Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Is Wenger Losing It?

Arsene Wenger will undoubtedly stand as one of the most influential managers in the history of English soccer. Three top division titles, four FA Cups, and one European Cup final certainly places him among the greats that have managed an English side. Over his ten years in North London, Wenger has managed to stick with his own brand of soccer, praised for its fluency and eye-pleasing pace, but often derided for a lack of results. It is his stubbornness in building teams that play this way that earns him praise in an ever-changing world of European soccer, but it is his reluctance to buy big names for big prices that may keep Arsenal simply an entertaining side to watch, but one that cannot grasp those relevant trophies, the EPL and the UEFA Champions League.

Gooners have been saying the same thing since the end of the 2003-2004, when Arsenal went 49 games without a loss: Wenger's building yet another team to vie for silver, so we must be patient and allow him to grow those great young finds of his into a viable squad. Sounds reasonable, you may say, given Wenger's ability to not only field an attractive side, but also raise the value of these players in doing so. Loyalty was not an issue in the past, and Wenger is often depicted as a benevolent but fair patriarch, one who could field a team of stars while keeping the wage bill low in North London.

The departure of Mathieu Flamini may signal the end of this. Considering it was a difference of $20,000 a week that led to losing perhaps the most influential part of his team, it may be time to question whether doing it the Arsene Wenger way is still possible in the current climate of international soccer.

Flamini was as important as Cesc Fabregas is to the team. Without Flamini, Fabregas is a completely different player, one who may not have the conviction to go forward as often . To find another player of his quality that can play such a position consistently will be difficult, and one has to wonder just how long (and how ugly) it may be until Wenger constructs a spine that will not only withstand the pressures of EPL offenses, but that will contribute in terms of goal-scoring. With an incomplete back line, the last thing Gooners want to worry about is who their defensive midfielder will be.

The other issue, which may have more impact on Arsenal in the future, is the club's wage structure. With the shiny Emirates still to be paid off, Wenger is keen to maintain his shrewd ethos of getting youngsters cheap and letting them earn their value on the pitch with improvement. Although the Gunners may be the third most valuable team in the world, there have been no recent big signings, unsurprising considering that is not the way Wenger works. Is it now time to change that philosophy? Perhaps so, because as the extent of money in soccer increases to extreme heights, so should a change in player acquisitions take place.

We all know there are incredible sums of money exchanging hands, mostly from television rights, merchandising, and tapping into the spending power of the great unwashed. If we, as fans know this, and to the penny, why wouldn't the players and more importantly, their agents take advantage of this? Will the guarantee of playing attractive, beautiful soccer and hopefully snatching some silver be enough to get a world-class player to stay at Arsenal when there are obscene amounts of money to be made elsewhere? More importantly, wouldn't it be easier to join a massive club with larger resources (or at least a greater willingness to spend) and win a few, perhaps in a less attractive way? I suppose we'd have to ask Mathieu Flamini that question, but I'm afraid we already know the answer.

Interesting questions arise when you consider the fate of Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. First, the championship teams of the recent past seemed somewhat of a fantasy squad compared to what the team is now. Sure, Wenger grabbed Nicolas Anelka, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry when they were young unknowns, but what about Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord? Arsenal were never a squad of youngsters like they are now, and this year's results show just how it matters to have big names in the side, like William Gallas. Imagine what one or two more players of that caliber could bring.

Second, will Wenger's insistence on doing things his way get him any silver? Since the top two, Chelsea and Manchester United can field two separate sides of considerable quality, will Arsenal ever realistically compete with them? Just one look at Liverpool should tell him the answer is no.

Lastly, the 2005-2006 campaign in the Champions League took Arsenal further than they had ever been in the prestigious competition, and one could hardly say the Gunners were pleasing to the eye. If Wenger adjusted to the European game in the circus that is the Champions League, why not adjust his spending strategy?


No comments: