2006/7 was our first season at the Emirates and the first season of Project Youth. We ended up with 68 points, finished 4th and lost 2-1 in the Carling Cup final with a young team which had “massive potential” according to Wenger.
2010/11 was our fifth season at the Emirates and the fifth season of Project Youth. We ended up with 68 points, finished 4th and lost 2-1 in the Carling Cup final with a young team which had “massive potential” according to Wenger.
So where is the progress? When is the fulfillment of this “massive potential” going to happen?
The answer is never. The graph below shows that although we’ve had some encouraging seasons in the intervening years, we are no better off than we were four years ago.
Why is that then? Why can’t these incredibly talented youngsters make that next step? Well, as has been well documented on this and other blogs many times this season, we need experienced leaders to help them and Wenger refuses to buy any. Consider the players who’ve left the club since the summer of 2006, just before the start of the first season at Emirates. Only including those aged 26 and above, the list reads:
Bergkamp, Cole, Pires, Campbell (all in 2006), Henry, Lauren, Ljungberg (all 2007), Lehmann, Hleb, Gilberto (all 2008).
That’s 10 players, including 9 invincibles. That’s a lot of winners, experience and mental strength that have left the squad. So who has Wenger signed over the age of 26 since then to counter that? Discounting the brief re-signings of Campbell and Lehmann, the list reads:
Gallas (2006), Silvestre (2008), Arshavin and Squillaci (2009).
Silvestre was past it, Squillaci is not of sufficient quality and Arshavin no longer cares after a brilliant first six months. In fact the only player who showed any kind of leadership was Gallas and he was ditched because he got so fed up with the lack of hunger and steel amongst his pampered young teammates that he threw his toys out of his pram and criticised them publicly, resulting in him losing the captaincy. He was widely condemned then but time has proven him right I’m afraid.
I’ve also come round to Gallas’ way of thinking. I remember being a staunch advocate of Project Wenger driving home from the Millenium Stadium in 2007 after our young reserves had narrowly lost to Chelsea in the Carling Cup final. I was enthusing about how promising Denilson, Diaby, Hoyte and Traore were and thinking that in five years we’d have the best squad in the land.
I was wrong. Wenger was wrong. It hasn’t worked.
Take the starting line-up from that final which represented the future of our club: Almunia, Justin Hoyte, Toure (c), Senderos, Traore, Walcott, Fabregas, Denilson, Diaby, Aliadiere, Baptista. For every Fabregas and Walcott he’s unearthed there’s a Denilson, Diaby, Hoyte, Senderos, Traore and Aliadere. Project Youth is too hit and miss.
What’s also been hit and miss is our defensive record. I only wish it was at the same level as 2007 like the points tally, but unfortunately our ‘goals against’ total has only gotten worse. Look at the Premiership goals we’ve conceded in the same period:
Now I know Arsene builds his teams to score goals and I admire and applaud that – our ‘goals for’ tally is very good. But any team that wants to win trophies builds from the back first. George Graham provided Wenger with the base from which to win his two doubles and with the good acquisitions of Toure, Campbell and Lehmann the Invincibles season and the 2005 FA Cup was made possible. Since then the back four have been replaced with mostly under 26 year olds again, as that is Wenger’s number one transfer policy during Project Youth. Sagna and Vermaelen were hits, but the others are not of a sufficient calibre to see us challenge for silverware.
Take last summer for example. Gallas, Campbell and Silvestre were let go and we needed two central defenders alongside Djourou and Vermaelen to replace them. Who would come in? Mertesacker? Cahill? Jagielka? No. He went with cheap and inexperienced Koscielny and cheap and crap Squillaci. Now I acknowledge Vermaelen missed a lot of the season and things may have been different had he played, but Vermaelen was on the field against Villa and Fulham in the last couple of weeks and our defending was still abysmal.
I don’t even need to mention the goalkeeper situation do I? All I’ll say on that matter is that Lehmann left three years ago and Szczesny is the only one since who looks capable of replacing him. Three years without a decent keeper is criminal management and it’s no wonder we’ve let in so many more goals.
I think as well as personnel though it’s the fact that Wenger doesn’t seem to care for defending. Rumour has it he doesn’t spend a lot of time working on the defensive side of our game, unlike George Graham who would get the famous back four to repeat the same defensive drills over and over until they were sick of them.
So here we are, almost five years on from our Emirates bow and the start of Project Youth. Some would argue that consistently achieving a top four finish on a shoestring budget is justification of Project Youth (the board amongst them). Well yes, I’d agree with that if the aim of Arsenal Football Club was to have money in the bank instead of trophies in the cabinet. The real aim should be somewhere in between – spending as much as we can afford to put out the best team possible. The point is that if Wenger had made two or three more astute signings instead of handicapping himself by relying almost exclusively on cheap, untried youngsters, we’d be challenging for titles and still have a decent bank balance. On this point, Wenger said yesterday:
“Even if people say you have to spend money we have to be realistic. We can’t buy players for £50million. That is a fact.”
But Arsene, nobody is saying spend £50m. That’s an unfair statement and you know it. The supporters just want you to spend a bit more on some more established, experienced players and we’d be happy. For example, Wenger signed Denilson for £3.4m in 2006. A year later Scott Parker is available for £7m and West Ham snap him up. Wenger wouldn’t buy that kind of player because it would “kill” Denilson. Well, so what? Sell him if someone better comes along. There’s a big risk of a Brazillian youngster not adapting to football here whereas Parker is proven. Would an extra £3.6m have really bankrupt Arsenal?
There are plenty of quality players like Parker available at considerably less than £50m (van der Vaart £8m is another example off the top of my head) but Wenger won’t touch them. So until he stops signing so many Denilsons and gets a few Parkers in, and acknowledges that good keepers and experienced defenders cost money, we won’t be improving on 68 points and fourth place anytime soon. Project Youth must end now.
Follow oohtobeagooner on Facebook
for more latest Arsenal transfer news, injury news, team news and rumours.