I recently wrote a little piece in this column in which I asked how Arsenal could plan for the future when no one quite knows what is going to happen to Alexis and Ozil.
My own view is that the debate over Alexis and Ozil is a red herring: that the future of those players is not the issue facing Arsenal at all. In fact I would argue there is something far, far bigger that is causing Arsenal to worry – although thankfully the club is taking – and indeed has for years been taking – steps to resolve the issue.
The simple fact is that as things stand at present, there are three clubs in the Premier League who can – and indeed will – always outbid Arsenal for any player they want: Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea.
Each has a different source of money: one is financed by a sovereign wealth fund, one is funded through having set up a world-wide marketing structure years before any other English club dreamed of such an idea, and the third gets its money through a multi-billionaire.
Of course Arsenal has one of the latter (a multi-billionaire in Stan Kroenke) but unlike Chelsea’s version, ours isn’t of a mind to invest some of his fortune in the club. And so we have a problem. We can go out and find a brilliant player who is playing for Unlikely Goal Kickers United in a country you didn’t even know existed, and bring him in under the radar, but when it comes to outbidding any of the three mega-rich clubs for a player that everyone knows about, we don’t have a chance of winning on money grounds alone.
Naturally, many people want Mr Kroenke to change his approach, but I see no chance of this happening, and so Arsenal must exist within its means. It has the stadium, the profile, and a programme that is continuing to grow the marketing income at a faster pace than any other club can manage, so no one is saying Arsenal is not well off. Rather the point is, Arsenal can always be outbid for a player on the open market.
So what do we do?
For years the club has relied upon its own reputation and that of its manager. While the media has openly derided Mr Wenger, many, many players recognise him as the coach who can see exactly where a player’s weaknesses and strengths lie, and as a result turn that player into an even better player. Forget all the chat about Wenger’s blind spots, about how he doesn’t know how to organise a defence, about Xhaka and Ramsey – Wenger is the master of the development and evolution of players – and players know this.
Now Mr Wenger’s time is drawing to a close. We don’t know when he might go, but go he will. And yet as he does approach the latter part of his time at Arsenal he is leaving us with something that although apparent is virtually slipping under the radar.
Month by month, under Wenger’s guidance the club is transforming every aspect of its behind the scenes work. Player recruitment, training, injury prevention, tactics, background research on players, youth work… no area of Arsenal has been left alone in recent years.
Starting with the purchase of StatDNA which analyses tens of thousands of players and their performances every year, this programme has turned the approach to football upside down.
And indeed it is no coincidence that most journalists have now abandoned their favourite standby stories such as the one that says Arsenal gets more injuries than anyone else. Likewise the journalists were all confident that Chelsea’s involvement with a club in the Netherlands would give them absolute dominance in the youth market – only to find that the club couldn’t actually hang on to some members of its youth programme.
Arsenal’s approach has been to work on all these fronts at once: on youth recruitment, on training, on under-the-radar transfers, on injury prevention – and while Mr Wenger has remained at the helm, many others have come in to support him. Borussia Dortmund’s Sven Mislintat as the new head of recruitment is just the latest change in a total rebuilding programme of the background team.
Of course buying a player for £100m is always going to be the eye-catching headline story, and there is no doubt that some of these £100m players will make a huge difference for a team.
The evolution of an Arsenal second XI that can play in the Cups has taken time, but one should never underestimate how much impact this year’s Arsenal Cup Team has had on young players across Europe and Africa. They see Iwobi, Reiss Nelson, Maitland Niles, Macey, Willock, Sheaf and Nketiah all making an impression and playing in games, and they compare that with the Chelsea approach which involves having three times as many young players on the books, and with them being shipped off overseas, year after year and never playing for Chelsea, and they know which approach they prefer.
It is an approach not just for now but for years to come. Building a team for the moment, and making the case to every youngster that when they are looking for a club, Arsenal stands out.
Of course in this regard Arsenal has been helped enormously by the fact that Liverpool and Manchester City have been banned from signing academy players. It’s not just the impact on those clubs for the year of the ban that is important – it is the way the clubs are seen by parents and their children in the years to come. Arsenal are perceived in a completely different way.
It is the long game, I know. And football is all about now – at least in the media. But I suppose when you have been supporting the club as long as I have, the longer term perspective is what is easier to see.
For some time I doubted that Arsenal could find a way to overcome the benefit of the massive amount of money that three clubs in England can call upon. Now I think they may well have done it.