Arsene Knows Best?

The Premier League owes many thanks to Arsene Wenger. Wenger is largely responsible for dragging English football into the modern era. He introduced a scientific, methodical approach to coaching and training to a country where things were done by gut feeling and tradition; and when those methods proved successful, other clubs started adopting them too.

It would also be wrong to forget that Arsene Wenger didn’t just put together some highly successful teams; winning 3 Premier League titles and 4 FA Cups so far. It would be even more wrong not to point out his Arsenal teams have been some of the most exciting teams the Premier League has ever seen. He brought Thierry Henry, arguably the Premier League’s greatest ever player, to England. He took a team through a league season unbeaten.

He has also produced teams that have qualified for the Champions League for 15 seasons in a row, which, despite what his critics say, is an amazing achievement.

These teams were assembled for sums of money that, by today’s standards at least, seem ludicrously cheap. Wenger is opposed to teams spending huge amounts of money on players, calling that practise ‘financial doping’, and, while he has not been averse to spending money on players, he’s never paid top dollar.

Wenger has also been a firm believer in investing in youth players, then bringing them through to the first team. Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy and Cesc Fabregas all came through into the first team, and currently Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere are current academy products playing in the first team.

However, in recent seasons, Arsenal haven’t been anywhere near the force they once were. While Arsenal are still one of the best teams in the league, and are perennially in the top 4, it’s been a while since they were talked about as legitimate title contenders.

Nobody can agree why that’s the case. Despite many of their star players leaving over the past few seasons, Arsenal are still a good team that finishes highly in the league. Last season, despite losing Robin van Persie, Arsenal still scored the third most goals in the league. Arsenal get criticised for their lack of consistency, yet finish in the top 4 every season. Arsenal’s defence is often pointed to as their weak point, yet only Manchester City conceded fewer goals last season.

My opinion is that Arsenal have lost some of the fear factor they once had. Arsenal used to be known as a fast, skilful team; but also a physically tough side. Not anymore. In the past few seasons, Arsenal have picked up the unwanted reputation for being a side that can be easily intimidated and knocked off their stride, knowledge that lesser-talented teams have used to great effect.

Over the past few seasons, Arsenal’s fans have become increasingly frustrated at the performance and direction of the team. Arsenal haven’t won a trophy since 2005, a fact that has been increasingly used to beat Wenger around the head. Wenger argues (and, for what it’s worth, I agree) that trophies are only one way to judge the success of a club, and the fact that Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League year after year, is of greater importance.

There is also a lot of frustration at Arsenal’s transfer policy. Contrary to popular belief, Wenger has never been afraid to spend money, but as transfer fees, especially for the best players, have gone up, Arsenal have steadfastly refused to pay those huge fees, with their record transfer being far below the record transfers of their Premier League rivals.

Wenger’s transfer policy has always been to sign up-and-coming players for a reasonable fee, then improve them as players, so they increase in value. This is a policy that has served Arsenal well over the years. However, it is this policy that has led to the Arsenal fans and media openly questioning the wisdom of Wenger’s perceived frugality in the transfer market.

Over the past few years, Arsenal fans have watched their team get consistently outspent in the transfer market, and have had enough. They want to see their team competing for the league title once again, and believe that the club needs to spend money to get there.

By all accounts, Arsenal do have the money to pay the large transfer fees that elite players command. The sticking point is that they also operate on a strict wage structure, which may be off-putting to potential signings, as they know they can earn more money elsewhere.

This summer, Arsenal seemed to listen to their fans. They announced that they had money in the bank (which probably wasn’t a smart move!), and they have chased a ‘marquee signing’, to excite the fans and improve the team’s chances of success in the league but, at the time of writing, they have only signed young French striker Yaya Sonogo this summer.

Arsenal missed out on Gonzalo Higuain. They then turned their attention to signing Luis Suarez, a bid which failed after a clause which Arsenal (and Suarez) believed was a release clause turned out not to be, and Arsenal weren’t willing to bid anywhere near the price Liverpool wanted. There was also a bid for Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye that has served only to destabilise the player and annoy Newcastle.

There’s still time for Arsenal to sign some more players in this transfer window, but many people are questioning why they have not been more active this summer and why the transfers they were in for didn’t work out.

Some believe that the problem lies at executive level, with the belief being that Arsenal lack anyone with the knowledge of the international transfer market and the negotiating power to get them the player they want for the best deal.

Last week, Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, a former part-owner of the club, expressed her displeasure at the way the club is being run. She tweeted her opinion that former Vice-Chairman David Dein, a man who does have the transfer market savvy that Arsenal need, should be brought back. She also expressed her regret at selling her shares in Arsenal to Stan Kroenke, making him the majority owner.

Some fans believe that Wenger is the problem. While most fans would agree that it is admirable that Arsenal aren’t willing to pay fees above what they believe a player is worth, fans are now wondering if the lack of signings means that Arsenal are valuing those players too low; with Arsenal’s opening bids for both Suarez and Cabaye being so low that both Liverpool and Newcastle questioning their seriousness, and the lack of bids for players such as Luiz Gustavo is being seen as a sign that Wenger may be out of touch with the modern transfer market.

Many Arsenal fans now want sweeping changes at the club. One of those requested changes seems to be a change in manager. Last week, the Arsenal Supporters Trust, advised against offering Wenger a new contract saying:

"In recent weeks [chief executive] Ivan Gazidis has spoken of the club's intent to offer Arsène Wenger a new contract. The AST believes this is inappropriate

"There remain important questions about the way player identification, recruitment and remuneration processes are managed at Arsenal.

"The failings we highlighted in Arsène Wenger holding too much power have only been amplified in recent weeks. These must be addressed as a matter of urgency."

Currently, it’s easy to criticise Arsene Wenger. His perceived obstinacy in the transfer market has made him a target of Arsenal fans’ ire, and this in turn has made him an easy target for the media. However, I’d caution Arsenal fans who maybe want to see a change in manager to remember a few things.

Firstly, the current Arsenal team is still pretty good and they have a lot of young players that should get better. Secondly, Arsenal are still a very attractive proposition to players, with their location and ability to provide Champions League football. Thirdly, even though Arsenal are seemingly unwilling to pay top dollar for players, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t still sign some great players. Wenger has always been good at finding bargains in the transfer market. Also, there’s no guarantee that spending large amounts of money on players means they’ll be a success.

The final point I’d make to Arsenal fans is that Arsene Wenger is one of the greatest managers in Premier League history. Getting into the Champions League so many times is an amazing achievement. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.