Arsene's fifth chapter: How will it be known? - Part 3
Chapter 4 - A cultural and financial shift (2006-2010)
The beginning of an era started with Patrick Vieira’s signing, the beginning of its end would start with his sale. Whilst Wenger had lost big players in the past in Overmars and Anelka, the loss of Vieira was more fundamental. It is perhaps no coincidence that his last kick for the club secured our most recent trophy. The club had lost a leader and winner, facets the team has struggled with ever since. Inter Milan paid £13.7m for the Frenchman’s services. As a business decision it was sound, Wenger would later describe his preference of selling a player a year too early than too late, his reasoning that valuations tend to dive towards the end of a career. Thierry Henry would later leave in similar circumstances. It marked the start of the break up of the ‘untouchables’ team as a season later Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires through retirement and release from contract respectively would see their illustrious Arsenal careers come to an end in conjunction with the move to the new stadium.
Knowing that a larger pitch and adaption period lay ahead Arsene Wenger opted for a younger squad. It has been suggested that the ‘untouchables’ broke up too soon and whilst there maybe individual cases in point in general the theory was sound, besides the team wasn’t getting any younger and their powers were on the wane. A struggle to finish fourth, for the first time under Arsene Wenger, in the final campaign at Highbury was evidence of such.
The last season at Highbury began with the signing of Stuttgart playmaker Alexander Hleb for £11m, but he would be the only major signing of note that summer. Emmanuel Eboue, Mathieu Flamini and Van Persie had all joined the summer previous for modest fees, a sign that Arsenal were carefully balancing the up-front costs of a stadium move at a time when Chelsea were stretching the boundaries of wages and transfer fees.
Pulling off masterstrokes of such value as Vieira at £3.5m had become increasingly difficult, although Robin Van Persie’s arrival for a mere £2.75m had shown it was still possible it was proving of greater rarity as demonstrated by Arsenal’s perusal of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wenger was inches away from bringing him to Arsenal for as little as £4m. Manchester United though weighed in to conclude a deal, their relationship with Sporting Lisbon proving advantageous.
United, who were now no longer financial top dogs, had realised the value of Arsenal’s direction to buy players before they were established at the highest level. A £10m investment yielded an £80m return in addition to 4-5 years of service that yielded yet more silverware. Essentially Sir Alex Ferguson copied Arsene Wenger’s astute approach, and not for the first time. It’s a policy that United have continued since, pitting Ferguson in direct competition to Wenger’s ‘space of operation’ in the market. Wenger then would need a new edge.
The solution would be academy focused, buying the best players even younger and cheaper. Wenger, famed for his skills at developing young players, was able to attract the best academy players from all over Europe. The most noteworthy aspect of the new direction was the timing of its inception. In lead up to the unbeaten campaign Arsenal had brought Francesc Fabregas, Johan Djourou and Gael Clichy to the club all for nominal compensation fees.
For the most part the policy has paid huge dividends, saving tens of millions on transfer fees and moreover generating tens of millions down the line in sales. That Arsene Wenger was already thinking well beyond his team of invincibles provides visibility of our manager’s increasingly long-term view abut also that he had the foresight and flexibility to adapt, an aspect Arsene is not credited for enough.
The academy raid policy was part of a bigger picture as Wenger looked to emulate the direction taken by Barcelona. Wenger had realised that power was of less significance taken over by cohesion and rotation of movement. Put simplistically the French way was out and the Spanish way was in. It was no coincidence that Barcelona and Spain were dominating world football at club and international levels respectively.
Wenger then would look to back his ability as a developmental coach and utilise his budget on wages rather than transfer fees as he looked to buy the loyalty of the players. There was obvious financial advantage but culturally it was of significance too as Arsenal looked to create a style embedded into the fabric of the club. A change of formation would later follow as the young players reached the first team squad, one based upon fluidity and positional freedom.
Arsenal was building a team, a brand, the ‘Arsenal Way’. If they could pull it off it would deliver a multitude of benefits: increased depth, less reliance on individuals, an attractive style to attract new recruits and a brand to cash in on. The policy in isolation was sound, but there in lied the problem. It was applied in isolation and not supplemented. Xabi Alonso was a case in point, a proven performer at the highest level, schooled in English football and available at around just £15m. The signing would have instantly taken the burden of Cesc Fabregas and added the needed leadership missing from the exit of the untouchables.
Failure to supplement the approach with proven players was the chief failing, the inefficiency of wage spend could not have helped the situation. Indeed even if Wenger had decided the time was right to move players on their inflated wages were proving a prohibitive factor, as we have seen this summer with want-away Bendtner and Denilson. As a result Arsenal seeming needed to wait on the outcomes of Fabregas and Nasri before buying replacements. It led to a rather dysfunctional summer with the club missing on their first choice targets.
In Chapter 4.2 I will be looking back in more detail at the transfer activity during the period and particular the building of the 2007-08 title challenging side before completing the series with Chapter 5 surmising what yet lay ahead for Arsenal under Arsene.