Arsene Wenger has made it abundantly clear he is against big business ‘corrupting’ football, and is more concerned with maintaining a stable, recession-proof economic policy. Playing it safe. Slow and steady wins the race.
The only problem is, you only tell the Tortoise and the Hare story to children, Aesop has been dead for over 2000 years and the only race slow and steady wins is one to a Europa League place, at best.
Fans just want their team to win, maybe not at all costs, but Wenger seems to think he can do it at next to no cost whatsoever. The uncensored, insensitive reality of the football world is that is that €10-million is nothing. And so is Thomas Vermaelen.
Wenger assured fans at the Emirates – as the season reached its predictable, trophyless end – that experience would be signed in key positions this summer. At 23, Vermaelen has just over 20 caps for the Belgian national side and has come through the worst Ajax team for the last three to four decades.
Wenger has an eye for talent better than most, and there is nothing to say that Vermaelen, who has had ringing endorsements from the likes of Jaap Stam, couldn’t develop into a class player. But there’s that word again: development.
The fans, above all else, have become restless with the club’s status as surrogates for French, African and French-African talents who either don’t quite make the top grade, or do so and promptly head to a club where they have something of an assurance that they can line up alongside more players of proven quality and compete for major silverware.
Principles, after all, are relative – with many heavily criticising Wenger’s policy of poaching many of his best youth talents – while success is indisputably universal. The lack of balance in Wenger’s philosophy and inability to adapt to compete in the age of Abramovich is disconcerting; but he is a man of such intelligence, you would be naive to suggest he doesn’t realise the shortcomings of his transfer strategy.
And that is why there is growing belief that the pennysaver signings are nothing more than a fail-safe, to hide behind the guise of financial responsibility and youth development as an excuse for any potential failure, while snatching the likes of Gareth Barry or Xabi Alonso would put the onus squarely on the manager to deliver success.
Believe what you will, but don’t believe it’s unfair, don’t believe there is no money and don’t believe that Arsenal’s decline from magical to a little mediocre is anyone’s fault but the club’s.
Having already given up on the likes of Gokhan Inler off the back of his impressive Euro 2008 showing, Wenger was presented with a chance to snap up Felipe Melo from Fiorentina. Fresh from Spanish outfit Almeria, in his debut Serie A season, the Brazilian was quite possibly the best midfielder in the league, a driving force behind the club qualifying for the Champions League for successive years for the first time in its history and now a regular with the Brazil national side, one of their star performers en route to Confederations Cup glory last month.
Arsenal reportedly put up just €14-million for the combative Brazilian and were laughed off. Juventus are now on the verge of signing him for a fee in the region of €20-25-million. Steep, yes, but such is the price of a player just one year into his contract and in such red-hot form. Bear in mind, this is not even a Juve under Luciano Moggi and coached by Fabio Capello or Marcello Lippi. This is a Juve ravaged by the Calciopoli scandal and putting money they don’t even have into players they know they absolutely require.
Take Arsenal’s €14m offer, take the €10m spent on Vermaelen, and tell me what you have. You have more than enough money to buy the perfect partner for Cesc Fabregas, which would immeasurably help him improve on his ponderous and unimpressive last season at the Emirates and flourish as the world-class talent that he is before inevitably jetting back to Barcelona.
It would restore Arsenal’s strength in central midfield; the hub of any great football side, as demonstrated by Andres Iniesta and Xavi, Andrea Pirlo and Rino Gattuso or even Paul Scholes and Roy Keane.
Invariably, Wenger will now revert to type. His initial target, the Vermaelen-like Stephane Sessegnon of Paris-Saint Germain, has just renewed with the French capital club, but instead sights are now set on Blaise Matuidi at Saint-Etienne. While it can be condescending to constantly assume it takes a name to make a player, Arsenal’s recent track record suggests enough no-names will inevitably lead to a no-team.
For a man who coaches his players with such passion and belief to take risks and go out to win, it is nothing short of a shame for football that he cannot take that same mentality into the boardroom. There is a reason Real Madrid head-hunted the Frenchman this summer. It wasn’t the first time and may not even be the last, as he is a man universally recognised as embracing a special brand of football and nurturing of top talent.
But just as Barcelona won’t produce a Fabregas, Iniesta, Messi and Pique as part of one generation every time, nor can Wenger realistically expect to snatch them up from other clubs, let alone produce four or five more Jack Wilsheres.
The likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira – astonishingly rejected by Serie A during its golden age – would not come cheaply in today’s equivalent market and, perhaps Vieira excluded, they weren’t exactly cheap then, either.
The 59-year-old may yet surprise us all and sign a player of immense experience in Mahamadou Diarra – a French-speaking African, just as he likes them – and having just turned 28, won four Ligue 1 titles with Lyon and two Primera Divisions with Real Madrid, will most likely be available for a fee in the region of €15m as Madrid clear-out as part of the Galacticos revolution. But if it’s a straight shootout between he and 22-year-old, €7-10m Matuidi – where would you place your bet?