When Arsené Wenger arrived at Arsenal in September 1996, his extensive knowledge of European football and its players was one of his biggest assets. In those days, over 65 percent of starters in the Premier League were English (this number does not include the significant amount of Scottish, Welsh or Irish players). There was an untapped market of players all around Europe waiting for a club and a manager to take a chance.
Arsené Wenger became famous for signing great foreign players, especially from his native France, in his early years at Arsenal. Even before his tenure at Arsenal officially began, Patrick Vieira and Rémi Garde, both heavily influenced by Wenger, joined the club. Since then, Wenger has signed over 30 players of either French nationality or directly from French clubs.
Great French players including Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Robert Pirès all joined Arsenal in Wenger’s first five years in charge. Their success made Arsenal the envy of the Premier League. Although Wenger is now known for his ability to turn obscure players into stars, the players he tended to bring in during his early time at the club were far from obscure. While often little known in England, Wenger’s early signings arrived with notable pedigree. Petit, 26 when he arrived, had just led a dominant Monaco side to the French title. Henry and Pires arrived as World Cup and European Championship winners, while Wiltord arrived on the back of his heroic late goal in the Euro 2000 Final to help France to victory. Nicolas Anelka, at just 17, was perhaps the biggest risk when Wenger brought the striker to London in his first season. Wenger’s trust in his countryman paid off just two and half years later however when Anelka, on the back of a PFA Young Player of the Year award, moved to Real Madrid for over £20 million.
Wenger’s signings fueled his incredible early success in England. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this success wouldn’t last forever. The 2000s undoubtedly saw some quality players join from France, including Gaël Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Alex Song, Abou Diaby, William Gallas, Bacary Sagna, Lassana Diarra and Samir Nasri. While all good players, there were significant differences from their predecessors of the late 1990s. Unlike the likes of Vieira, Petit, Wiltord and Pires who joined Arsenal in their primes, the majority of this new crop joined the club very early in their careers and needed years to develop. Arsenal weren’t able to reap the rewards of Wenger’s patience with these players as Adebayor, Clichy, Nasri, Song and Diarra all left as they entered the prime of their careers.
Despite the bitterness that these players largely did not realize their true potential at Arsenal, Wenger’s French signings in the 2000s can still be considered mostly successful. Since the turn of the decade however, Wenger has, to put it kindly, really struggled in the French market. Laurent Koscielny in 2010 and Olivier Giroud in 2012 have been the only real successes thus far, and even they took plenty of time to settle at the club.
Wenger, the man who brought club legends Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires to London, has been reduced to signing the likes of Mikaël Silvestre, Sébastien Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh, Gervinho, Park Chu-young, and Yaya Sanogo. All (except Sanogo… yet) have left the club and very few, if any have been missed.
What makes Wenger’s inability to sign the top French talent so frustrating is that there are so many incredible players produced in France! Great players like Saha, Evra, Essien, Malouda and Yaya Touré were allowed to join Premier League rivals in a trend that shows little sign of slowing down.
In the previous two summers, Arsenal have signed one player of either French nationality or from a French club, Jeff Reine-Adélaïde. He may turn out to be a great player who does wonders for the club (and I hope he does!) but this is not the type of signing that needs to be made if Arsenal are to return to the top of the Premier League. Still, the issue is not really who Wenger has signed but rather who he hasn’t.
French football is currently experiencing something of a golden generation and Ligue 1 continues to churn out top quality players at quite a rate. In the past two years alone, N’Golo Kanté, Ousmane Dembélé, Raphaël Guerreiro, Anthony Martial, Dimitri Payet, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and countless other fantastic players, have all left France for new challenges. This is just in the last TWO years!
What was once a region of the world where Arsené Wenger had seemingly exclusive access to its top players, French transfers have become something of a nightmare for Arsenal fans.
Why has Wenger lost his grip on the French market? The answer is difficult to pin down exactly. The ever increasing global nature of the game in the Premier League is surely not helping. Only 31 percent of last season’s starters in the league were English, Wenger’s early success opened the eyes of so many in England and the scramble to sign Europe’s top talents began. Now it seems Wenger is the one being left behind. Arsenal’s lack of success in terms of trophies has seen the club passed by Chelsea and Manchester City as more attractive transfer destinations, making signing the top players even more difficult.
Regardless of why, the fact remains. Arsené Wenger is no longer the King of the French Market. And he hasn’t been for some time.