Amy Lawrence: Wenger struggling to solve puzzle
Arsene Wenger has to stop dithering and solve problem areas with canny transfers
Published 06/01/2013 | 05:00
As Freudian slips go it is a ludicrously easy one to make. Arsene Wenger's great friend and former sidekick David Dein used to regularly trot out the line that "with a name like that he was always destined to manage Arsenal"
But that was not much consolation when a sudden outbreak of foot in mouth led to the following overture to the man himself: "A lot of people are a bit puzzled by Arsene – sorry Arsenal – this season . . ." Mercifully, the Frenchman saw the funny side and even saw fit to add his own punchline. "But you are right," he added. "By me as well!"
Wenger is only too aware that people are, to put it gently, puzzled quite frequently. Scrutiny of his ways, his choices, his running of the club over which he exerts enormous control, is churned over and over without any consistent conclusions. It is hard to find consensus on this period of Wenger's reign because his team are so erratic. The case for and against, the evidence on the pitch, shifts from game to game. Watching Arsenal these days is like playing an elaborate footballing game of Snakes and Ladders.
Turn up at the match and roll the dice. You may whoosh up the kind of ladder that sees them knock seven past Newcastle or slip down the kind of snake that frustrates such as an uninspired draw at Southampton.
For Wenger, this erraticism is a particular problem at this time of year, with the opened transfer window bringing in anything from a gentle breeze to a howling gale depending on results. He admits that even he fluctuates after games when he tries to assess where his team are going and what is needed. Some days he feels impelled to scour the market to improve his squad. Others he is more relaxed about the group at his disposal. You would think that he, of all people, should not be dithering.
"When you score seven goals in one game and only an own-goal in the next one, it's difficult," he concedes. "If you look at the Newcastle game, you say: 'Fantastic.' If you look at the Southampton game you can come out and say we need to strengthen our offensive department. Football is like this. That's why you need to take a distance."
Unfortunately, there is not much time for distance when the games come thick and fast, and this weekend's FA Cup mission at Swansea is exactly the kind of game that determines the force and direction of the transfer winds.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that Wenger's approach to this window is similar to that of the infamous summer of 2011, when Arsenal were indecisive, inhibited by the prospect of what might happen with Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri ( Theo Walcott this time) and ended up responding to a crisis by last-minute grabbing what they could from the sales. Last week Wenger's official line switched from the determined – "I will be active . . . we are looking everywhere" – to the coy – "If we need something, we will look" – a couple of days later.
So is there a grand plan? Is there a clear vision of which departments need strengthening and which are strong enough? It appears not.
There is considerable will at board level for money to be invested in the squad but they do not dare impose it on Wenger. Arsenal are based on the old-fashioned English model where the manager calls all the transfer shots and divides the pot between fees and wages. The board might wonder about the continental version where the directors decide on deals, consulting the technical staff as and when they please. But at Arsenal it is the other way around. Wenger sets the strategy, then goes upstairs if he wants to push the boat out. "It's not only me, it's in co-operation with the board," he says. "When we want to go far I ask the authorisation of the board."
One of the things Wenger is proud of is what he calls the "more socialist model" of the wage structure. There are not such vast differences between the higher and lower paid players that are found elsewhere. "It is defendable in front of every single player," he says. But it has its downside. Clearly they struggle to keep their best from being tempted by greater riches at other clubs, while the strugglers are over-generously rewarded.
Transfers were once Wenger's specialist subject. But over time his Midas touch has become unreliable. And this is the key to the whole Wenger debate. Will he come back from the shops to start a party with some champagne or some stale cake, corked wine and disco lights that do not work? While nobody expects every transfer to be a success story, there are too many blunders taking up squad places and eating up a valuable portion of the salary account. Arsenal finally offloaded Marouane Chamakh to West Ham and have also been seeking new homes for Sebastien Squillaci and Andrey Arshavin – all experienced internationals whose stock has shrivelled – for ages. The mystery of why Arsenal signed Park Chu-young remains unsolved. How anyone valued Gervinho at £11m is also mystifying.
Wenger says that players have to leave to free up spaces for new signings. That is the way of things with the current squad regulations. "It is a problem," he notes, before explaining that one way round it would be to pay off an unwanted player with a limited amount of time left on his contract to create room for new talent.
A touch of alchemy used to be his calling card. In the first phase of his Arsenal career, the largely successful Highbury years, there were countless transfers that turned out to be of exceptional value. Wenger cast his net in a variety of ways. The French connection was the richest source, with Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Emmanuel Petit and Nicolas Anelka flourishing.
Wenger also gambled on players who had been troubled with serious injuries in Marc Overmars and Nwankwo Kanu. He reworked his defence with very reasonably priced options from close to home ( Sol Campbell from Tottenham) and farther afield (Lauren from Spain and Kolo Toure from Ivory Coast). Freddie Ljungberg epitomised how he liked to take promising raw material and mould it into something fantastically effective.
Wenger vividly recalls the "aura" that develops when a team comes together and starts to win trophies. It is something he would love for this generation to experience. "There is a change in players when they win a trophy, of course," he says. "There's an aura around the team that makes them feel strong together. It's quite an energy that builds up, that you sense."
Of course no transfer ever comes with a guarantee and even when he was pulling rabbits out of hats there was the odd mistake. The experiment with young English players saw Richard Wright, Francis Jeffers and Matthew Upson strain to make an impact. Junichi Inamoto was the precursor to the interest in the Japanese market that Wenger feels is now bearing fruit but then was not quite ready. Jose Antonio Reyes was exciting and expensive but his spark soon fizzled out in north London. The likes of Igors Stepanovs and Pascal Cygan merge in the memory into a mass of slow, lumbering defensive nightmares.
Wenger feels the market place has changed since his famously productive recruitment drive. "The competition is higher on the scouting front, that is for sure," Wenger says. "The country where we were really, really competitive was France. They produce fewer players than they did 10, 15 years ago at the top, top, top level. The emerging countries now to produce players look to be Germany and Spain."
With the likes of Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski, a decent portion of the team come from Spain and Germany, along with the British core Wenger is hopeful about. Whether or not he adds to that – and adds well – is another piece of this complicated puzzle.
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