I had this sent to me by someone who wishes to remain anonymous, it’s a bit of a long post but it’s worth hanging on in until the end…
Arsenal dropped out of three competitions in the span of only 14 days, which of course means a massive blow to morale within the team. But is there any reason to panic, or start doubting Wenger’s approach and philosophy? I say not yet, and here’s why.
How We Got Here
In 1993, Highbury became an all-seater stadium, reducing its capacity from 57,000 to roughly 38,500, with even less capacity for Champions League fixtures. This meant a huge reduction in ticket sales, and the club could only watch as tens of thousands of supporters were unable to attend matches. With the season ticket waiting list growing rapidly every year, the club decided to look at alternatives.
In 1999, the club announced the plans of building a new 60,000+ capacity stadium, initially intended to open in 2003. Even if the average ticket price would only be around £10, the increased capacity would mean an extra £6.5m per year, so the financial boost was huge. In reality the average ticket price is more than four times higher, meaning an estimated £20m-£30m extra revenue per year in comparison to Highbury.
But it also meant having to spend money to make money, £470m in total to be exact, and even though large chunks of the cost was made back through sponsorship deals, player sales and clever investments like the Highbury Square development, a big portion of the debt remained.
While all this was going on, Arsene Wenger had arrived at the club with a somewhat unique mindset when it came to transfers. Always a financially sensible man, it went against his philosophy to buy expensive ready-made Premier League stars, and instead realised he could buy younger or overlooked talent from abroad, without lowering the quality of the team. Players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Kolo Toure, Fredrik Ljungberg, Robert Pires, etc, were all products of this ideology.
With Wenger’s nose for bargain players, and the increasingly tight budgets from building a new stadium, the club decided to create a long-term plan for the future of the club. The plan was to create a financially stable situation where new players would mostly come from within the club, as opposed to bought into it. With a good academy in place, the squad would ideally be filled with young players coming through the ranks as soon as older players needed to be replaced.
2002-2003: The First Wave
Slightly before the Invincibles were tearing up the Premier League, Wenger and the board were putting together their 10-year plan of turning Arsenal into a self-sustaining modern club that shouldn’t have to rely on buying expensive players to compete at the highest level. The first stage of the plan was to get a crop of 16-18 year olds into the club that would take over for when the current first team was in decline. The first wave of this new generation included Cesc Fabregas (16), Johan Djourou (16), Gael Clichy (18) and Nicklas Bendtner (16) – and also included the signing of 9-year old Emmanuel Frimpong.
2004-2006: The Second Wave And The Mighty Transition
A couple of years later even more teenagers were brought into the club in a second wave, like Alex Song (18), Theo Walcott (17), Abou Diaby (19), Carlos Vela (16), Vito Mannone (17) and Denilson (18). With these players in the academy, Arsenal finally had a strong foundation for the future. But the problem was that the gap between the experienced older players and the new era youngsters was too big, and a period of inconsistency started shortly after the Invincibles season.
When Jose Mourinho took over Chelsea, he changed the dynamic of the Premier League – what had been viewed as a two-horse race was now a three-horse race, and with Liverpool slowly becoming a threat again, the competitive level of the domestic league increased tenfold in a couple of years. And with the loss of players like Dennis Bergkamp, Martin Keown, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira within a three year period – and the move to a new stadium in that timeframe as well – the new wave of players were too young to carry the expectations of the club on their shoulders.
The ideal set-up at a top club is to have a sensible balance between older/experienced and younger/energetic players. The older players will usher the younger ones into the philosophy of the club, and bear the majority of the responsibilities on the pitch while the younger ones learn and develop their talents. Without the older players in this system, the younger players are exposed for their flaws, and carry too much responsibility.
Arsenal celebrating winning the Premier League in 2004, with players like Vieira, Henry, Keown, Pires and Bergkamp
Somewhat unexpectedly the transition was forced upon Wenger sooner than what was planned, and as the club wouldn’t start becoming self-sustained until the third or even fourth wave of youngsters started coming through the club structure, instability ensued.
The plan was never to sell Henry, Pires or Vieira, instead the hope was to follow the same pattern as Man Utd did with players like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. But as the long-term plan was in place, the financial benefit of selling these players would mean accelerating the reduction in debt, and that’s where the first big mistake was made. It wasn’t solely the board’s or Wenger’s fault though, the players themselves had expressed a desire to move on.
2008: The Third Wave
The third wave would be introduced around 2008, bringing players like Aaron Ramsey (18), Ignasi Miquel (16), Kyle Bartley (16), Francis Coquelin (17), etc, to the club, and would serve as the first expansion for the new generation. The whole point of bringing in new waves of youth players would be to eliminate the need for traditional squad generations in the future and instead have a constant flow of new players, eventually having a broad age span within the first team squad with natural replacements ready to go where needed.
The third wave of players meant Arsenal started to build a very solid foundation within their youth ranks, and with players from the first wave already starting to claim their place in the first team, Wenger knew the plan was working. But he also knew that not until the players were old enough would we see the true results of the plan, and he was only halfway through the project at this stage.
2010-2011: The Fourth Wave
As the first and second wave players were becoming first team starters (Fabregas, Walcott, Clichy, Djourou, Walcott, Song, etc), and with the third wave players lurking in the wings, the club initiated the fourth wave in 2010 – expected to be ready for the first team in about 3-5 years. Players like Wellington Silva, Jon Toral-Harper, Samuel Galindo and Ryo Miyaichi would form one of the last waves before the first team players were old enough to become the experienced players at the club, and bring us to the self-sustaining state we planned for in the first place.
