Saturday 10 December 2016

Brian Kerr: Wenger’s ways at odds with modern management

Brian Kerr

Published 19/11/2016 | 02:30

To some he is stubborn but for others Wenger’s old-fashioned idealism is admirable. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
To some he is stubborn but for others Wenger’s old-fashioned idealism is admirable. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

For more than 20 years, Arsene Wenger has been engrossed in his dream job, building a legacy as well as a football club. Long revered, he has more recently been reviled by some Arsenal fans who once held aloft "In Arsene we trust" placards before replacing those with "In Arsene we rust" alternatives.

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To an extent, the criticism is understandable, given the context of what happened last season when - in a year when their rivals were either in transition or imploding, they failed to capitalise on their struggles to win one of the most open Premier League races there has been. That Leicester City, who began the season as one of the relegation favourites, emerged as champions only served to further undermine his standing among a growing group of critics.

Three times champions under Wenger? Twenty-one straight finishes in the top four of the Premier League? Six FA Cup victories? It didn't seem to matter.

In the here and now, Arsenal's failure to get over the line and move from contenders to champions was getting under the skin of many of their supporters, something I remember seeing on the opening day of the 2013-14 season, when after a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, the abuse directed at him from the stands was extraordinary.

Forking out

"SPEND", read these ready-made A4 sheets that thousands of supporters held in their hands. Within weeks he had, forking out £42m to bring Mesut Ozil to the club from Real Madrid. While briefly quietening the dissenters, overall there has been an annoyance from many Arsenal's fans towards their manager, and by extension, their board - for failing to address the obvious concerns within their side.

As an example, before Petr Cech arrived, it seemed plainly clear to everyone else that they needed a new goalkeeper, as first Lukasz Fabianski and then Wojciech Szczesny, struggled to provide reassurance to a defence who also laboured under the shadow of the men who had been there before them: Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Martin Keown, Sol Campbell.

To everyone else, the obvious answer to these problems was for Wenger to walk into the boardroom and ask for the chequebook. Yet Wenger does things his way. For some he is a stubborn man, whereas for others he is an adherer to a set of principles that are rooted in a different era.

And that sense I get is that he hates the surging wages and transfer fees paid out to today's top players. It is almost as if he is reluctant to hand over the power of the club's transfer policy to someone, in case they would waste Arsenal's money.

And that is admirable because in the modern game, those old-style values can get lost, as most managers are in a position where they will spend the maximum that they can extract from the chairman or owner, not only to find a way to success but to also placate those supporters who always feel new signings are the answer to all their problems.

My own view is different and based on the belief that anyone who is doing the job properly should, by the third year of his reign, have completed the team building process and have his side in as strong a position as their budgets allow, as the final tables in the major European leagues generally reflect the spending and wage power of the respective clubs - Leicester's win last year being a most delightful exception.

So the fact that he has consistently resisted the changing times is impressive because I have found this splurge of summer spending in recent years to be maddening, when in reality, a decent manager will have moulded his team shrewdly over time and should be comfortable enough in his own skin to be able to resist the temptation of bringing in a load of new names for the satisfaction of supporters and the media.

Wenger, however, goes too far the other way and his chief weakness over the years has been an inability to recognise serious weaknesses within his team that could only really be sorted by the arrival of top class players. As a result, Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester City - who until the implementation of Uefa's financial fair play rules - had no restrictions in their pursuit of top players, have left him frustrated and outspent.

With Wenger, there has always been a need to develop talent from within the club, or to stick within a manageable budget. But his rivals' lust for success outscored all that type of stuff. For them, the immediacy of being successful was all that mattered - even though Chelsea would have claimed they wanted one or two emerging from the youth team every season.

Bought

The Wenger policy, to recruit the best at a young age - bear in mind that among others, he bought Theo Walcott from Southampton, Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona, Nicolas Anelka from PSG all before their 19th birthdays - is mixed by his love of a bargain. Anelka cost £500,000 but was sold two years later for £22m. Thierry Henry arrived for £11m, Patrick Vieira for £2.5m, Robin Van Persie for £3.5m. Aside from being hugely influential players during their time at the club, they were also sold for massive profits.

