This blog isn’t meant to be especially negative or positive. Really it’s not entirely about Arsenal; it’s supposed to be about the way the Premier League scenery has changed in the last 15 years or so. I don’t expect to come up with anything comprehensive in the couple of hours I have to draft and type this, but with a bit of luck I might touch on something interesting. Also, I think there’s a kind of alchemy at work in successful teams, and there’s much more than meets the eye of the average punter like me.
When Wenger arrived at Arsenal he wasn’t so much a foreigner as some kind of time-traveller, jumping from football’s present on the European continent back a couple of decades to the Premier League. The league was newly flush with cash, but if you look at Blackburn and Manchester United’s Champions League performances after the ban was lifted, they cut an uncouth and primitive figure at Europe’s top table.
He brought with him dietary and exercise regimes – his strict but kindly influence extended into the players’ private lives, with rules on keeping in shape and what kind of foods to avoid. Players started stepping out on to the pitch with gloopy blotches down the front of their shirts – apparently some kind of decongestant – and there was talk, of course, of supplements.
This was all new then. Of course, it’s probably common practice at all clubs these days. At the time he was a breath of fresh air for a country that had gone stale in its enforced isolation and parochialism.
Arsenal looked stronger and fitter within months. It wouldn’t be fair to put it all down to diet and physical preparation. There was a marked technical improvement. You could see it most in players like Ray Parlour, Stephen Hughes and the full-backs – in the way they trapped and passed the ball, in the way they moved without it and harmonised with their teammates. I’m convinced that the manager’s ability to improve players hasn’t diminished, and obviously it’s something that can’t be aped by other teams.
What’s more, in the 90s Arsène was no doubt aware that France was about to produce their best generation since at least the early-80s, and had privileged, first-hand information about who was under the radar and knew which players hadn’t yet reached their full potential. Less than two years after he joined Arsenal France would win the World Cup. He was directly responsible for the way Emmanuel Petit blossomed in the year leading up to the tournament.
He had already signed Vieira, who was too young to have much impact on the ’98 World Cup, and Anelka who was still a teenager at the time. He also sensed what Henry and Pires could achieve and kept an eye on them.
Fair to say that no other English manager had this kind of access to another country’s players. You only need to look at the number of foreign stars in the league at the time. Now it’s clear that every side invests in pan-European scouting networks, spotting players at all stages of their development and in every arena.
Clogged though it is with competitors trying to snap up talent early, Wenger’s patch doesn’t seem to be quite as fertile these days. France’s performance in recent tournaments attests to that. France is the market that he knows. It’s just sensible that he should do much of his business there. And the Koscielny transfer suggests that he can still find some value in France, although I’d expect we signed him a year earlier than we might have done with a similar player in the past.
Recently I’ve wondered if we don’t appreciate just how good those players were. Do we expect that there’s an equivalent to Vieira or Pires just floating around undiscovered, waiting to be snapped up? I can’t think any club would be stupid enough to part ways with a young player like Vieira again. I haven’t seen anything like him, before or since – his touch, the way he brought the ball forward and passed it, but also his competitive spirit, the way he broke up play and covered so much ground so quickly despite his frame.
We’re told this is the poorest Premier League for a few years, but I’d say it’s a far harder place for a club like Arsenal to be successful than before.
I think it’s fair to say that every year the financial necessity to be at least moderately successful increases. It’s worth it for a club just to stay in the league now, without having any ambition to climb higher than mid-table. All of the back-room expertise and knowhow can be invested in defensive organisation and formulating strategies to get better results from technically limited footballers.
Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis are two who have made life tough for Arsenal in recent years. Their goal is to avoid addressing any unpredictability in the game, keep the ball out of play for as long as possible and reduce it to a series of short bursts of action. In these situations the manager can have more input, through strategies set out on the training ground and learned by rote – he won’t have to rely so much on the decision-making of his players. It might sound uninspiring, but it tends to work. It’s nothing to moan about – this is the reality of the situation and something to overcome.
Finally, we all know what’s happened at the top. Chelsea’s takeover was a monumental event. Practically on the eve of our move to the Emirates it forced us to rethink our plans. In that instant we were priced out of the best players, but Abramovich was also one of the catalysts for the subsequent spiralling wages, as the rest of the league was impelled to offer their players more competitive salaries and bonuses. The average Premier League wage bill has more than doubled in the last eight years – and I doubt we saw that coming in 2003.
Over at Arsenal On This Day, Yogi’s post is about League Cup semi-final joy.