Even as the possibility of a European trophy still lingers, the end of Arsène Wenger’s nearly 22 years in charge of Arsenal is unquestionably a painful one. There have been trophies in the last decade, yes, but it has been more than ten years since Arsenal mounted a viable title challenge or looked to have a realistic shot at winning the Champions’ League. It’s all too easy to point to money changing the way that the Premier League operates, with Chelsea and Manchester City’s riches propelling them to success while Arsenal struggled financially with their move to the Emirates.
However, a closer examination of Arsenal’s slide shows that more than mere pounds, it is Wenger’s transfer acumen, or lack thereof, that may be perhaps the biggest culprit. Upon his arrival in North London, Wenger had experienced some success in the French game and had done well to use an international network of scouting to not only improve the performances of his Monaco side but also as a way to improve their financial standing, being unafraid to offload players if his asking price was being met. George Weah was the genesis of this, having moved to Monaco at a young age, but Wenger had also done well to bring through Lillian Thuram and sign Youri Djorkaeff, who, despite having had a prolific season for Strasbourg, was still three years away from playing his first match for his country.
His skill in the transfer market was quickly further evinced, signing Emmanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka, Gilles Grimandi and Marc Overmars within his first year in charge. The quartet of players represented what would become Wenger’s guiding principles in transfer policy during his time at Arsenal, with a heavy focus on players based in France. Anelka was an exciting if somewhat prickly young talent, a player who had perhaps yet to be given the right situation to make the best of his ability.
Overmars represented the sort of player who had reached success at the very highest level, but about whom some questions still remained (a poor season in 1996-97 following a knee injury in the Dutchman’s case) while Grimandi and Petit were players of a good level of quality who had laboured in some degree of obscurity, their talents unrecognised owing to the more prosaic nature of their play.
There were certainly players both inside and outside of these templates that failed to make an impact for Arsenal during Wenger’s time with the club, Davor Suker and Franny Jeffers being chief among them, but by and large his scouting, again, particularly in the French game, was without peer, bringing in Robert Pires, Thierry Henry (who had been in Monaco’s academy during Wenger’s time there) and Gael Clichy, among others.
Again, not every player was a success (Pascal Cygan), but enough were that Arsenal were able to not only be a competitive force in English football but to play as the manager’s mandate embodied, as a side that played the right way, making attractive, attacking football their prerogative, even as a few enforcer types usually lurked in defence and central midfield.
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A decade into his time at the club, things continued on in this vein, with Alex Song, Emmanuel Adebayor and Bacary Sagna also playing key roles. However, things started to change for Wenger in the summer of 2011.
The previous summer had seen him sign only Laurent Koscielny from France, and while the former Lorient centre back has had his share of ricks, he has generally been a strong presence at the back for the Gunners. The following summer, however, Wenger, reeling from the losses of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri and under pressure to improve a squad that was rather threadbare, looked twice to Ligue 1, and with disastrous results.
The lack of success of Gervinho and Park Chu-Young is neither player’s fault, they simply did not comfortably fit within the archetypes that Wenger had previously sought. Neither were particularly young, nor was either a “fading star” or a workmanlike presence. Gervinho did admittedly have decent raw numbers as an attacking presence but benefitted more from being an accessory to the likes of Eden Hazard, Moussa Sow and Yohan Cabaye at Lille rather than a creative presence on the ball in the mould of the departed Nasri.
The less said about Chu-Young’s (non-existent) career at Arsenal, the better, but Wenger didn’t seem to have learned his lesson, even after an ignominious elimination to AC Milan and a third-placed finish by a side that was largely scraps and Robin van Persie.
Rather, he seemingly became emboldened by that season, and perhaps disillusioned by a series of poor purchases from either France or French players (Yaya Sanogo, Mathieu Debuchy, David Ospina) began to look increasingly to other leagues for his top players, signing players based in Spain and Germany, even as a raft of talent with its roots in France (Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kanté, Sadio Mané) made a massive impact in English football. That all of these players were not only overlooked but brought into England for a relative pittance was further damning evidence of Wenger losing his touch, and while he did return to France this summer for Alexandre Lacazette, the former Lyon forward’s arrival was the first from France since 2014.
In addition to English-based players, the successes of Antoine Griezmann, Samuel Umiti, Miralem Pjanic and others overseas serves as further evidence of how Wenger’s deviations from his initial formula have stalled. Certainly, to say that merely because a player had success in France would make them a natural target for Arsenal would be foolhardy, but that Wenger failed to recognise these and many other talents despite his supposedly intimate knowledge of his native country’s football should have been an obvious sign of his decline. It is perhaps with no small degree of irony, then, that his final transfer, a club record was for another player who left France for greener pastures, in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Whether the disastrous moves for Gervinho and Chu-Young unduly influenced Wenger’s thinking about France as a suitable hunting ground for talent is something at which we can only guess, but it is hard to avoid the thinking that much of Arsenal’s poor performances in the last few seasons have come as a result of poor scouting and, in concert with that, a deviation on the manager’s part from the most familiar and successful parts of his career.
Had he stuck more doggedly to mining the best from Ligue 1, he might well have improved his side’s lot, and rather than the door closing on a undoubtedly fine career, the lasting memories most fans will have of Wenger regrettably will now be coloured by his misfires in the transfer market and their attendant results on the pitch.