Arsene Wenger did not change; we did

Clive Brunskill

He's still as ambitious as ever, but it's not 1997 anymore, so let's just all chill out a bit.

"It’s very difficult. Because the level of expectation is very high," said Wenger. "Because people want to come here and they want to see Lionel Messi.

"They don’t want to see a promising guy.

"First of all, the name gives hope. When a guy has no name, people are already sceptical. So it’s much more difficult for us.

-- Arsene Wenger, pace the Mirror

The above comment caused just a bit of a meltdown on twitter late this afternoon central time. Arsenal fans have had to endure some tough times with good players leaving the club in recent years, and while that is a sad reality, the other brickbat that follows its mate through this particular window (no pun intended), that Arsenal no longer are interested in winning or its corollary "making quality signings", is a problematic and near-asinine brickbat, and should be summarily dismissed by anyone with a grasp of nuance and complexity.

The primary reactionary twitter/tabloid criticism of Arsenal's transfer policy is that it belies the "fact" that Arsene Wenger lacks the kind of ambition he once had. This is, however, an ill-conceived and silly critique to level at someone such as Wenger for a number of reasons, not least of which is that nobody can really know how much "ambition" a person has. But there are knowable things, too, and despite the frustration of recent seasons without silver for Arsenal, supporters should consider the following uncomfortable, but easily more demonstrable, "fact":

Arsene Wenger has not changed. We have. And so has the Premier League.

Consider the following tweet that emerged this afternoon from 7amkickoff:

[Note: it's worth reading any responses and conversations that stemmed from this tweet, if you want your brain to melt and run out your nose and on to your shoes].

[28 days left, people. Breathe.]

Now, 7amkickoff does some good work a lot of the time. But this tweet (and I'm just picking on this one because it's near at hand) is curious for a number of reasons:

1) Wenger would not have said that in 1994, because he was managing in France. I know that it's possible that 7am is just using it as an example of when Bergkamp was at his promising best, but still. To beat Wenger with this particular hammer is AT BEST churlish.
2) Bergkamp WAS A PROMISING GUY in 1994; he was not Messi.
3) Bergkamp was also considered a failure for Inter Milan a year later when Bruce Rioch broke Arsenal's transfer record and spent £7.5m to get him.
4) Arsenal were able to outspend a lot of clubs not named Manchester United in the mid-90s in England. They were, indeed, able to outspend a lot of clubs until about 2003.
5) 7amkickoff knows this, because he wrote a post about total outlay for playing staff, and how closely that correlates with results. He knows, also, that this is why Arsenal have a hard time finishing near the top teams as of late.

[UPDATE: 7amkickoff has explained that the above tweet was meant sarcastically. I apologize for the misunderstanding; everything I wrote below, none of which applies solely to any one person, still stands].

In addition to these problems, the fact is that Dennis Bergkamp is exactly the type of signing Wenger would specialize in making now, but not because he was comparable to Lionel Messi in 1994. (He wasn't. Sorry; he wasn't.) It was because Bergkamp did not fit in the plans of Arsenal's main competitors (that's important).

We have to remember in this transfer window that Wenger has always brought in players that are less known than others. A comparable signing to Messi now in 1994 would have been Romario, or Klinsmann, or Baggio. In 1998 it would have been Ronaldo. Arsenal never went for those kinds of players under Rioch or Wenger. Sure, Wenger has spent pretty big on some players (Henry, Jeffers) and not so big on others (Vieira, Toure, Fabregas). However, it's important to remember that Wenger has NEVER been perfect on transfers, and his success rate now is comparable to what it was in 2002. People like to crap all over Chamakh and Squillaci now, but I have some names for those people:

Stepanovs
Cygan
Luzhny
Jeffers
Wreh
Grimandi
Diawara
Sylvinho
Pennant
Richard Wright (for crap's sake; he cost SIX MILLION POUNDS).

I could go on, but you get the idea. Wenger has never been the faultless, imperious miracle worker that people have made him out to be. What he is, instead, is an extremely good (but not perfect) manager who made a few extremely good signings amongst the cabbage patch kids, signings that require two things: a little luck, and the revenues to cover wages. We have to remember that until 2005 or so, Arsenal spent either the most or the second-most total money on playing staff, and it showed (thanks to 7amkickoff for showing this to us all).

In a sense, Wenger is a victim of his own legend, which was built up by the fans and media, the same people who are now shamelessly, two-facedly, disrespectfully tearing him down. The man went 49 league games without losing, for the love of all that is holy. He is a tremendous strategic manager and talent scout who for about eight years was the only man capable of challenging the United Dreadnought, and how did he do this? By outsmarting the competition and revolutionizing scouting and training in England and by spending well. Since 2004, other teams have started to catch up to his methods and surpass them, mainly by spending the GDP of most nations on earth to 1) get scouts (some of which are former Arsenal scouts) set up and 2) to spend nearly double what Arsenal can on wages. It's hard for him to get a Vieira or an Henry now, because Chelsea and City and United are already there with more wages and, let's face it, a better league position. Nonetheless, Wenger set the tone; others just followed his lead with a bigger wheelbarrow.

So no, even had he been Arsenal manager in 1994, he wouldn't have said that about Bergkamp/Messi, but it's not because he had an ambition to sign the world's best players at that time that has since, somehow, disappeared.

We have to be clear about this: Wenger's ambition and his abilities remain the same as they always have been. This is a man who watches more football than possibly anyone on earth, and I guarantee you that he wants Arsenal to win more than any of us do. We know this is true, because he spends 16 hours a day neglecting his wife for Arsenal, and you and I do not. Wenger's comments on Messi were a comment directed towards the insanity of fans who seem unsatisfied with the Koscielnys and Girouds of the world, as if it's even possible that Arsenal could sign Lewandowski or Götze or even someone like Demba Ba; we know what will happen when teams find out that Arsenal are in for them. And it's not that I want to let Arsenal off the hook entirely when deals don't get done for one reason or another, but some level-headedness is required here.

Many twitterers called Wenger's remark patronizing or condescending, but those people seemingly have no grasp of irony. They say "we just want quality", as if somehow Wenger doesn't want quality and isn't willing to pay for it. Transfers aren't as simple as flicking a switch that if you don't flick, it's because you're an asshat. Transfers are dirty business, faxes, phone calls, endless negotiation, and if you think that sounds hard/boring, imagine what happens when Chelsea or City or Madrid get involved, not to mention scum of the earth agents. To say that Wenger somehow isn't trying and doesn't want quality and only wants to look smart by bringing in some Tajik nobody's ever seen kick a ball is absurd. He would sign Eden Hazard in a heartbeat if all it took was one phone call; you know this, I know this.

Wenger is as ambitious (and probably as acerbic) as he's ever, always been. He's the same man possessing the same qualities and drives as he's had since 1996. However, the key fact is that the Premier League, and Arsenal's position in it, is vastly different now for reasons we know and we cannot control. It's time for Arsenal supporters to try to put this first in our minds and give the greatest manager in our history some slack and some understanding when January rolls around. This does not mean he's exempt from critique, but we have to remember, too, that we're operating with about 10% of the total picture when we yell on twitter about Demba Ba going to Chelsea. Will Wenger ever get it totally right? No. Has he ever? No. It's best to remember this, and stop pretending like he's the embittered, withered shell of his former self, and maybe cast a glance toward circumstance and the world we live in today instead.


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