality into more of a virtue.

With key commercial deals on the horizon and a summer where Arsenal will lose the likes of Sanchez, Özil and Cazorla on free transfers, finishing in the top 4 has become a huge priority for the club again, just in case we didn’t feel as though we had traversed the circle enough. The overriding feeling, I think, will be that this generation of players under delivered on their potential.

Some would argue that is because Arsenal allowed themselves to become too reliant on their star players, ceding to them rather than building around them. Others might argue that the individualistic tendencies of both made it difficult for the manager to build a coherent unit. Arsene has had elite players at Arsenal before, of course, but, as the legend had it, Arsenal didn’t sign stars at that time, they made them.

That gave Arsene a kind of power over the likes of Pires, Vieira and Henry that he hasn’t been able to exercise over Alexis and Özil. Their signings broke the habit of a lifetime for the manager, who was finally ready to buy ready made from the top bracket. Yet Arsenal’s league points tally has stayed remarkably consistent with more frugal times.

Back in 2014, Arsene Wenger told a gathering of supporters’ groups, “You don’t need top class scouting to buy Mesut Özil. You need money.” Arsene’s star turns helped to bring silverware back to the club, but the impression remains that ‘the Özil and Alexis’ era, hasn’t quite lived up to its promise.

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