19 January 2014

Özil, Draxler, and a future without Arsène

Earlier in the week, Arsène, pressed on his future with the club, said, "there is a point where you have to decide and there is a point where you have to make your decision public. You can take of that sentence the way you want it." Perennially coy—and apparently enjoying it—Arsène, ever the wordsmith, always the artful dodger, is in the catbird's seat along with any number of clichés one might apply here. After eighteen years, the last ten of so amounting to a drought, the man has a right to enjoy where things currently stand. However, for as rosy as things are, I'm sure I'm not the only one casting anxious eyes further down the road to a post-Arsène future.

If you were to label me, I'd probably fall more often than not in the "Wenger Knows Best" category. I'm not blind to the man's faults, nor am I unduly blinkered by his successes. However, the prospect of his eventual retirement, whether it happens after this season or five years, ten years down the road, is an unsettling prospect to me. One need look no further than fourteen points and six spots down the table at what can happen when a club loses an iconic manager.

I speak, of course, tongue planted firmly in cheek, of Man U, lurching back and forth like some Adderall-addled zombie, just can't seem to show any signs of life or footballing intelligence under David Moyes. For as much fun as it is to heap abuse on Moyes, Man U's problems pre-date his arrival, almost to the point that I doubt that any manager, regardless of stature, experience, or prowess, could do much to overcome them. Let it be noted, for example, that Mourinho, ever cunning and shrewd, eschewed an offer to take over the reins at Old Trafford. To wit, a quick glance at Man U's roster shows glaring weaknesses that Ferguson was able to gloss over through sheer force of will and, of course, money. Bringing in van Persie allowed Ferguson to continue to play a mix of unproven starlets and long-in-the-tooth veterans—ignoring, in the process, a gaping hole in that vital Goldilocks Zone, that time in a player's life when his youth and experience are in perfect balance.

Coming into this season, Man U's roster included Carrick (32 years old), Ferdinand (35), van Persie (30), Rooney (28), Valencia (28), Fletcher (29), Giggs (40), Vidic (32), and Evra (32), all of them playing heavy minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, there's de Gea (23), Jones (21), Rafael (23), Cleverley (24), Januzaj (18), and Welbeck (23), among others. Both groups, to Moyes's chagrin, are acting their age. The gray-beards are slowing down, falling to injury, losing their edge; the greenhorns make mistakes, don't yet understand the nuances of the game, don't have the referees' respect. The first group is brittle; the second, raw. Under the direction of an arguably overmatched and out-of-his-depth manager, those flaws have seen Man U in its worst position since, well, the formation of the Prem.

With issues like that in mind, it's intriguing to see Arsène Wenger, legendary master of the low-budget signing, first pursue the likes of Higuain and Suarez before finally "settling" for Mesut Özil, in the process obliterating his previous record for a signing almost three times over—and be serially linked with an attempt with a similarly outsized signing of Julian Draxler. Could it be that Arsène, sizing up his transition and legacy, is looking to build a squad capable of adjusting to his departure in three, five, seven years?

The current squad boasts a raft of players just about to enter the prime of their lives: Szczesny (23), Gibbs (24), Wilshere (22), Ramsey (23), Özil (25), and Walcott (24) are all essentially regular starters, meaning that six of eleven starting positions are effectively covered for the foreseeable future. Waiting behind them are the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain (20), Gnabry (18), and Jenkinson (21). Picture that starting line-up in a few years' time. Add in someone like Draxler (20), and confidence brims.

Of course, on the other hand, there are veterans who are starting to size up their options. Sagna, aged 30, is looking for his last big contract. Mertesacker (29), Vermaelen (28), Koscielny (28), Flamini (29), Arteta (31), Rosický (33), Cazorla (29), and Podolski (28) are all likely to retire (much as I'd like many of them to do with Arsenal) or move on to greener pastures. The Chicagoan in me would thrill to the idea of a Chicago Fire line-up that included any of these specimens, but that's another topic for another time. For now, it's clear that reinforcements, especially defensive ones, are in order.

It's there that the contrast between Ferguson and Arsène, between Moyes and whoever replaces Arsène, crystallizes. Ferguson did not retire on short notice. However, he made few if any plans for his successor—there were no signings, no grooming process, nothing. Despite the considerable allure—financial, competitive, and otherwise—of playing for Man U, only Marouane Fellaini bothered to come to make the switch following the abject failure to sign anyone else earlier in the summer, and he did so on the closing day of the window.

And so it comes back to Arsène again, and to the difference between managing versus purchasing players. Always with an eye to the future, Arsène has continually brought in young players, even if many of them, maddeningly, have not panned out. The last five years have seen a larger number of "bigger" signings than in years past—with "bigger" being a relative term. This past summer, of course, saw the £44m signing of Mesut Özil. During the 2012-13 season there were four signings totaling £48m (Monreal, Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud). During the 2011-12 season, there were five significant signings totaling £51m (Arteta, Mertesacker, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho, Santos). It's not that Arsène has been averse to such big signings prior to to 2011, but the increased frequency of such signings is notable. It's as if Arsène has a long range plan for the club, one that might ensure success even after he rides off into the sunset.

I'm sure that most of this is down to the pressure of this trophy-drought, of course, and the attendant need to produce results in the short term. However, it's perhaps just as true to suggest that Arsène is building a squad that can continue to deliver results in the longer term. Far be it from me to throw brickbats, but it does seem to me that Ferguson, either deliberately or carelessly, left Man U in the lurch, perhaps to bask in the reflected glow of his successor's struggles, accentuating his perceived greatness as the club stumbled in his absence. I doubt that Arsène is cut from similar cloth. In fact, I prefer going to bed on this and on many nights to come believing that he has a long-range plan for Arsenal, one that he has entrusted to a core of young but not callow players who are capable of continuing to deliver the same kind of attractive, attacking football we have come to know for the better part (on several levels) of the last two decades.

Many Gooners have known nothing but Arsène and Wengerball for the entirety of their lives. Good on them; may they always know such salad days. The good news for them and the rest of us, as I see it, is that the man, so synonymous with the club that some even think that the club's name derives from his, has built a stadium and a squad that should enjoy successes for years to come, whether his successor is Klopp or Laudrup or Bould or Bergkamp or any of the other names bandied about. Whoever it is, it looks increasingly like they'll inherit a squad inherently capable of winning. There is no apparent void in experience or leadership as there is at Old Trafford. The current core of Arsenal, should it remain intact on the whole, might be just as much a legacy to Arsène's time at the club as the Invincibles.

On a parting note, may I just say how much I revere this man? It's rare, perhaps now more than ever, that anyone can stand by principles as doggedly and with as much self-respect as he has. All around him, he was suffered fools who have learned from his innovations, copied and bastardized it and gone on to more-frequent successes than he has had, and still, he has refused to change. Some would call that stubbornness. I'm going to go ahead and and quote to you from one of America's folk-treasures, Utah Phillips, who once said, "They're going to strip-mine your soul. They're going to clear-cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist, because the profit-system follows the path of least resistance, and following the path of least resistance is what makes the river crooked."

Before I make Arsène out to be some kind of paladin with motives pure as the driven snow, I know that he understands full-well the machinations of the market. He knows that money makes the world go 'round. However, it seems to me that he has resisted the path of least resistance; he has gone against the current. The momentum that he has created might be just enough, then, to carry this club forward even when he is no longer at the helm.

From my lips to God's ears.