With Arsenal again all-conquering did Arsene Wenger have a masterplan all along? Or is it temporary good fortune? Simon Tovey suspects the former.
It’s fair to say that there can’t be many football fans who haven’t already been more than well acquainted with the fact Arsenal have had their struggles in recent years. Nearly a decade has passed since they were able to boast of any silverware, players the Gunners moulded into world-class performers; Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin Van Persie et al, are all long gone and long-serving boss Arsene Wenger has had to deal with clamours for his head longer than anybody in N5 can care to remember due to a lack of success. Though the calls, one would expect, have come from a vocal few in the Emirates Stadium rather than it being a real consensus; it’s plain to see events at the club must have taken a certain toll on the legendary French manager. Which is why it’s difficult not to imagine he’ll have a wry smile on his face this week as his exciting team sit at the summit. Who would begrudge him it?
The 63 year old had to sit back and have his judgement called into question, certainly by the media, as it seemed time and again he would stubbornly refuse to open, what many say, was a sizeable war-chest and sign the marquee player Arsenal fans were crying out for. This reluctance was compounded by the fact that old enemies Manchester United and Chelsea regularly swept up honours both domestically and on the continent and were joined in relative dominance by Manchester City, even bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur began to emerge again. It was hard to see how Wenger could defend himself in the face of this situation. After all, this was the architect of the scintillating ‘Invincibles’ side, a man who arguably changed the landscape of English football for good when he breezed through the doors of Highbury in 1996, his methods transforming Arsenal and setting a yardstick for other clubs to follow. He did though, and with great dignity; barring the occasional irritated outburst and his perhaps ill-thought out, “finishing fourth is like winning a trophy” statement.
It is this same quiet dignity, coupled with the fact that Arsenal are the most consistent and in form outfit around at the moment that appears to have vindicated the Strasbourg born boss’ belief in his vision. However, was it yet another masterstroke by ‘Le Proffeseur’, did he know all along that his young side would finally come good and challenge again, or is luck at play? To answer this, one needs to examine what has happened so far.
Firstly, Arsenal have undoubtedly profited from the frankly strange lack of any initial challenge at the top from the ‘usual’ contenders. Manchester United have floundered and look devoid of ideas or fluidity, it really is that simple. Manchester City are finding out that they can’t turn up with their galaxy of stars and expect sides to roll over. Whilst Chelsea aren’t quite at the same level under Jose Mourinho yet as he attempts to “change their style”. Yes, Liverpool and Spurs have managed to fall in behind, but they’re not playing with the same verve and togetherness as Arsenal. Though it’s difficult to imagine Wenger having a crystal ball of sorts, did he foresee this happening? Was he biding his time, knowing that at some point the ageing squads of his rivals would have to be replaced and bedded in during that favourite clichéd ‘transitional’ period, leading to at least an initial struggle? The departures of the aforementioned three rival clubs’ managers certainly sped that up and it looks to be very much in evidence at the moment, to Wenger’s advantage.
In contrast, Arsenal’s line-up in the first few weeks is a very familiar one. Though they have lost star players, they still retain a core of very talented players that have grown together, and it shows. Olivier Giroud has settled now and is scoring, the defence looks fairly solid and they have a formidable set of midfield options to call upon, even summer signing Mathieu Flamini knows his way around. There is no doubt this continuity is a major factor in their start and is a drum Wenger has been banging for years. The development of a squad that is in tune with each other and all buying into a single philosophy.
Then there’s Aaron Ramsey, the Welsh midfielder’s start to 2013/14 has been nothing short of remarkable. He’s arguably the best midfielder in Europe at the moment. His form is no doubt a driving force to their start and seems to be at complete odds with the often timid and ineffective player from the last few seasons, though of course, his horrific injury in 2010 played its part. Nonetheless, it has been a great boon for Arsenal, with Wenger himself even remarking how surprised he is with the level of Ramsey’s performance. This isn’t, however, luck. There was obviously an excellent, match affecting midfielder waiting to finally emerge.
Of course, there are also the ‘aces up the sleeve’ that Wenger has unleashed on the Premier League. Other lines constantly attributed to him were variations of the fact that he would not spend the club’s money for the sake of it and that the ‘right’ type of player for Arsenal simply wasn’t available. People scoffed, fans moaned at his inaction. Then he splashed out over £40 million on Mesut Ozil, a truly brilliant signing and one that transforms them from a good side into an extremely dangerous one. Having a player of the calibre of the 24 year old makes everybody around him simply need to up their game and lo and behold he’s already proven to be the world-class player everybody knows he is. He’s galvanised the team and they seem like a terrifying prospect going forward when you factor in players like Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Ramsey. It wasn’t all plain-sailing though, the long-running Gareth Bale saga had Real Madrid hanging onto the German until late on in the window. It’s impossible to believe though that a manager as astute as Wenger didn’t focus his sights on Ozil as soon as Madrid’s interest in Bale became apparent. It was a masterstroke of a transfer, and if nothing else, highlights the pull he has still to attract top players.
A further ace is in the explosion onto the scene of German youngster Serge Gnabry, Theo Walcott’s annual injury means he has had a chance to shine and shine he has. His well taken goal and all action display at the weekend further strengthens the point that Wenger has always had a long term plan that he was just waiting to start see bear fruit. Don’t be surprised to see young Spanish full-back Hector Bellerin, another steal from Barcelona’s fabled system, make an impact soon either. The future, as it always has been at the club, is also very safe it seems.
So, in conclusion, it seems the evidence is clear. The critics right now are taking a beating as Arsenal have sauntered to the top of the league. Is there a little bit of luck at play here? Possibly. It would take a brave man to admit though that Arsene Wenger didn’t have a plan all along. Not one of the greatest managers ever to grace England.