Back in December I wrote An open letter to my former hero, Arsene Wenger sadly urging him to resign as I could see no way forward for the club the way he was running it. Like many other disillusioned Gooners I’d felt like that for a while but had been holding off calling for him to go in the vain hope that he would soon see the error of his ways and change his management style.
Well now, finally, it looks as though that might be happening.
My open letter contained five main accusations of mismanagement over the last couple of seasons which were allowing the likes of Spurs to catch us up and threaten our Champions League status, which would be catastrophic for the club and inexcusable given our vast resources. They were as follows:
1) He had failed to invest properly in the playing staff despite repeated insistence from Gazidis and even Hill-Wood that funds were available.
Up until Monday that was still the case — and then came the sensational signing of Mesut Ozil, smashing our transfer record but more importantly, signalling a major shift in transfer policy. Finally Arsenal are buying world class players again instead of selling them and hopefully this will continue.
With Ozil’s signing, and the pursuit of Suarez and Higuain, Wenger seems to have compromised his belief that stars should only be made, not bought. Apart from Arshavin (who we bought in desperation when languishing in 6th place with Fabregas out injured for a couple of months) Wenger has never bought an established star. He made many (Vieira, Henry, Anelka etc) and that has always been his preferred transfer policy — to buy potential and polish up a rough diamond. Whether we had money or not didn’t matter.
In fact Sanogo is a much more typical Wenger signing than Ozil and I think that if he wasn’t under massive pressure to spend big he might not have bought Ozil. But it’s a sign of how his mindset has changed (or been changed for him by the board?) that he has gone against his principles by spending an enormous amount of money for fear of being left behind in the modern game. A definite case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”.
2) He implemented a spectacularly unsuccessful wage structure that allowed mediocre players to earn riches beyond their talents. This caused resentment amongst star players who were being relatively underpaid and who then left the club at an alarming rate.
It seems at the beginning of this summer Wenger realised he had to change this. First of all he had a massive clear out to free up wages so he could target stars like Higuain and Suarez. Denilson, Santos, Squillaci, Chamakh and Arshavin were jettisoned and those we couldn’t sell (like Park and Djourou) were allowed to leave on loan again.But for me the significant sale of the summer was Gervinho. He was a typical Wenger signing — full of potential and from the French league — and yet he sold him on for a loss after just two seasons.
That is extremely unlike him.
Usually Wenger ends up giving his poor buys far too long to establish themselves before realising they will never make it. Look how many times the likes of Senderos, Denilson, Bendtner, Almunia and Djourou played before Wenger gave up on them (which was long after the fans had). I fully expected Gervinho to be given one or two more seasons, but it appears Wenger has become less patient and more ruthless with his players, which is a very, very good thing. It’s the same with Santos — Wenger quickly acknowledged he’d made a mistake, signed Monreal and took a big loss on the Brazilian to get him out of the club.
So this big cull left room in the squad and on the wage bill for some star players. With the exception of Ozil that didn’t quite pan out, but the key here is the shift in policy — being prepared to pay big fees and just as importantly, big wages, to star players. Ozil is apparently on the best part of £200,000 a week.
3) Wenger has failed to motivate his players on a consistent basis for some time. It’s not good enough to only show commitment for the last 10 matches of the season and not bother against Blackburn, Bradford, Norwich etc. They only play for him when the knives are out and are otherwise content to coast through the season, relaxing after receiving a bit of praise.
The casual start to this season against Aston Villa and the resultant improvement after stinging criticism from the media and fans tells me this is still an issue. However, the Spurs victory was a mature, professional performance where it looked like we actually had a gameplan instead of being told to go out and pass it around a lot. The players worked hard and defended as a team. This gives me hope that Wenger has accepted you need to ‘win ugly’ sometimes and maybe he has accepted a season is about who can accumulate the most points, not who plays the prettiest football. I’m not totally convinced, but I’m hoping we can show that level of focus against ‘smaller’ teams as well as in the glamour games. This is a crucial issue, because it doesn’t matter how many star players you have if they aren’t given the right tactics and motivation for matches. The jury is out on this one.
4) Wenger needs a proper back up goalie and his failure to buy any keeper since Fabianski in 2007 is disgraceful.
As with Gervinho, Mannone was quickly sold on when it became clear he would never be Arsenal quality. Now I don’t know much about our new keeper Viviano, and the fact he was signed from Serie B makes me worry he could turn out to be another Almunia. But at least Wenger recognised that Szczesny needs proper competition (the injury prone and useless Fabianski isn’t and never will be good enough) and did something about it. Would I have preferred Cesar? For sure, but let’s give the new guy a chance and just be thankful Wenger no longer sees Fabianski as good enough cover. For me Szczesny will become a great keeper if he is taken out of the firing line once in a while — there has been too much pressure on him for the last three years as he’s been our only competent keeper.
5) Wenger sold Song, our only defensive midfielder, and to hell with buying a replacement, Arteta can play there.
To be fair to Wenger he tried all summer to sign a quality defensive midfielder. He was rebuffed by Bayer Leverkusen over a potential £19m deal for Lars Bender and then Gustavo chose to stay in Germany rather than sign for us. As a last resort he signed Flamini, who is competent but not as good as we could have hoped for. However, the fact Wenger is actually replacing Song is the main issue here. For over a year he’s been told to buy a defensive midfielder (and a goalkeeper) and stubbornly refused, but this summer’s change of heart has seen these two errors belatedly rectified.
Which brings us to the amazing coup he pulled off on Monday. Just how good is Ozil? Well, Madrid players and fans are in despair and Mourinho pulled the plug on the Ba loan deal because he thinks we’re title contenders now. I don’t agree with that, not just yet. Instead this is a project that’s just started. I am happy to wait until next summer for it to really kick on as star players will be more willing to join and play with Ozil. It’s the same kind of boost to the club’s allure that Bergkamp’s signing gave us all those years ago and we must take advantage of it.
So is all well at Arsenal again? No. Performances like those against Villa are still too regular for my liking and more work must be done on the training ground, especially on the defensive side of things. The major shift in transfer policy and statement of intent will give both fans and players a lift, but one new signing can’t disguise the fudged summer. We failed to sign a marquee striker and the way we conducted ourselves in our pursuit of Suarez was embarrassing. We still only have three centre backs and had to resort to Flamini when we could’ve had Fellaini for £23m a month ago. The squad is far too thin and with a £70m kitty Wenger should’ve done better than two free transfers, one loanee and a superstar who, no matter how good, plays in a position that Cazorla is already excelling in.
Mistakes have certainly been made.
But crucially, this feels like the end of one chapter and the start of an exciting new one. Maybe I’m still giddy with the excitement of seeing Arsenal shirts with the name ‘Ozil’ on them and maybe this was just a one off signing to placate the fans and put bums on seats again (it better not be). But I’m hoping Wenger has finally done what the media, fans and bloggers have been nagging him to do for ages and that’s sacrifice his admirable but outdated principles both on and off the pitch to enable Arsenal to move forward again.
Welcome to the 21st century Arsene, glad you could make it.