Managers often face forks in the road on transfers, team selection and substitutions. It’s a choice between the short-term and the long-term. Especially managers like Arsène Wenger, and especially at clubs like Arsenal, which is expected by the world to compete for top prizes, but also be financially sound and plan for the future.
Like many Arsenal fans I’ve been wondering about this for a while, even more since the last batch of first-teamers left. It’s clear that Wenger will always have his mind fixed on the long run, occasionally even at the expense the here and now.
We could wrack our brains and go rifling through the archives to analyse thousands of decisions taken by Wenger since he joined, but in the last couple of weeks some examples have fallen into our laps.
What brought this to mind recently was the mooted Sahin transfer. While I don’t claim to know all the details, I think it’s clear that Arsenal had the opportunity to sign this talented 23-year-old for a year. What we wanted was an option to make him permanent, at a reasonable price naturally. Real Madrid would only consider loaning him out, and soon found another club to agree to those terms.
Sahin was still getting the feel of things when we played Liverpool on the weekend. He will improve, and could play an important part in getting his temporary club a little closer to the Champions League places than in recent years.
The move would have been bad news for us though. Especially given all the change we’ve seen over the past year. As the match proved, he’ll need time to get up to speed. And once a playmaking midfielder beds in he becomes an important cog in the team’s system – had he come to us and become a success, Sahin’s a component that would have been ripped out come summer 2013, leaving us with yet another rebuilding job.
Moving on, Theo Walcott hasn’t started the season well. But really he’s had a fair bit to contend with; his contract is up in the air, and two important teammates have left. Relying as they do on link-ups and understanding I reckon this would be a blow for most forwards, but it’s worse for Theo.
He’s a talent who improves just when people think he’s levelled off. He’s lightning quick, works hard and moves well off the ball. I noticed last season that he’s an effective dribbler, now starting to put interesting changes of direction into his style. But without wanting to be too harsh, he’s not given to moments of startling improvisation.
I don’t know if he’s going to sign a new contract here. And beyond the obvious, the problem with that is Theo’s a player who needs extra time to mesh with his new teammates and find his groove. It’s time that I’d want him to have, if we could be certain he’ll still be with the club next year.
It applies to other players, to a lesser extent. We know van Persie reached an above average standard last season, but coming back from his many injuries he was sluggish. After getting injured in September 2010 it wasn’t until the New Year that he was showing form. People thought Rosicky was past it until he got a run of starts and showed everyone otherwise. Diaby’s long been accused of dallying in possession, but it’s a trait that I’ve felt has surfaced when he’s finding his feet after a period out of the game – so it makes sense that we’re accustomed to it.
In each case the short-term option might have been more appealing – for instance, Chamakh was in great scoring form when van Persie got fit in 2010.
Here’s another one:
In the first 20 minutes of the game against Liverpool Carl Jenkinson was in trouble. Raheem Sterling and Suárez had been given licence to run at him. When in possession he was getting pressed with a little more urgency than our other defenders. If Brendan Rodgers is the meticulous tactician we’ve been told about, then it’s likely that Carl had been identified as Arsenal’s weak-link.
His nerves were starting to infect the normally ice-cool Mertesacker. There was a point about 20 minutes into the game when I wondered if he’d make it to half time. Coquelin was on the bench, and although he won’t end up as a full-back he did some good work there last year. But slowly, after losing the ball a couple of times and thrashing at a cross that Mannone could have claimed, Jenkinson settled.
In the end he played the entire 90. He forgot his shaky start and gave us a steady performance, gradually getting the better of Sterling and finding his own teammates more efficiently. But when the pressure was building, did Wenger contemplate a switch?
At half time it was a gamble to keep him on – as we are all too aware, absolutely anything can happen in a match. Jose Mourinho was famous, and praised, for making quick subs. But then he’s never been known for bringing young players through either.
But now I’m sure that in the end Jenkinson will be stronger for having seen out the match and got the better of his opponent. I’m convinced that Liverpool will soon be a better team now than at any time over the last two years, and our young right-back may in time be able to look back at Sunday’s match with some pride. I mean, a lifelong Arsenal fan shining in a 2-0 win at Anfield!
And now Wenger knows, if he didn’t already, that he has a player who can be trusted to overcome shaky moments.
But here’s where things break down. There’s a reason why Wenger’s yearly summer catchphrase has been “we want to keep the team together”. For all our transfer feats these last couple of years, we’d be far stronger with a settled team. And how does he feel about his past decisions, when the players he protected and nurtured decided they want to move to a club where he’ll get more money and find it easier to win things?
I know Wenger would never do it, but as a fan I’d love to see him point to times he gambled on a match and his own reputation to help one of these players reach his potential; all the great players he developed by picking them ahead of more obvious candidates. Maybe it would shame them – for a minute or so.