Do these comments finally explain Arsene Wenger’s controversial Arsenal transfer policy?
When Arsenal win games in their aesthetically creative ways, Arsene Wenger can look like a genius. When Arsenal lose, often making the same mistakes that they have done for years, it’s difficult to remain patient with a man who seems so zealously committed to his own set of principles. Everyone feels that they can forsee the shortcomings in Arsenal’s team, yet hear of the well stocked Arsenal coffers that could allegedly prize any player in the world to ply their trade in North London. In the end, when a Premier League drought extends to over a decade, and Wenger clearly has the resources to orchestrate changes, the Frenchman’s dogmatic approach can be inexplicably frustrating.
An interview with Sky Sports’ Geoff Shreeves from the end of the 2013/2014 season shines more light on the rationale of Wenger than any other in his 19 year reign:
Most interesting, perhaps, is how Wenger approaches each season:
‘Every year (in Geneva, Wenger’s ‘analytical getaway’) we produce a model for a team that was successful, and why they were successful. It’s very simple, when Barcelona win the Champions League, everyone says you have to play like Barcelona. If a team who defends very well and doesn’t want the ball at all wins the Champions League, everybody says this model is successful and everybody has to play like that. The truth is the best system, is the one that suits the players you have. The style of play has to reflect the personality of its manager because you cannot go against your own beliefs, that’s why every manager has his own strengths’.
This explains a lot, particularly on why Wenger has neglected building more rounded, physical teams. His beliefs and personality translate to a team not too dissimilar from Pep Guardiola’s, or those of Johan Cruyff and Charly Rexach, with perhaps a lesser emphasis on high energy counter pressing. Guardiola’s ‘model of success’ gives fire to Wenger’s aspirations: it is possible to build a team of technically adept passers and bring great success. That, at least, justifies why Wenger can be painfully dogmatic. If Guardiola can do it, why can’t he? At least though, he isn’t blindly attributed to building something that is utterly unattainable:
‘I agree that in some games we have been defensively too fragile (in 2013/2014, Arsenal led the league for 128 days, but eventually fell off the pace while suffering big defeats in important matches, such as: 0-3 Everton, 0-6 Chelsea, 1-5 Liverpool, 3-6 Man City), but the same team that started in the (0-6) game at Chelsea started at Bayern Munich’ (where they won 2-0).
In many ways, Wenger’s critics would tear their hair out at that Bayern game, because it offers insurmountable evidence that this group of players can compete with Europe’s best and come out victorious. It fuels him with the belief that he is working towards a winning formula. But he sends out a further message on the culture that has evolved in the modern game:
‘I ask you now, in 2013-2014 at the start of the season you have 20 managers full of hope and desire. If I invite you in 2014-2015 to see how many are still in place and to compare that with other seasons in the Premier League, you will see a huge trend that is very dangerous. Even if you change those 20 managers, only one team can win the Premier League or the FA Cup and maybe no team will win the Champions League’.
(NB: in the 2013/2014 season, twelve mangers were sacked: David Moyes, Paolo Di Canio, Ian Holloway, Martin Jol, Steve Clarke, Andre Villas-Boas, Malky Mackay, Michael Laudrup, Rene Meulensteen, Chris Hughton, Pepe Mel and Tim Sherwood)
The culture he outlines is a product of the affluent, highly staked and universally popular entertainment stream that the Premier League has evolved to. It means that his decision to not purchase a player of a specific weight class evokes a gargantuan media response. Perhaps Wenger’s longevity affords him to be like this. The same ring trues with Alex Ferguson, who confesses in his autobiography that he has no regrets in not adapting to try and play defensively against Barcelona in his two losing Champions League Final’s in 2009 and 2011. He, like Wenger, wanted to win on his terms, and preferred to encourage his players to play the United way rather than bow to Guardiola’s passing game and try and catch them on the counter:
‘In each of those two European Cup finals we might have got closer to Spain’s finest had we played more defensively… but by then I had reached the stage with Manchester United where it was no good trying to win that way… I’m not blaming myself, I just wish our positive approach could have produced better outcomes‘.
It is this prognosis that helps best explain why Wenger continues to make what appear to be superficially stubborn decisions. Strip away the hyperbole, hindsight and take away the microscope of analysis, and see that no matter how much pressure he (or Ferguson) is under, he will only take the club forward on his own terms. He wants to create the winning model for others to follow, not the other way round, and that model: attacking, expansive and creative football, is something he won’t betray. Because of that, he won’t sign a defensive midfielder or a striker because he has so much belief in Francis Coquelin, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, that it doesn’t make sense to him to do so. He won’t set up defensively in big matches because he believes his players can compete. He won’t bow to anything that does not adhere to his beliefs.
Wenger’s transfer policy will only aid his desire build a ‘model of success’. To him, that model changes every year, which means he might as well build his own, instead of somebody elses.
He’s been as stubborn as he is brave to maintain that approach for nineteen years, and unsurprisingly, nothing’s going to change that.
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