Today: Almost There
We still have a year or two left before this 10-year strategy proves itself to be successful. We currently have a very strong first team with more harmony than in recent years, and first wave players haven’t even reached their peaks yet. Still we’re looking to get top four at least in the most competitive league in the world, we were only one mistake away from a Carling Cup trophy and we were only one Bendtner mis-hit away from knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League.
Whatever happens at the end of this season, we are showing an increase in form every year as our players grow older, and it’s only a matter of time before the team opens the door to long-term success.
2013-2014: The Fifth Wave
In the 2011 summer transfer window, Wenger will add the last of the fourth wave players to the academy, and then follow the same pattern as before, waiting a couple of years before starting the fifth wave. The fifth wave marks the end of the 10-year plan for mainstream transfer market independence, and at this stage the first wave players bought back in 2003-2004 will be hitting their peaks, becoming the club’s experienced players in the process.
At this stage we should have the third and fourth wave players in their early/mid-20′s, ready to step into the first eleven if injuries or player sales alter the first choice setup, and with the fifth wave in their late teens, we all of a sudden have a perfect span of players in the correct age groups to dominate for years. And this was the intention from the start.
My personal guess is that at this stage, Arsene Wenger will feel his work is done, and leave his managerial position, but staying at the club in some capacity to help complete the transition from the old to the new era. A young manager will be brought into the club, and he’ll have an impressive setup that will keep him supplied with new talent for decades.
Should Wenger Go Then?
First of all I’m of the opinion that nothing major went ‘wrong’, especially in the perspective of the long-term plan and the disadvantages that came along with that strategy. However, four aspects of the transition caused an unnecessary crash in form after the successful 2003/2004 season, and could have gone smoother overall:
1. Our experienced players left the club too soon – Wenger or the board can’t be blamed for all of them, but could have put more effort into trying to keep some of them. Henry and Vieira wanted to move on and when a player isn’t mentally at the club anymore, there is little point keeping him. But with players like Pires or Flamini, Wenger and the board definitely could have done more to keep them at the club.
2. Unlucky age gap – the difference between the first wave players and the Invincibles generation was unfortunately a couple of years too much, and as a result the transition between them couldn’t be made in time before the older players disappeared from the club. Wenger and the board couldn’t really do much about this, but maybe the long-term plan should’ve been initiated in 1999 when the new stadium proposal was made, instead of 3-4 years later.
3. Long-term plan causing close relationships with players – when dealing primarily with 16-year olds eventually expected to be responsible for the success of a world class football club, trust and love is put into the players from a very young age. This creates high levels of harmony within the club, but also creates relationships that can be too close at times. A major complaint about Wenger is that he trusts his players too much, giving them chance after chance even though they don’t seem to improve. Wenger needs to become more ruthless in this department, but then we run the risk of upsetting harmony at the club.
4. Key replacements weren’t made exceptions to the long-term plan – losing Vieira, Gilberto and Flamini meant losing defensive stability in midfield until Song was ready to step up. And just like when Liverpool lost Alonso, the importance of a good holding midfield player in the modern game was exposed. If Wenger had made one exception to the long-term plan, we might have had a better form in the period between 2005-2010. However, we currently have very promising second and third wave players coming through, and with Song playing well, this won’t be a massive issue in 2011 and onwards.
With that being said, it’s unrealistic to demand that Wenger or the board should have done everything perfectly when transforming the whole essence of the club into the modern era. Did they make mistakes? Yes. Should we get rid of Wenger when we’re at the final stage of a long-term plan? No, that would be ridiculous. Every manager makes mistakes, but let’s be honest: Wenger has kept us in the top 4 throughout this transition phase, in the best league in the world.
Not winning a trophy for 7 years is probably more hurtful for younger supporters, but I don’t mind going without a trophy for 10 years to be honest. That is the time span set up for the long-term plan, and I’ve accepted that the plan would bring instability until it was done. Also, the reward for having patience with Wenger will be to establish Arsenal as an independent, consistent and efficient trophy hunter, without ever having to buy a Torres for £50m.
At the moment we’re witnessing the fruits of our labours, with lots of our first team starters being products of the first and second wave youngsters brought in several years ago. But there’s still a couple of years left for this squad to peak, and what we must do as supporters is to be patient until the long-term strategy is completed. Only when viewing our current situation with a bit of perspective can we understand what’s really going on.
The main complaint I see everywhere is that Wenger didn’t bring in a central defender, defensive midfielder or goalkeeper in the summer. People had lost faith in Almunia, we had no proper backup for Song and little experience in our defensive line. And even though we did buy a central defender, it wasn’t enough for many supporters who seemed to have completely missed the point of the long-term plan.
The problem is, and Wenger has said this many times as well, that buying experienced players would ruin the long-term plan, as the young players wouldn’t naturally progress and get a chance to prove their talent in the first team. Part of the process of eliminating the need for traditional generations is to give the young players an accelerated development by playing them in the first team, and if you buy an expensive 27-year old defensive midfielder, that position is suddenly locked down for almost 5 years, hindering the development of an internal player.
For the plan to work, most positions in the team needs to be filled with our own waves of players, to form a seamless progression between generations, ensuring stability for the club. Not until the first wave reaches their peak should we judge the success of Arsene Wenger and the long-term strategy.
I’m convinced that in the near future we will look back at this era and laugh about our dip in form, having to hand out sunglasses to supporters wanting to glance at our packed trophy cabinet. Success is coming, but we need to support our manager with patience and perspective. We haven’t even reached the runway yet, and we’re already challenging for the league title and playing cup finals.
Have faith, Arsenal will dominate for years to come.