Chris McGrath: It's football that's gone nutty, not the Professor
Criticised for his failure to spend, Arsène Wenger in fact deserves credit for Arsenal's form
Thursday 03 February 2011
He is caricatured as the mad professor, trying to build a car that runs on camomile tea. But if Arsène Wenger is crazy, it's high time the lunatics took over the asylum.
The Arsenal manager remains a lone beacon in football's financial derangement. Mysteriously, though, plenty of people seem irritated by his incorrigible idealism. The poor old absent-minded Prof, they say, no wonder he never spends any dough. He stares blankly round the shop, and wonders what it was that he doesn't already have at home. But the reality is that Arsenal – more than ever, after Monday – should be cherished as a bastion against the follies and avarice that have created an apocalypse of debt in the world's wealthiest league.
Let's do as Wenger's critics suggest. Let's get real. Andy Carroll's transfer fee values each and every one of his career goals at over £1m. David Villa moved to Barcelona last summer for a very similar sum. For the record, Villa has scored 296 goals for club and country; Carroll has so far bundled in 34.
Here's another inconvenient truth. Flimsy, ornate Arsenal have just won six matches in 18 days. The dreamy alchemist and his porous team are still heavily involved in four competitions. Wenger has long been implored to shore up his team's brains with a bit of brawn; to buy a dynamic midfielder – I don't know, maybe someone like Alex Song – and a bulldog in central defence. With Thomas Vermaelen injured, he is once again being reproached for failing to bring in cover.
Arsenal have so far conceded 23 League goals. True, if they had a bulwark like Nemanja Vidic, perhaps they would only have conceded 22 – like Manchester United. Louis Saha's controversial goal on Tuesday was the first Arsenal have conceded in five League games. Wenger did bring in Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci this season, but probably knew that he had a better one all along. Since his return from injury, Johan Djourou has volunteered himself not just as the most eligible partner for Vermaelen, but as the most composed and athletic young defender in the land.
The wheels could still come off. Song "could not walk" after coming off on Tuesday. Samir Nasri is missing a critical period. Above all, there is an alarming dissonance in Cesc Fabregas, rebuked as graceless or bellicose by a series of recent opponents. His heart, it would seem, is already in Barcelona. But he needs to make sure his brain, and his dignity, remain in London until the summer.
To that extent, Arsenal are on a familiar knife edge. Their European campaign, for a start, is again menaced by their young captain's suitors. And they could well disintegrate with the strain of fighting on four fronts.
But we keep hearing how the transfer market owes its renewed excesses to the need for certain clubs to "make a statement". In getting Fernando Torres, Chelsea have suggested unfinished business in the Champions League. In spending the proceeds on Carroll – and, lest we forget, the top-class Luis Suarez – Liverpool's new owners made a statement of their own, obediently buying into the perilous, swooning mystique of King Kenny and Anfield. (The people who sold them Carroll also made a statement, but not one you could record in a family newspaper.)
There are only two statements nobody seems to heed. The first is the one sent by the bank every month. The second is made by Wenger, every transfer window.
We can all live in the past, not just Liverpool or Newcastle fans. Try following Ipswich, whose comical home win against Arsenal nourished the invective of those mocking Wenger's nostalgia for the future instead. After what happened on Monday, however, he deserves the goodwill of anyone who finds something rather distasteful in the here and now.
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