Promise of Arsenal’s Youth Is Always on the Horizon
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Arsenal’s season is off to a roller-coaster start: A dreadful loss at Fulham in its second league game worked fans into a panic, and the squad looked inadequate for a sustained title-challenge. Over the next two weeks in late August, though, a string of good results not only pushed Arsenal to the top of the league table, but also renewed belief in the team and manager Arsene Wenger.
It is his vision — encapsulated in a common refrain amongst Arsenal supporters, “Arsene Knows” — that has guided the team to three titles and four FA cups during his 12 years in charge. It is his vision that allowed the team to build a shiny new stadium without government subsidies and without having to leave its traditional North London neighborhood. It is his vision that has consistently identified the best young soccer talent from around the world, and it is manifested when Arsenal plays free-flowing, attacking soccer.
But after restoring the faith, the Gunners promptly squandered the goodwill. They lost to newly promoted Hull City on Saturday at home, after leading 1-0. And now the alarm bells are ringing again. “Arsene Knows” is cast in doubt like never before, as fans question the direction of the club. Has the man with the exquisite vision lost sight of the way forward for Arsenal?
Part of Wenger’s guidance of Arsenal includes careful management of the club’s finances. Wenger has applied his master’s degree in economics to the running of the team. He boasts about balancing the books on his transfer business, earning as much from selling players as he spends on buying them, which has allowed the club to finance its new stadium.
Even without the financial restrictions that came from the stadium project, Wenger prefers to buy unknown talents rather than established stars — the younger, the better. Perhaps no player better exemplifies this approach than 21-year-old playmaker Cesc Fabregas, plucked from Barcelona’s youth system at age 16 and inserted into Arsenal’s starting lineup at 17. Fabregas is now the linchpin of Arsenal’s team, and a regular for the Spanish national team that won this summer’s Euro 2008 title. Fabregas cost Arsenal no more than a few hundred thousand dollars in 2003, whereas today he would command a transfer fee in excess of $100 million.
This example, repeated in less dramatic fashion on a regular basis, has allowed Arsenal to build a talented squad at a fraction of the cost. In contrast, Arsenal’s main title rivals, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool, regularly shell out millions of pounds in transfer fees to bring in established stars that fill holes in their squads.
When Fabregas’s midfield partner, Mathieu Flamini, moved onto AC Milan in the summer, Wenger did not replace him, preferring to rely on the next wave of young talent already at the club. In the past, his exhortations for fans to keep faith and be patient with the maturation of young talent have been heeded. But that patience has worn thin this year. Arsenal’s youth movement is like the hydrogen economy, always hailed as the next big thing, but always just over the horizon.
The past week demonstrated this to perfection. In the midweek Carling Cup game — a competition that Wenger uses as an opportunity to give experience to young players — Arsenal’s starting lineup had an average age of 19. No matter. They crushed Sheffield United 6-0. The rest of the week was spent exalting the youngsters and Wenger for trusting in them — only for it all to come crashing down on Saturday after Hull claimed its unlikely victory.
Hull exposed Arsenal’s three major weaknesses this year: the lack of a tough-tackling central midfielder, the gaping hole left by Flamini, and the absence of a central defender with the stature to command the penalty box on corners and free kicks.
Indeed, in the loss to Hull, the decisive goal came off a corner. Of the four goals Arsenal has conceded in league matches this year, two have come from corners and one from a free kick. Corner goals were a weakness identified by Wenger last year, but not one he addressed.
Wenger’s vision has turned Arsenal into one of the richest and most successful soccer clubs in the world. He should be commended for running Arsenal in a sustainable way, setting the club up for long-term success. But in this age of billionaire owners, Arsenal has charted a decidedly lonely path to success. Wenger has an unparalleled eye for young talent, and a commitment to beautiful, attacking soccer. But these dual obsessions get in the way of assembling the best team and winning titles. In the end, sports is about results. If you aren’t winning titles, you’re a failure. By these high standards, Wenger’s vision is failing Arsenal.