Friday, September 4, 2015

The Inscrutable Arsène Wenger

The close of the summer transfer period on Tuesday prompted an incredulous response from many Arsenal supporters. How, they asked, could Arsenal state aspirations to compete for the Premier League title and neglect summer transfers?

The disconnect seems all the more pronounced in light of the activity of other title aspirants, particularly Manchester City and Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Chelsea. They were three of the top four spenders, on a net basis, in the league, while Arsenal ranked 15th.

To broaden and intensify the contrast: Arsenal were the only club in the top-five European leagues not to recruit a senior outfield player during this transfer period.

This is seen as a clear indication of a character flaw in manager Arsène Wenger.

Reasons for the uproar

I think this misguided response comes down to three factors:
  1. Our own ignorance of the arcane environment of football transfers
  2. Our lazy equation of one man with the activity of a multifaceted enterprise
  3. Wenger’s remarkable ability, despite years in the public eye, to defy assumptions and expectations

I’ve written about the bizarre world of football transfers before, so instead of restating my case here, I’ll just direct you to a piece on my personal blog, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Even Small Crowds.” The main point is that football transfers don’t have the characteristics of any transaction we’re familiar with – and they certainly aren’t as straightforward as popular computer games make them seem.

Even the term “transfer market” creates a false impression, because it suggests a large pool of transparent transactions that can be compared to each other. That’s not the case for the few, murky, discrete exchanges of footballers and money among European clubs.

My article “Arsenal, Arsène Wenger, and the Cult of Personality” examines the second factor, arguing that the equation of individual managers with clubs is lazy, misleading, and convenient, in the sense that it allows me as an individual to criticize a public figure based on the way I would have acted in similar circumstances.

An exceptional figure

It’s the third factor I want to look at here. Accepting that Wenger plays the dominant role in Arsenal’s acquisition of players, the manager has shown instincts that so few of us can understand, let alone summon.

To wit: When the next summer transfer period closes, Wenger will be in the final year of his contract. Yet in this penultimate opportunity for a major expenditure, he held back, or at least endorsed the approach of holding back. How many of us, knowing we could be out the door in the medium term, would have done the same?

Instead, the manager and his colleagues made just one acquisition at the first-team level. Even there, the move went against expectation. Arsenal paid Chelsea £10.9 million for 33-year-old goalkeeper Petr Cech. That’s the highest fee for a goalkeeper in Wenger’s tenure – Richard Wright’s transfer cost the club £6 million in 2001 – and certainly represents the largest proportion of any transfer period’s activity for a goalkeeper. (Transfer figures are from The Arsenal Report's Transfer Centre.)

The remainder of Arsenal’s transfer activity involved younger players, part of the club’s clear effort to enhance the player development structure and personnel. Jeff Reine-Adelaïde, the 17-year-old acquisition from Lens, put in two eye-catching preseason performances with the first team, while his compatriots Yassin Fortune and Ismaël Bennacer have also been highly touted. In all, the club spent £3.3 million on five youngsters, the largest single outlay on youth team players in Wenger’s time at the club.

That suggests that, despite his age, Wenger continues to manage for the long-term, valuing the training and upbringing of talented youth. At the same time, he has eased his prior practice of cutting ties with players older than 30, extending the contracts of Tomás Rosicky and Mikel Arteta this summer and showing a willingness to let 31-year-old Mathieu Flamini's contract run to term next summer.

Adaptation or image management?

This portrayal isn't of a hidebound geriatric or a spendthrift. Wenger is making multiple adjustments, not least deploying a considerable amount of the club's resources in the past two years, to move the club closer to its title rivals. He won't ever match their spending because profligacy doesn't suit his philosophy--if it did, he'd have left for Real Madrid in 2005--and because that's not the club's strategy.

What Wenger will do is see out his current contract and keep us all guessing about his subsequent plans. Whether this coyness is a deliberate ploy to stay in the public eye, to take some of the scrutiny off his players, to solidify his legacy, or to remain true to his nature, that's all conjecture.

We may never fully understand Wenger's motives or decisions, but it's incredibly interesting to try. If those efforts don't figure him out to our satisfaction, that's more on us than it is on him. Might it just be more worthwhile to marvel at this extraordinary steward of an organization that means so much to so many?

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