Arsene Wenger arrived from Japan in the October of 1996 to an air of scepticism and mockery – English football has always had xenophobia, and if anything, is worse nowadays – but it didn’t take long for the man nicknamed Le Professeur to open up the eyes of those within the beautiful game in the Queen’s country.
For all of Wenger’s flaws now, history will remember the Frenchman fondly when the day comes for him to draw the curtain on Arsenal; his Arsenal.
The ageing process catches up with us all, but being in the footballing world makes the demise all the more public – of course, Wenger’s standards were set so high during his early Arsenal days, that, in truth, the only way was down.
Wenger gave Arsenal their future, Thierry Henry and the Invincibles; undeniable achievements, players and moments that will stand the test of time.
Arsene Wenger gave me Thierry Henry, an invincible season & some unreal moments. I'll never bad mouth him but he should've walked last year.
— Tam Mann-Kler (@TamMannKler) August 27, 2017
Throughout Wenger’s time in N5 there has been the belief that one of Wenger’s biggest skill sets is being able to nurture young talent, and spot their ability from an early age. However, this is nothing but a myth, a myth fuelled by Wenger’s reluctance to take the League Cup seriously, and instead filling the squad with names that look like Football Manager regens.
Interestingly, in Wenger’s first full season as Arsenal manager, the Gunners started their League Cup campaign away to Stoke City, a game in which the Frenchman picked his strongest available XI: Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Keown, Winterburn; Merson, Platt, Vieira; Wright, Bergkamp – notice the five at the back!
And that XI was the more or less the same one that was knocked out by Liverpool in the next round – Hartson in for Bergkamp, and Lukic for Seaman. However, in Wenger’s next season, his shift in mentality towards the League Cup was clear.
Birmingham City in the Third Round of the League Cup saw a starting line-up of: Manninger; Dixon, Marshall, Upson, Grimandi; Hughes, Mendez, Vernazza, Platt; Boa Morte, Wreh.
And that was the future of Arsenal’s League Cup campaigns; an amalgamation of bench-warmers and unknown quantities.
Wenger was lauded for this, using the League Cup as a chance to showcase the future of Arsenal, and offering worthwhile experience to youngsters that would’ve been hard to come by at other clubs.
The names of the kids used are now stuff of Football Manager urban legend: Fran Merida, Arturo Lupoli and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, to name just three, all developed into superstars on various versions of the computer game.
However, this was purely based upon an expectation that they’d be footballers at the top level for many years to come because many felt Arsene Wenger clearly believed in them – in truth, he just saw them as starting XI fillers in games he deemed irrelevant.
Because Wenger had transformed Thierry Henry from a failed winger at Juventus to Arsenal’s all-time record goalscorer, for noticing a lost Patrick Vieira at AC Milan. But outside of those two world-class examples, successful stories of Wenger nurturing and developing talent are few and far between.
Excluding players that are still at the club having come through Arsenal’s Academy, a total of 92 academy players have left since the inception of the Premier League.
Roughly 50% of Arsenal’s Academy graduates since the launch of England’s super league have left for free.
A free transfer doesn’t necessarily mean the player is below the required standard – the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Andrea Pirlo and Sami Khedira have all moved on a Bosman. However, in the last 25 years, the highest profile free transfer from the Gunners Academy is Nicklas Bendtner – the likes of Ray Parlour and Martin Keown, although players of greater stature, left towards the end of their careers, and successful careers with Arsenal.
Fetching less than £1million-per-player in footballing terms is hardly superb business, when you consider the time, coaching and money invested into each and everyone of these players.
It reflects even more poorly if you take out the last four high profile exits of Arsenal’s Academy graduates, with Isaac Hayden, Serge Gnabry, Kieran Gibbs and Wojciech Szczesny moving for a combined price of £24,840,000.
The fact Arsenal having managed to average £6million a player from their last four sales shows steps in the right direction. However, as is evident in many aspects, they trail the clubs above them in Premier League – particularly Manchester City and Chelsea.
Chelsea’s stockpiling of talent is continually frowned upon – although it does feel like the classic case of football fans being against something unless their own club was doing it. However, football is a business, and from a business point of view it’s a fantastic model.
Furthermore, the Blues, unlike Arsenal, are scouting, signing and developing genuine talent – Nathaniel Chabolah moved to Watford for £5million, whilst the likes of Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek also remain in the Premier League, only this time Chelsea aren’t ready to let go of them, with loan deals to Swansea City and Crystal Palace, respectively.
Arsenal’s loanees, on the other hand, are Carl Jenkinson – no longer a future prospect but a failed one – at Birmingham City in the Championship, third-choice ‘keeper Emiliano Martinez is at Getafe but yet to play a game, Joel Campbell is at Real Betis, Lucas Perez back with Deportivo La Coruna and Takuma Asano is in the Bundesliga with Stuttgart.
Unlike the Chelsea loanees, Arsenal’s are full of players who have missed their chance, failed to take their moment when given it at the Emirates Stadium or just ultimately have been bought for marketing purposes (sorry, Takuma, not a chance you’ll play for Arsenal).
Manchester City’s approach is different, and yet the English footballing world doesn’t treat the Citizens with the similar disdain that they do the Blues – which is weird considering that when told in layman terms, they’re just buying other clubs around the world and taking the best players to Manchester City, or selling ones not of an elite level to boost the financial muscle of the Citizens – Aaron Mooy’s £10million to Huddersfield Town is a prime example.
City’s approach, though, will be one we see more and more of as the need to make football clubs the biggest and best businesses possible – Atletico Madrid bought shares in Ligue 2 Lens last year – shares they’ve now sold 12 months later – however it’s clearly an avenue clubs are exploring.
The average life expectancy of an Arsenal Academy graduate is less than one Premier League season, and after that, Arsenal quite simply aren’t making any money on them; Arsenal’s Academy policy is a complete an utter waste of time, because the majority make no impact upon the first-team, or the club’s finances.
The overhaul at Arsenal has been needed for several years, with Wenger being unrivalled in his guidance of Arsenal to utter stagnation. And it has started this year, Raul Sanllehi, has joined as Head of Football Operations after 14 years at Barcelona, whilst Borussia Dortmund’s Chief Scout, Sven Mislintat, is also moving to north London.
The concerning thing for Arsenal is that the ‘tredding water’ years at the Emirates – roughly 2006 to 2013 – were meant to reap long-term rewards. However, Wenger misjudged the direction of football – in the Frenchman’s defence, he believed it would look to clean itself up with financial fair play – but it hasn’t panned out as expected, and now Arsenal find themselves behind Manchester City and Chelsea.
You can’t stand still in any aspect of football, but Arsenal, as always, take longer to wake up than most – in fact, it’s potentially a north London issue, with Tottenham Hotspur about to enter a similar era of frustration and stagnation, but unlike Arsenal, they failed to capitalise before entering it.