Come the summer, some urgent reorganisation is needed. Whilst it is commendable that arguably the weakest group of players Arsene Wenger has assembled during his time at Arsenal has secured Champions League qualification and made it to two semi-finals, to make the leap to actually securing some silverware will require some decisive changes during the close-season. To do this, the manager doesn’t necessarily need to buy star names or break the bank but at the very least it would seem that he does need to bring in at least three experienced professionals - a tall central defender, a midfield enforcer and an instinctive, reliable goalscorer who has an aversion to visiting the club’s treatment room.
The key word in the above paragraph though is "experienced". What Arsene Wenger has attempted over the past couple of years is to be applauded and Arsenal have a great tradition of building trophy-winning teams by developing groups of young players. One only has to look back at the Double winning team of 1971 and the Anfield heroes of 1989 to see that. But even in those teams, it took a blend of young players and pragmatic seasoned professionals to get the balance right.
In his programme notes yesterday, Wenger is quoted as follows: “Look at our midfield from Tuesday - Song, Nasri, Walcott and Fabregas - all aged between 20 and 22. So we will naturally progress if we keep going”. Within this one sentence Arsene Wenger reveals both the strength and key flaw of his current approach. It is of course fantastic that the team has several young players that could go on to prove themselves to be genuinely world class, (though there are several who definitely won’t), and it is right that some of the world’s best young players should be attracted to, and developed by, a club such as Arsenal. But, generally speaking, the received wisdom is that a footballer hits his peak between the ages of 26 and 28. In the transient modern game, where money talks and agents fan the flames of discontent in order to move players on every summer, how many of the current Gunners squad will still be with the club in five years time?
It would be nice to believe that some of these players might show some loyalty and repay the faith that Arsene Wenger has shown in them but, looking at the evidence of recent seasons, it would seem unlikely. And even looking at it in more professional terms, would someone like Cesc Fabregas be content to stay and continually finish fourth for the next five years when he knows that it is highly likely that he could move to Barcelona or Real Madrid when he wanted?
It is a potentially vicious circle. Arsenal could spend time, money and effort developing players from the ages of 16 to 22 only to see them move on before they reach their peak. The experiment that Wenger has tried over the past few years is one that would work in the best of all possible worlds but the greed-ridden business of modern-day football is a long way from that. The manager needs to change tack but in doing so he does not have to sell out all his principles. He can continue to develop young professionals but he also needs some experienced players alongside them to help them along and, crucially, to make the team into one that knows how to win trophies. One only needs to see the boost a half-fit Andrey Arshavin gave both the team and the supporters on his arrival to know that the addition of a few more of his ilk could make the difference between finishing fourth and actually winning something.
Thankfully, this is something that even Arsene Wenger now appears to be acknowledging in his interviews and we can only hope that he moves swiftly in the summer so that the squad can prepare itself for next term. It will be interesting to see what happens because there is no doubt the manager is under the most intense pressure he has experienced since joining the club from both the fans and, potentially, the Board.
Hitherto, the directors have given him an entirely free rein in all footballing matters but with changes occurring in the boardroom one senses that Wenger might be asked some slightly more searching questions by a man like Stan Kroenke than he may have been used to in the past. The move to the new stadium and the more corporate approach adopted by the club means that trophies do have to be delivered for the club to maintain its status amongst Europe’s elite. One can debate the rights and wrongs of that until the cows come home but that is the harsh reality of top-tier football these days.
From a financial point of view, it could be argued that Wenger has done the perfect job for the club since moving to Ashburton Grove. He has qualified for the Champions League every year and, compared with his direct rivals, has barely spent a penny on players in that time when looking at the net deficit on transfers. The novelty factor of the new stadium has also meant sell-out crowds every week. This, though, is a state of affairs that cannot be sustained in the game’s current climate. With so much riding on keeping the stadium full every week and the corporate clients happy, going forward, the manager has to tread a fine line between not bankrupting the club by signing a load of expensive big-name stars and not bankrupting the club by having too many unsuccessful years.
If any manager can pull off such a feat it is Arsene Wenger but to do this he needs to change his current approach. This will not be a sign of weakness or compromise but the mark of a true forward-thinking modern manager who accepts that adage of “adapt or die”. The Frenchman deserves the chance to make the required adjustments but in being allowed that time he will know he is under pressure to deliver. Without a ball even being kicked, it is his performance in the transfer market this summer could be one of the most crucial periods of his Arsenal career.