08 August 2013

Wenger's legacy and the current transfer window

Lost in all of the hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing, and garment-rendering of the last few months is a bigger question, one that has been gnawing at my conscience as each day passes and it seems less and less likely that we'll land a marquee player or two to vault us to the top of the Prem. I have a lot of mixed feelings about what we're up to (and not up to,
depending on whom you ask) as I look back on the last seventeen years of Arsenal football—almost two decades. A generation has passed since Arsene came to the helm, and, in that time, Gooners have seen some truly wondrous football. Whether we look at silverware or style, outcomes or approaches, I hope we can all agree that his tenure has been an unvarnished success, a period of glory that most clubs would be hard-pressed to replicate without massive funding to make that happen.

Therefore, as I look to the close of this year's transfer-window, I worry—not just for our fortunes over the coming twelve months, but for how this man will be remembered. His current contract, after all, runs out in June 2014. A failure to finish fourth or higher, new signings or not, could end this legend's time with a whimper instead of a bang.

I know that we are all supposed to support the club and to acknowledge that players—and, yes, managers—will come and go, but Arsène strikes me in a different way. He's synonymous in my mind with this club, and that's not just because of how his own name echoes that of the club. He's the only Arsenal manager I've known. For most of time following this club since discovering it in the early 1980s, I haven't been able to follow Arsenal at all: no television coverage to speak of, no newspaper coverage, and internet coverage only recently. If  my defense of the man comes across as misguided or myopic, you at least know why.

As I look then at our inactivity and misadventures in this transfer-window, I'm nervous. I'm nervous for strategic reasons, of course: like most, I believe we need two or three quality additions if this squad hopes to build on last season's run-in and climb above Chelsea, Man City, and  Man U. We have a lot of quality on the squad, and with the transitions that our competitors are entering under new managers, we are poised to strike. A few key signings could make all the difference. However, it's a testament to Arsène that we've been as good as we've been despite his tight-fistedness, and I wonder at how his legacy might change if we abandon the philosophy behind that financial caution too quickly. In my mind, part of what makes Arsène such a great manager, despite his tactical stubbornness, is that he actually seems to manage players rather than merely purchase them. Who else has taken so many uncut stones and forged them into such gems? I'll spare you a listing and let your own memories do the heavy lifting.

Look at our current core: Wilshere, Gibbs, Ramsey, Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott. Britons, all. We've come full-circle then, haven't we? It's all too fitting for a manager who revolutionized British football. Before he came along, the 'hoof-and-hope' approach was all the rage, yet Arsène not only brought in foreign players but brought in a style that, at that early stage, was still but a rumor in England. The pacey, movement-oriented style, dominated by passing and possession, is now de rigeur in England, thanks in large part to Arsène's innovations. It might be a pale imitation of what they do at Barcelona, but it still demands skilled players at every position, players who can do more than run at or over opponents to chase down a long ball, and it has resulted in a style of football that is much, much more enjoyable to watch. That he did so originally with foreign players (especially French ones) has become a running joke even as he's focused more on signing and developing Englishmen again. Now, England's best players are all but impossible to send to the Continent, while the world's best clamor to play in the Prem. The Prem League is Europe's most important and prestigious league thanks, in part, to Arsène.

If we can set aside the criticism over transfer-window intransigence (a rather large request, I know), we have to ask ourselves how fair we're being. If we could take Arsène's first eight years and flip them with his second nine, imagine the difference for his legacy. If he had brought us a league double in 2008 and 2012 instead of 1998 and 2002, or an undefeated season in [deleted for fear of jinxing it] instead of 2004, would there any doubts as to his quality, his legacy, or his value to this club? If he's guilty of anything, it's of having peaked too soon—and of falling victim to his own success. Not only did he achieve some of this club's greatest glories in his first eight years, but he's had to watch as wealthier clubs waited for him to do their scouting and developing and to then sign away those players just as they've come into their primes. This financial doping is, I hope, something that FFP will minimize, if not remove, from European football, if only because it would repudiate the successes of those clubs who've seen fit to ride Arsène's coat-tails. Had FFP kicked in just a few years ago, would we still be looking up at Chelsea or Man City or Man U? How much of their success is down to spending without having to worry (not to mention signing away some of our best and brightest)?

Sadly, we can't flip Arsène's first eight and last nine years, nor can we go back in time to hold other clubs accountable to the same kind of financial discipline we've held ourselves to, and that's a shame, because I strongly believe that this club, our Arsenal, wouldn't have been scrabbling to cling to fourth place each year; instead, we'd have been demolishing teams with verve and style, playing swash-buckling, breath-taking football, and Arsène, instead of having to endure some pretty shabby treatment over the last few years, would hear his name echo down the ages, not just as one of Arsenal's or England's or the Prem's best, but as one of the world's best. I get carried away sometimes. I hope I'm not overstating it.

I do hope, having said all of this, that we learn of a few signings that, while differing from Arsène's "classic" signings of years past, don't obliterate what he and the club have come to stand for over the last 17 years. After all, you have to stand for something. Arsène, for better or for worse, has stood for player development, financial sanity, and beautiful football. It's that last quality, more than any other, that I hope stays with us as we ponder a future without Arsène—a future that I hope lasts quite a few years longer, regardless of what happens in this damned transfer-window.

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