I take you back to the 94/95 season. Arsenal finished 12th in the Premier League. 6 points fewer, and they would have been relegated. It was a season riddled with scandal, with George Graham being sacked for accepting bribes and Paul Merson famously breaking down and admitting his cocaine and alcohol addiction.
The 95/96 season saw some positive changes. Bruce Rioch, fresh from achieving promotion with Bolton, was appointed manager and a club record signing was made, with Dennis Bergkamp arriving from Milan. The team finished in fifth, with a last gasp Bergkamp goal securing Uefa Cup football. But all was not well.
The 96/97 season began against a backdrop of turmoil. Rioch had fallen out with Ian Wright over playing position, and, more poignantly, with the board, over transfer funds. He was ultimately sacked, and the first quarter of the season saw two temporary managers appointed. The uncertainty and instability was brought to an end in October 96, when a forty-seven-year-old Arsene Wenger arrived from Japan.
In his first eight seasons at the club, he signed players such as Patrick Vieira, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Freddie Ljundberg, Kanu, Thierry Henry, Lauren, Robert Pires, Kolo Toure, Gilberto Silva, Sol Campbell, Robin Van Persie and Jens Lehmann. The players he let go included Matthew Rose, Lee Harper, Adrian Clarke, Ian Shelly, Paul Shaw, Gavin McGowan, Jason Crowe, Michael Black and Graham Barrett.
In this time period, he won three league titles and four FA Cups and never finished outside the top two in the league. I know; that was then, this is now, and Wenger’s Arsenal have gone six seasons without winning anything. However, if it accepted that money is the most important ingredient of success in modern football, then Wenger should be doing no more than competing for a UEFA cup place each season.
Look at the average value of starting XI’s in Arsenal’s six year trophy-less period. The average cost of Arsenal’s starting XI has been around £36 million. Compare this with Chelsea’s (£119m) and Manchester United’s (£111m) and one can see it is a minor miracle that Arsenal are remotely competitive with these teams.
In fact, Arsenal’s first XI expenditure pales in significance when compared to Liverpool (£66m), who have failed to qualify for Champions League football in two of these six seasons and Spurs (£65m), who have finished below Arsenal in every one of these six seasons. Incredibly, perennial mid-table achievers Such as Aston Villa (£49m) and Newcastle (£43m) have had a greater average starting XI outlay. Financially, Wenger’s teams have no place competing at the top end of the table and it is a testament to his genius that they do.
It follows then that people criticise Wenger for his refusal to spend big. The argument goes that if he did, Arsenal would be doing more than finishing safely within the top four every year. But when analysing the occasions that Wenger has loosened the purse strings, it is clear that this is not always the answer. Wenger has spent £10 million or more on only 8 players in his time at Arsenal: Wiltord, Henry, Jeffers, Reyes, Arshavin, Hleb, Walcott and, recently, Arteta. One golden signing aside (and one too early to tell), these players have been poor to middling.
People forget that Wenger’s best signings tend to arrive for small fees. Scoring goals has not been a problem for Arsenal during their barren run – with 70 league goals on average per season. The problem is that they have conceded an average of ten goals more, per season, than the eventual champions. Wenger is frequently criticised for his apparent stubborn refusal to address this. The most commonly cited course of action has being the employment of a defensive coach of vast experience. Robbie Savage recently described Wenger’s failure to bring in “a Keown or an Adams” as “brainless”.
But when you consider that Wenger’s coaching staff is comprised largely of experienced defenders (Wenger, Rice, Primorac, Banfield), this argument becomes redundant. It is the quality of defenders that have been signed in the last six seasons that is the problem: Players such as Traore, Sivestre, Koscielny and Squilacci have come in to replace the likes of Lauren, Campbell, Cole and Toure. But this cannot be blamed solely on Wenger.
The man himself recently hinted that he is not entirely in control of transfers: “We have 20 people working on it. I am not the only one”, he snapped, suggesting certain transfers have not occurred as he might have liked. Since David Dein has left, there has been a shift in the way transfers and contracts are managed and it is clear that Wenger has found this frustrating. His ability to spot a top player has not changed, but those responsible for trying to sign and keep these top players, has.
In October 96, Arsene Wenger arrived at an unstable club that had never qualified for the Champions League, that averaged an attendance of 35,000, and that played Glenn Helder. He has turned Arsenal into a bone-fide super-club, worth £1.2 billion, that have, under every season of his guidance, qualified for elite European football. He has been integral in the process of moving to a perennially sold out 60,000 seater stadium, and has signed some of the best players the English league has ever seen. And let’s remember that Sir Alex Ferguson once went 6 seasons at United with just an FA Cup to his name. The patience invested in him bore fruit, so let’s do the same with Wenger.