Yesterday’s review of Patrick Barclay’s excellent biography of Herbert Chapman came with Arsène using language of which his predecessor would have approved. It was the late Arsenal manager who introduced the salary scale which still exists, for the most part; a flat structure which has only just been punctured and reshaped but still with firm and level base.
Wenger spoke of his current squad being one of the strongest he has ever had during his reign at the club. It is a difficult job to compare depth or players out of their time; only the true footballing greats can transcend eras, slotting into future or past generations without even the merest hint of doubt. Others fit more questionably, have their strengths and weaknesses exposed as we look back or forward. Would a centre back now have been able to adapt to the robust challenges that existed in the English game two or more decades ago? Could their predecessor have coped with the pace, the athleticism of a modern forward? Questions to ponder, the answer in the latter scenario is always that the centre back was a great reader of the game, that compensated for the difference in pace; he would have adapted. There is never a right or wrong answer, just friendly disagreements.
But of his time in charge, is he right to be this bullish? Certainly the players are proving to be more durable in the Premier League than in recent years. Top now is enjoyable; it might not last but the evidence suggests that the squad will be hanging around the top of the table for a few more games and as those days stretch into weeks and beyond, who knows where their belief might take them. It is certainly better to see an Arsenal team competing for the title than languishing in a dogfight for fourth place. The season may yet end that way such is the closeness in the top four, the willingness of teams to take points off each other. Certainly we are reaching the point in the season where someone will strike a consistent vein of form / results; Arsenal have as good a chance as any of being the ones.
The depth of the squad is always relative to their time. If you look at Wenger’s double-winning squads, they weren’t hugely impressive once you got beyond the starting XI. 1997/98 had the legacy of George Graham’s back four to build on, augmented by Arsène’s own signings but once you got beyond the fourteen who played regularly, there was not that impressive a roster of younger players. Certainly none who progressed to have top flight careers.
2001/02 was a different story and a squad which had depth, arguably the deepest of any Wenger era. When the likes of Luzhny was not available, Lee Dixon was there; for Keown or Campbell, read Adams; Bergkamp, Kanu whilst the midfield had Edu and van Bronckhorst. There was experience and if Rosicky, Mertesacker and Sagna can be persuaded to renew their contracts, that scenario seems destined to be repeated in two years time or so. Certainly there were more options for the manager than The Invincibles could call upon if the need had arisen.
And that’s the key point on any discussion about squad depth. It is relative; what did the manager need at the time and was it good enough? In the three seasons mentioned above, he had enough options. Certainly he had more luck with injuries – yes, we’ll put it down to luck for the purposes of this argument – and never lost anyone with Theo Walcott’s significance in those seasons. It would have been the equivalent of taking Freddie Ljungberg out of the team with the regularity he was injured as his Arsenal career wound down. The key players stayed fit, particularly in 2003/04 and they were in their prime without exception. It is not a difficult case to make when suggesting that none of the members of that squad who played regularly, did so at higher levels before or after that season.
Could members of this squad have usurped any of those teams, forced their way into the starting line-up. If we are truly honest, not many. Perhaps Sagna; Mertesacker or Koscielny ahead of Campbell, Adams, Keown or Toure in their eras? A tough call. The likes of Cazorla against Ljungberg is an interesting battle and one which could go either way – I would opt for the Swede myself – whilst who knows, perhaps Özil may yet reach the heights Dennis Bergkamp scaled? The problem with such comparisons is the players development; are they at the similar stages of their careers? Some genuinely are, particularly across the back four and those choices would not be as straightforward as might seem on paper; previous generations have silverware underpinning their claims, to prove their abilities. When – if – this generation delivers, will the choices be so easy?
In case you’re wondering by this point what my Wenger Generation Arsenal XI would be:
Seaman; Sagna, Campbell, Keown, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira, Fabregas, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry
With a bench of:
Lehmann, Toure, Lauren, Cazorla, Rosicky, Özil, Overmars, Wright
No room at the inn for some right now but it is not unbelievable to think that some of the current players will slot into that squad or make the choices a lot harder, a lot less straightforward.
As it is, Arsène is worrying about the here and now. Tomas Rosicky has apparently had surgery to repair his nose and he may be able to play if he wears a mask. I wonder what type it will be? A simple Lone Ranger eyeband, a full-on Batman or my own preference would be for a ‘V’ mask. Whether that is the flesh-eating alien or unknown anarchist, I’ll leave to you. As long as it isn’t anything like that used in Pulp Fiction, I should think the Premier League won’t mind. Elsewhere, Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Thomas Vermaelen have all sent notes from their mum asking if they can be excused from playing against Fulham because they’ve hurt themselves. Nacho Monreal might have to play because he left his at home yesterday but if he remembers it today, Señora Monreal’s wishes for her son to have the weekend off might be granted.
To finish with, the Orion Publishing Group have very kindly provided a copy of Patrick Barclay’s book which can be won if you answer this question correctly:
Who were Arsenal’s opponents when they won the FA Cup for the first time in 1930:
A. Newcastle United
B. Preston North End
C. Huddersfield Town
Answers to firstname.lastname@example.org with your answer in the Subject field. The winner will be selected at random from those who give the correct answer after the closing date, which is Midnight GMT, Thursday 23rd January 2014.
If you can’t wait that long, click on this link to buy The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman: The Story of One of Football’s Most Influential Figures.