Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Failure Of The Arsenal Project

A recent piece for Football Friends attempted to explain why this summer has seen young British players are commanding fairly astronomical fees. The argument goes that Brits are far more likely to stay within their home nation rather than be tempted by Spain or Italy therefore clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United are hoping to secure a decade of service from the likes of Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones rather than being forced into selling to Barcelona or Real Madrid down the line. If there is one club that has most suffered from this problem in recent years it is Arsenal. At this very moment the cliché police are arriving to take away my “journalist” licence but Arsenal are in desperate need of British players. But recognising the problem and addressing it are two very different things. Whether youngsters will continue to have faith in Arsene Wenger’s project remains to be seen.

If the argument above is correct and there is a greater element of security or loyalty about the purchase of British players who are more inclined to stay at home than transfer abroad this would seem perfect for Arsenal given how many players Wenger has already lost to the European elite. In recent years alone Alexander Hleb and Thierry Henry have been sold to Barcelona while AC Milan poached Mathieu Flamini, not to mention the likes of Marc Overmars or Nicolas Anelka who’ve left to play for the Spanish duopoly before. Even now (and as ever FTW is first with the breaking news) Catalonia is paying a fair amount of homage to Cesc Fabregas in the safe knowledge that the wayward youth will return to the Nou Camp and resume his rightful place as a Barcelona man.

It should be made clear that the traditional “Arsenal need English players cos Johnny Foreigner ain’t got no backbone” argument is tired and offensive. The question is not one of determination or courage but of itchy feet. There is very little history of major transfers between domestic rivals in the English game. Aside from the gargantuan fee that sent Fernando Torres from Liverpool to Chelsea the level of movement between the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool is virtually nonexistent. If Arsene Wenger had managed to persuade Phil Jones to pick the Emirates over Old Trafford the likelihood is that the Gunners would have secured the services of one of the brightest prospects in English football for over a decade.

Sadly the disturbing truth is that the current pattern at Arsenal is for brilliant young foreign prospects come to the club and develop into footballers of the highest calibre before jumping ship to another club on the continent. The twin factors of how poorly English footballers tend to travel and the fact that they are more likely to see playing for Arsenal as a pinnacle of a career rather than a stepping stone to a Spanish or Italian club means that investing in British youngsters would allow Wenger to construct a team around a solid core instead of constantly fending off interest from other clubs as is the case with Fabregas.

The problem for Wenger is recognising and addressing a problem are two different things. We know that the Professor has been strongly linked with the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Phil Jones which shows a desire to bring in English talent to accompany Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere but Jones opted for Manchester United while Liverpool are also very much in the hunt for Oxlade-Chamberlain’s signature. The Arsenal project under Wenger has been to develop a young team into champions, an admirable idea but not easy at the best of times. If young starlets are looking at Arsenal as unattractive proposition to begin with and stars like Samir Nasri and Fabregas are openly talking about leaving then any pretence that the project can still succeed is dying.

This summer window is demonstrating two things for Arsenal. Firstly when competing with clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea they may be able to offer more in terms of game time and wages but not the chance of trophies which players crave. However unfair this accusation is, the media narrative has run stories on Arsenal’s trophy drought for so long that it becomes a subconscious fact in players minds that Arsenal are dramatically weak compared to their rivals in terms of winning trophies. Secondly that established players are willing to openly flirt with domestic rivals e.g. Nasri with Manchester United which further demonstrates that weakness. The idea of selling a key player to a domestic rival would be a humiliating admission of Arsenal’s comparative stature in the Premier League. Persuading the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jones to join the Arsenal project may cost rather a lot up front but over the course of a decade it’s cheaper to buy one player for £15m than four for £6m each. Somehow Wenger needs to start convincing players that they belong in London long term and the place to start might just be with British talent.

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