Arsene Wenger: 'Things have changed now, Arsenal can win the Premier League this year'
Arsène Wenger was explaining why Arsenal really did have a genuine chance this season of regaining a first Premier League title since 2004 when there was a sudden and revealing admission.
He has spoken with similar optimism before but this was the first time he had conceded that, yes, deep down, there had been years when even he knew Arsenal could not win the league.
“Of course,” he said, without hesitation. “When you lose your best players and see opponents strengthen their squad – and they are already stronger than you – it is impossible.” The obvious follow-up is: What has changed? How do we know that Wenger is telling the truth this time and Arsenal really can deliver?
The signing of Petr Cech from Chelsea is the most obvious difference – and Wenger confirms that Roman Abramovich was decisive to the deal – but the manager is also adamant that the narrative around his team has tangibly shifted. As the captain, Mikel Arteta, noted during the club’s pre‑season trip to Singapore, a four‑year rebuild of the squad is just about complete.
The two seasons that remain on Wenger’s contract are not just the moment for this group to deliver but conceivably also the last chance to ensure the club’s longest-serving manager leaves Arsenal on a high.
“We have reduced the gap and I believe we are ready to go further,” Wenger said. “We now have the stability that gives us strength. Before I was more exposed to ‘Who will go?’ and now the question I get more is ‘Who will come?’ The transfer market is not over. We can still buy but I don’t think we will sell. Our potential on the market has changed.”
The debate over whether Arsenal still need a better striker or a more commanding defensive midfield presence will probably rage until the end of August but that added potential is evident in how Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez, Danny Welbeck and now Cech have arrived for a combined £100 million in two years.
Of equal importance, the British core of Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs have never seriously looked like being prised away. So can Arsenal really leapfrog Chelsea after finishing third, 12 points adrift of Jose Mourinho’s team, last season?
“It’s our target and we have a chance in a very competitive league,” Wenger said. “We finished third and won the FA Cup so that shows we’re not far away. We have a good cohesive group with the ability to do better.
“Will we win the title this season? You cannot guarantee that in the Premier League. I just say we want to. I promise we will fight to win. A manager has to take the best potential out of the team he has. At the end of the day I know where the team can be at the end of the season. Have I got the maximum? I know if I could have won the league.
“For example, the year we lost it at Birmingham [in 2008 when Eduardo broke his leg], we could have. Last year, no, because after six games we were 11 points behind Chelsea. We feel we have a chance this year, all going well.”
Wenger’s choice of words is also instructive. Where once he felt obliged endlessly to talk up the qualities of his young players in order to boost their belief, he wants now to ensure that the club’s quiet confidence is contained and repeatedly stresses that he thinks only that this definitely can rather than will be their year.
He counts even Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool among six potential contenders but highlights how Arsenal accumulated most points during the second half of last season. “Last year we missed our start for different reasons,” the Frenchman said. “One of them was after the World Cup some players were not mentally ready and we also had the Champions League qualifier that cost us a lot of energy.”
Yet surely part of the challenge is also psychological? Wenger has never beaten Mourinho but he bristles at the suggestion that Chelsea now have a mental hold over his team. “We don’t have that,” Wenger said. “You [the media] created that, I don’t believe in that at all. When you have a good enough team you beat them.”
Wenger expects the mere presence of Cech, who was signed against Mourinho’s wishes and led to the loan of Wojciech Szczesny to Roma, to be hugely significant. “He can strengthen belief in the team. When you sit in the dressing room, you need some people around you who give you confidence. Always.
“This deal happened because of a special relationship that Petr Cech had with Abramovich. I think he had a promise to go, no matter where, at a certain price. They couldn’t keep him forever at 33 years of age as No 2.”
Abramovich was once accused of “parking his Russian tanks” on Arsenal’s lawn and firing £50 notes and so there is some irony in him now doing them a favour. “He caused us enough problems,” Wenger said, grinning. The Cech deal was also revealing about Arsenal. Wenger has never previously paid a comparable fee for an ageing player but he is adamant that the club’s basic philosophy will never change and cites the emergence last season of Francis Coquelin and Héctor Bellerín.
“We want to continue to combine stronger financial resources with faith in our policy,” the Arsenal manager said. “That means we want to continue to give chances to young players and build the players from inside our club with our culture. After, if we can buy the exceptional players, we can compete. But that will not be the basis of our policy. Most of the clubs who have been successful are clubs who have done that well.
“You can take Barcelona or Man United, who had a generation and built their success on players who came from within. These are our values and it is our DNA. It’s important we keep that.”
Unlike United perhaps, whose spending under Louis van Gaal is fast approaching £300 million in barely a year. “Today there is no patience for them to continue to do what they did and they have the financial resources to go with a different policy,” Wenger said. “As well, they do not have available the players like Scholes, Giggs and Beckham inside the club, because youth talent is spread more through 20 clubs than it was 20 years ago.
“You cannot group together as easily now the best English talents. You would have a shock if you knew what the average 18-year-old footballer earned.”
The purist in Wenger remains offended by money’s correlation with success and he says that the perfect competition would see every manager simply start each season with £100 million. “Then let’s show how good you are,” he said. There was also a small smile when it was put to him that neutrals would welcome an Arsenal triumph this season as proof that you could prevail without either a billionaire benefactor or a Van Gaal-style spending spree.
It is perhaps both Wenger’s great strength and weakness that, for him, football has always been about more than just winning. It is about winning in a certain way and, more than any moment in the past decade, you sense that he genuinely thinks that his way can again prevail.