Club Focus – Arsenal – Former players and future proofing

With Arsenal being touted to sign any one from a plethora of foreign strikers in the January transfer window, it is interesting to look closely at Arsene Wenger’s transfer policy during his tenure. Arsenal and Chelsea heralded the foreign invasion into English football in the mid to late 1990s and Arsene’s Arsenal has relied on its fair share of foreign talent over the years.

Whilst being renowned for bringing in foreign players, this was often necessitated by financial considerations. Initially the foreign reliance was due to Wenger’s intricate knowledge of the French youth system, meaning that he was able to pick up relative unknowns or more established, yet unsettled names for bargain prices. Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Nicolas Anelka heralded the start of the revolution and all were relatively unknown on English shores, but were to go on to establish themselves as household names and leading lights in the Premiership era. Thierry Henry and Robert Pires were to be the benchmark signings that fired Arsenal to shared hegemony with Manchester United from the mid-nineties to the mid-noughties. However, the former two players hardly fit the mould of bargain basement signings – both being World Cup winners when they arrived at Highbury – but they had not quite fulfilled the promise of their youth. Whilst the £10m paid to Juventus for Henry can hardly be considered one of Wenger’s bargain buys on the face of it, the service, inspiration and entertainment that Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer provided, unquestionably represents outstanding value for money.

Le Professeur’s primary concern during his reign has been to create a skilful team capable of silverware whilst at the same time balancing the books and keeping the club in good financial health. Nationality means nothing, ability means everything. The raft of African players purchased during the 2000s provided strength, power and athleticism to the team at relatively low prices. Lauren, Nwankwo Kanu, Emmanuel Eboue, Alex Song and Kolo Toure have all been tremendous servants to the club and played a key role in the Gunners’ successes of the last decade or so. However, as the African Cup of Nations looms on the horizon there is a clear contrast in this Arsenal team to that of recent years. Wenger will lose only Song and Eboue for national duty this time around whereas in previous campaigns the impact has been far greater. The heavy African influence has served Arsenal well in recent campaigns, but Wenger will be glad that he is not hugely affected by the tournament this time around.

It has recently been quoted that Toure is unhappy at Manchester City, with various pundits also questioning his form this term. Similarly, Emmanuel Adebayor made a blistering start to his City career, but recently his work-rate has dwindled, leaving an apparently dejected and forlorn figure leading the line. This is in stark contrast to the effort and emotion he poured out in the match against Arsenal earlier this season, but is an all too familiar sight to the Gooners. These prove to be two more examples in the catalogue indicating that Wenger knows the right time to sell. Arsenal will not miss them as they travel to Angola, and it has to be said that they have hardly been missed throughout this campaign either. Henry, Marc Overmars, Petit and Vieira all commanded large transfer fees to prise them away from the north London club, but since leaving have failed to reach the heights of their Highbury days. Some of the sales were financially motivated, others more of an opportunity to blood young talent. Either way their departures were hardly welcomed at the time, but in hindsight were examples of the manager’s judgment. Similarly, some of the key performers in the team today have been given the exposure necessary to develop their talents. This was never more evident than Fabregas’ masterclass against Juventus on the way to the Champions League final in 2006 where he outshone and outmanoeuvred Vieira.

The reduction in reliance on African players is just one facet of a gradually shifting transfer policy for Wenger. With increasing Platini-led pressure from UEFA, limits on foreign players appear imminent. Not one to be left behind, Wenger has slowly increased the British influence in his squad. The standout players in this mould are Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, but with promising youngsters such as Craig Eastmond, Sanchez Watt, Mark Randall, Henri Lansbury and Jack Wilshere, Wenger appears to be steadily making Arsenal future-proof.

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