In the end that is what is seems to come down to. Is Wenger, as I believe, not just a genius manager, but one who is able to adapt to changing circumstances BEFORE they happen, or is he exactly the opposite: a man so transfixed with his own vision that he can’t change.
The negative case is the easier one to pitch: Arsenal had year after year ending up either first or second in the EPL – plus a selection of cup wins. Players could come and go, and yet the succcess rolled on. Wenger could kick out Ian Wright without even letting him touch the ball in a cup final, and yet still find better and better players. Anelka goes, in comes Henry – the never ending chain. Then, suddenly he lost it, and now we probably won’t get into Europe next season.
The positive case is more subtle – and thus harder to pitch. Wenger’s most staggering invention (world-wide scouting) was copied widely, while billionaire owners came along able to by-pass the hard work because there were willing to spend anything on anyone, just to try and put a winning team together. After months of hard work Arsenal could discover player X, only to find someone else coming in at the last minute with an insane bid.
Against such tactics Arsenal could not compete. Yes the brilliant players still came through, but they were harder to find, and had to be purloined at a younger and younger age. Even then, the late night prowlers from the KGB in Fulham, and more recently Sheik Yermoney’s men in Manchester, could always outbid anything Arsenal did.
To counteract this Wenger came up with a new twist – building a youth team that incorporated the best players in the world at their age, signed in a way that other clubs couldn’t match. By giving these players an early chance in the team (he argued) he would then become known as the manager who gives youth its chance – making the players more likely to come to Arsenal than go anywhere else.
The benefit of course is that we can attract these wonderful young players (Theo, Ramsey, to name but two). The downside is that they are still young, and so can make errors.
But there is an upside which most followers of the negative approach don’t recognise. It is this: young players are generally much better at changing their style and approach than older players. Take someone like Cesc – playing alongside a Gilberto or Denilson he plays in one way. Playing alongside Flamini, he does it differently.
Because fans generally like players who push forward and shoot, the Cesc next to Flamini is considered “good” while the most defensive Cesc next to Denilson is considered “negative” or “a restriction on his talent”. “He’s forced to play further back,” is the common complaint, forgetting that Denilson on the other hand is playing more forward than Flamini.
But to me the argument in the end is about sustainability. The billionaire model (KGB Fulham, Sheik Yermoney Manchester, Aston “hold your head if you go down” Villa, West Iceland United), just like the “buy the club with its own money” approach that has been used at Manchester B and Liverpool I, cannot and will not be sustained. One instance: we still don’t know how Liverpool are going to refinance – and they have to do it this month, or the banks take over. West Ham are desparately looking for money and can’t find it anywhere.
Arsenal have none of these problems and yet many supporters refuse to believe that the likes of Manchester and Liverpool could fall apart. Perhaps it is just us old farts who believe it, because we saw Manchester Bankrupt and the tiny totts in the second division, and can remember Liverpool and KGB Fulham as nothingness clubs.
The uniqueness of Arsenal is that it keeps reforming itself and coming back for more. My father went to Highbury and watched one of the greatest teams in the world in the 1930s. I have done the same since Wenger arrived.
Sustainability – which means at the moment the youth policy and waiting for success – means that Arsenal will be around, at the top, for the rest of my life. I doubt that this will be true of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, West Ham United, Chelsea or Aston Villa.
(c) Tony Attwood 2009
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