And that has been the chief complaint about Wenger. While the board have been delighted by his prudence in the transfer market, and consistent ability to guide them into the Champions League while balancing the books as they serviced their debt on the recently built Emirates Stadium, supporters have been irked by a continued sale of leading players.

While it was bad enough for them to see Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Anelka, Vieira, Henry and Fabregas leave for foreign clubs - it was altogether harder to stomach when Ashley Cole ended up at Chelsea, Van Persie at Manchester United, and Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure and Bacary Sagna at Manchester City.

To make matters worse, the edge he clearly had in the transfer market in his early years - particularly in respect to his knowledge of the French scene, where Petit, Vieira, Henry, Anelka, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord arrived for relatively cheap prices - got diluted over time.

Rival clubs stole a march - Liverpool getting Luis Suarez from Ajax for £22m, United buying Cristiano Ronaldo - who was reportedly on Arsenal's radar - for £12m, while Tottenham got a teenage Gareth Bale from Southampton and Chelsea picked up Juan Mata. And yet despite these obvious flaws, overall I regard his 20-year tenure as an extraordinary achievement. Ferguson aside - there is no one else quite like him in the modern game - someone who is as loyal to the club as they have been to him.

In recent years, the board had reason to cut him adrift and say 'thanks for the memories' and in truth only the FA Cup wins of 2014 and 2015 stopped the criticism from being so demonstrative that sacking him would have been their only option.

Yet they stuck with him, perhaps because they admire the man as well as the manager - the extraordinary enthusiasm he possesses, his continued vision for the club. It was his idea, remember, to improve the training facilities when he arrived in 1996, his idea to alter the players' diets, to remove the drinking culture, to change the style of football, to introduce real professionalism. And that insistence on a style of play that is based on technical ability, clever movement off the ball and smart interchange of passing, has always been easy on the eye.

I was at the game, in November 2013, when Jack Wilshere scored what was considered the perfect Arsenal goal, an eight-pass move, which began on the edge of their own penalty area, included dribbles from both Wilshere and Santi Cazorla, and a rapid exchange of passes and flicks from Olivier Giroud and Wilshere on the edge of the Norwich penalty area before Wilshere's exceptional close control saw him apply a calm, clever finish.

From my vantage point of the commentary box in the main stand, I was mesmerised by what I saw. Yet from that same stand so many of their supporters have asked: 'why are we always searching for the perfect goal? Why don't our players shoot earlier?' Does Wenger insist on that type of stuff? Or is that the nature of the players he signs to want to execute a goal like that?'

This adherence to a set of old-fashioned principles has never waned, though, irrespective of the criticism and yet you also feel that this stubborn refusal to change has also been a factor in them not getting over the line to win the Premier League in the last 12 years.

"He has remained at the forefront, the cutting edge," said David Dein, the man who hired him 20 years ago. "But sometimes the cloth you've got isn't as good as the cloth you had before. Sometimes you can't justify paying the exorbitant fees that others do."

Dein described Wenger in an interview as a "remarkable individual", who "transformed the club and the way Arsenal is viewed worldwide," noting how there is a classiness about the way his teams play and Wenger behaves.

In contrast, the manager he will face today, Jose Mourinho, was recently reported to have said he would like to "break Wenger's face". You just can't imagine Wenger resorting to use that type of language.

Not that I want to come across as a member of the Arsene Wenger Appreciation Society, either. He is a man I had few dealings with, someone I always found aloof and stand-offish.

Yet while I don't know the man, I do like the manager and I am reluctant to agree with the view of one commentator who said he had been left behind by the new wave of coach in the Premier League: Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp. While impressed by all three men, their tactics and styles have not stood the test of time in the way that Wenger's has. He changed Arsenal. They finished tenth, fourth, 12th and fifth in the years preceding his arrival. "One-nil to the Arsenal', was the chorus, their ideals then based on a solid defence and a breakaway goal. Now it is on finding football perfection.

Unbeaten since the first day of the season, they stand a serious chance of winning the league this year - and should they do so then it would be the ideal time for their manager to get out - with his legacy and reputation totally enhanced.

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