By Tony Attwood
I pointed out in part 1 of this article that Wenger brought to Arsenal a new approach to football, not just in the style of playing, but also in the style of coaching, of economics, and of running the club.
However the world changes, and football was not blind to what Wenger had done to Arsenal. When he had joined us, the club had been in a poor way. Bergkamp was putting in performances far below his magnificent best, Wright was playing out on the wing and wanting a transfer, and we had a manager who thought that the way to manage was to be a traditional hard man. Only the Graham back five were still in place, and that was all that saved us.
We qualified for the Uefa cup on the last day of the Rioch season and celebrated as if we had just won the treble.
Then, after Wenger joined, in just a couple of years the club had become utterly different, successful, bubbling with a new style of football, and amazingly buying in a young Frenchman for £250,000 and selling him for £25m just a few years later. Arsenal had set a new level, and everyone got ready to catch up.
The catch up came very quickly. As Wenger said in one interview, when he arrived in England he could send a scout to a second division game in France and the scout would be the only scout there. Now, he said, you have to fight for a seat.
So part one of the changes meant it was necessary to search further afield for talent, or study players in much more detail and find someone who had been overlooked. This was not a total revolution, since Wenger had been looking as far afield as South America from the start, and there is a story that when Steve Rowley met Arsène Wenger for the first time, Wenger asked him to go to northern Brazil to watch a player, and Rowley was shocked – he normally tended to go no further than Luton.
Arsène Wenger had worked from the position that all players who hold EU passports or are entitled through through a parent or grandparent, are eligible to play in the Premier League.
But not only did the EPL catch up with this notion, two other changes happened. First Chelsea showed a new way of financing a club, and everyone knew that there was a world beyond England. By 2010 over 260 foreign players were playing in the EPL (compared with 11 named in the starting line ups of the first Premier League weekend in 1992-3.)
Out of this development three more changes occurred. First it became wholly obvious that Chelsea could buy anyone they wanted and had no need of a youth policy. Second the Home Office were doing their bit to make life more difficult, tightening the rules on bringing in players from outside the EU. And third, as we have noticed, everyone was scouring France looking for the talent that previously Wenger was alone in watching.
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Wenger needed a way around this and he looked at countries in the EU where players can get EU nationality with greater ease (in the UK it takes five years and a citizenship test). Belgium, Spain and Portugal all fitted the bill, and experiments were undertaken. One of the most radical was the Beveren Experiment where the entire club was taken over and used as a developing ground for players from the Ivory Coast. Uefa eventually passed a rule saying that this could not continue.
This was however not enough. Several elements of the old theory (food, speed, lifestyle) were still in place, but we needed more. Unfortunately the players from the opening of the new academy were still not ready for the transition – not because of any failure of policy, but because they were simply not old enough yet, and worse Arsenal’s reputation had now started to work against them.
Very early on Arsenal became known in France as a French club that happened to play in the EPL. As such a lot of French players wanted to play for Arsenal, and as Wenger’s reputation grew, so that desire to work with him intensified. That was in our favour.
But while almost every player under the sun wanted to work for Wenger, and would willingly go to Arsenal, as soon as anyone got a sniff that Arsenal wanted a player the value went up. To be fair the same happened with Chelsea, but there it was for a different reason, and the consequences were quite different.
If Chelsea wanted a player the price could go up because Chelsea could afford it – and quite often they paid. If Arsenal wanted a player (the selling club argued to itself) it was because the player was far better than the club had ever realised, and so the player was clearly worth a lot more. Quite literally managers would think, “Goodness, that guy must be better than I thought – in which case I am not letting him go for a miserable £5m”.
It is often argued that within such a scenario there is no harm in paying the inflated price asked for just to get the player. But the argument within Arsenal is, I believe, that once a club of the high international profile of Arsenal is seen to pay over the odds for a player then you not only pay more than you should on that occasion, you will pay an even more inflated price next time. A selling club sells a £5m player for £8m to Arsenal. Everyone notices, and the next £5m player Arsenal wants is put up to £10m and so on. Price inflation. Ask Chelsea and Man City – they know all about it.
In short the argument will be, the club will want more because Arsenal are asking, and since Arsenal did indeed pay way over the odds for X last year, it is worth holding out until the last minute because they will be the ones to blink first.
Worse, it became clear that Chelsea wittingly and unwittingly were changing all the rules of transfers. Wittingly because they would on occasion appear to move for a player that they did not want, just to make life difficult for Arsenal to sign that player. Arsenal scouts are seen watching X, so Chelsea come in with an enquiry. Chelsea can always pay more than Arsenal, so the club hold out for the Chelsea figure, whether the offer is real or no.
And unwittingly through the action of agents, and their allies in the popular press and in the blogs, who endlessly talk up possible transfers of players. The agents tips off the journalist that his player is talking to a big club, and the club that has the player under contract immediately inflates the price.
Money was available for the players, but not an infinite amount so it became a balancing act – continuing keeping the club at the top, while finding ever more obscure players to join the team without having to pay insane prices, and waiting for the first bunch of talented youngsters to come through.
In other words the key elements of the Wengerian philosophy remained true, but key elements, were under attack on all fronts. Players were much harder to find because everyone was now scouring Europe, the Home Office was making it harder to bring in players, Uefa closed down the Beveren experiment, Chelsea could afford everyone and drove prices up, while every club that heard Arsenal were interested increased the value of the player on the grounds that he was “better than I realised”.
Indeed there are even stories (although of course they might just be stories) that suggest that every time an Arsenal scout is seen at a ground, the club immediately phones Chelsea and Man City and asks if they want to buy.
Of course Wenger had never seen the transfer as the solution to all his problems, but this assault from all sides was probably greater than Wenger imagined might happen. Although very early transfers such as Ljunberg and Kanu had been successes, there were always transfers that didn’t work out (Pennant, Wreh…) For every Henry, Lauren, Wiltord, Vieira, there were players who had problems of one sort or another (Edu with his passport, and then a family that could not settle, Jeffers…). Compared with other managers Wenger was a wonderful manipulator of the market, but even he couldn’t always get it right. Reyes and Van Persie both joined us at the same time, remember.
I believe that Wenger has always known how blunt an instrument the transfer window is, and with the extra competition for overseas players, and the intensified scrutiny that all his moves come under it became impossible to find too many great gems.
So from here Wenger introduced a whole series of reforms which modified his philosophy and the whole outlook of the club. It was in fact probably the biggest reform ever in the history of any first division club.
I’ll describe it in the final part of this account of the philosophy of Wenger.