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Is the “British Core” Wenger’s biggest failure?

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After all the hype, what’s there to show for it?

Arizona Diamondbacks v San Diego Padres
bulldog spirit isn’t enough any more
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

When Arsene Wenger started re-shaping Arsenal, he did it in a very French way. His first few seasons saw a pretty big contingent of French players heading to London, including Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, and, uh, Gilles Grimandi. It got to the point where, when France won the World Cup in 1998, this was the headline:

While Arsene was never afraid to look further afield than France, there was no question that he was not shy about looking abroad for players rather than looking primarily at English talent, which was the prevailing mentality at the time. This trend peaked in 2005, when Arsenal fielded its first-ever all non-English match day 18.

For a while there, this never caused anyone any consternation; Arsenal were winning, the players being brought in were good, and all seemed OK in Arsenal-land. Then, all of a sudden, the winning...well, it didn’t stop, but - at least in a trophy sense - as we all know, it slowed. And that led some people to wonder whether Arsenal needed more English players in it, which is a curious assertion since the English hadn’t done anything of note in international football since 1966, and since there isn’t exactly a rich history of English players going abroad to be all-conquering heroes in other countries.

But, national pride is a thing, and Arsene Wenger is keenly aware of England’s history and heritage in the game. He’s always cognizant that no matter what, Arsenal are an English club, and he doesn’t want it ever to lose that Englishness, which in a lot of ways is a good thing.

To that end, he started talking, in the early 2010’s, of Arsenal having an “English core”, kids born and raised in England, schooled in football at Arsenal, and who would become the central feature of a strong first team for years to come. That core, in 2012, was all signed to extensions on the same day, and on that day, Wenger had this to say about his core:

“We are still only focused on quality but for the first time England produces so much quality. It's not that I have changed. For me the quality is the most important thing.”

So, here we are, five years later, and I think it’s fair to ask how that core has done (Theo Walcott is not included in this analysis, because he wasn’t one of the five to sign on the same day). So, how’s the core doing?

Kieran Gibbs

Age: 27
Under Contract Until: Summer 2018

Arguably the most consistently successful of the British Core, the left back has been a regular participant in Arsenal’s defense since his extension.

Carl Jenkinson

Age: 25
Under contract until: Summer 2020 (!)

Since signing his extension, the 25 year old right back has spent as much time on loan as he has at Arsenal - he’s made 62 appearances for Arsenal since then, and 59 on loan at West Ham. He’ll play this year on loan at Birmingham City.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Age: 24
Under contract until: Summer 2018

Ox has been a regular in the side, but it’s arguable that a) he’s greatly underperformed and b) his favored position in Wenger’s new formation, wing-back, has forced several other players out of position and unbalanced the side. He’s got some value and may be attracting some interest, so it remains to be seen if he’ll be around when his contract ends, but if he is, I would be skeptical that he’ll be here this time next season.

Aaron Ramsey

Age: 26
Under contract until: Summer 2019

Now we get to the frustrating part. I really, really want to love Aaron Ramsey. Unreservedly. And I know a lot of people do. Like Ox, Ramsey is full of talent and yet only occasionally does that talent manifest itself, and when it does, it’s inconsistent and not there for more than a game or two in a row.

Jack Wilshere

Age: 25
Under contract until: Summer 2018

The seemingly perpetually injured Wilshere spent last year on loan at Bournemouth, trying to recharge a career that seemed to be going nowhere, in no small part thanks to a ton of injuries that have kept him from getting anywhere near his best. Wenger has said he wants Wilshere to be a part of the senior team this year, but his road back to that point took an interesting turn the other day when he was sent off in an Arsenal U23 game. That incident shouldn’t impact his chances to stick with the senior squad, but if he can’t stay healthy, or if he stays healthy and doesn’t really do much, we may be seeing the last of Wilshere in an Arsenal shirt.

So, there we have it. Arsene Wenger’s vaunted British Core. Two of which haven’t really played meaningful minutes, one of which is decent if unspectacular, and one of which is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Go back to that Wenger quote up there again:

for the first time England produces so much quality. It's not that I have changed. For me the quality is the most important thing.”

Um. If this is the quality that England produces, that leads me to one of two conclusions:

  1. “English quality” is as easy to find as a unicorn being ridden by a leprechaun
  2. Arsene Wenger is bad at identifying talent

The sad thing for me is that #2 is the more likely option. One must only look at our neighbors to the immediate north somewhat remote west to see that outstanding English talent is, if not plentiful, at least available; Delle Alli and Harry Kane have done incredibly well for Tottenham. So it’s not like those English talents don’t exist, but for whatever reason, Wenger can’t or doesn’t find them.

Of all of Wenger’s shortcomings over the years, perceived or real, his misidentification of the talent level of what he sees as the “British core” of Arsenal, and his insistence in sticking with them (Jenkinson’s signed until 2020!), might in fact be his most damning. If those five are what he deems to be the best of “British quality”, I’m not sure he should be making, or at least should not have final say in, personnel decisions, because he’s clearly a step behind the rest of the game in that department. Which is a depressing thing to have to write.