The Weekend Dossier: Wenger's experiment failed, but there may yet be a way for his vision to be realised
What it has done for Arsenal, as it did for Ajax, is the ruling that followed Jean- Marc Bosman’s fight for his rights
Four years ago Arsène Wenger gave The Independent a rare interview in which he outlined his credo. Talking of the consequences of the decision to move from Highbury to the Emirates he said: "When we decided to build the stadium I wanted to anticipate the possibility of financial restrictions, so I concentrated on youth. I also felt the best way to create an identity with the way we play football, to get players integrated into our culture, with our beliefs, our values, was to get them as young as possible and to develop them together. I felt it would be an interesting experiment to see players grow together with these qualities, and with a love for the club." This was, he added, "an idealistic vision of the world of football".
That dream is over, the "interesting experiment" has failed. Wenger said his team would peak in "five or six years" and admitted, "the challenge we face is to keep them together". It was one Arsenal were unable to meet. The team that Wenger was nurturing in 2008 had a pair of old heads in Manuel Almunia and William Gallas, a couple of players who should have been approaching their peak in Kolo Touré (then 27) and Emmanuel Eboué (25), and a core of young players: Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin van Persie, Bacary Sagna, Denilson, Alex Song, Abou Diaby, Johan Djourou, Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott. With the February addition of Andrei Arshavin the team finished fourth in the league in 2009 and reached the semi-finals of both the Champions League and FA Cup. Its potential was obvious.
Arsenal have subsequently finished third, fourth, third, never within 10 points of the Premier League champions. They have reached one final, the Carling Cup in 2011, only to lose to relegation-bound Birmingham City, and not gone past the Champions League quarter-final. And every season one or two of Wenger's young guns has decided the grass is greener elsewhere.
With the departure of Van Persie to Manchester United, only seven of the 16 leading players of 2008-09 remain. Of those Song is headed for Barcelona, Djourou and Diaby have been ridden with injuries and failed to "train on", and Arsenal would love someone to take Arshavin and Bendtner off their hands permanently. Which leaves Sagna and Walcott, whose contract expires next summer. Arsenal, once again, appear to be in a season of transition and rebuilding while they wait for Jack Wilshere to regain fitness and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Emmanuel Frimpong to mature.
Wenger's model – to identify and procure players of potential, then polish these gems into a team which plays stylish, trophy-winning football – is achievable. The proof is in Catalonia. But many of Barcelona's players have been at the club since their early, rather than their late, teens – and Barcelona not only pay very good wages but are also extremely successful. Why would any player, if they are in the team, want to leave Barcelona?
The model does not work for Arsenal. Wenger hoped to keep that 2008 team together by "the way we play, the way we behave, with success on the field and in financial rewards"; the club was, he said, better than rivals in all aspects except the financial. Money has clearly turned some heads, but Arsenal have also failed to achieve success on the field, largely because the continual depredations mean the side is always short in key areas.
What has done for Wenger, as it did for Ajax, is the consequence of Jean-Marc Bosman's fight for his rights. Without the Bosman ruling of 1995, Wenger would have had no need to sell players who were under contract rather than risk losing them for nothing. If Wenger had kept Fabregas and Nasri, Van Persie would probably have resisted the greater salary in Manchester – he did reject City's higher offer. Not that sympathy for Arsenal should be unconfined. Southampton's prospects of surviving in the top flight would be hugely enhanced were Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain still at St Mary's.
Wenger's signings in the last 15 months indicate he now recognises his model is broken. Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Park Chu-young and Andre Santos are all in their late twenties or older (as was loanee Yossi Benayoun) while Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla are 27 and Olivier Giroud 25. Like everyone else Wenger has been forced to seek a short-cut to competitiveness. The irony is if it works Walcott, Wilshere and future products of Arsenal's youth and scouting system will be more inclined to stay and Wenger's experiment, albeit with adaptations, may succeed after all.
1. Barton's number is up as Hughes gets tough
In stripping Joey Barton of his squad number, without even telling him in advance, Mark Hughes made it very clear he wanted this potentially disruptive influence out of the Queen's Park Rangers dressing room. Barton appears to have taken heed. At the time Barton's dismissal against Manchester City looked as if it could cost QPR their top-flight status; increasingly it seems as if it was a blessing in disguise for Hughes, who has clearly decided the player is not worth the bother. Other unwanted players have been made to train three times a day to persuade them to accept offers elsewhere. Behind that softly-spoken exterior Hughes is as ruthless off the pitch as he was on it.
2. All eyes on the women when Olympic buzz is tested
There will be keen interest at the Football Association in the attendance figures at this weekend's Women's Super League matches. Girls' football is firmly established as a recreation but if WSL, charging £3 to £6 at the gate, is still unable to attract spectators after the buzz created by Team GB at the Olympics, it is hard to see the women's game ever being self-funding.
3. Famous Belgians show why they are in vogue
England's defeat of Italy and Argentina's victory in Germany were not the only eye-catching international results in midweek. In Brussels, Belgium defeated Netherlands 4-2 in a match that was friendly in name only. With Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen captaining Manchester City and Arsenal, Chelsea spending £37m on Eden Hazard and Everton looking to add Kevin Mirallas alongside Marouane Fellaini in midfield, Belgians are clearly in vogue. Pity Wales and Scotland, who have Belgium in their World Cup qualifying group as well as Croatia and Serbia.
4. Football without the bluster is such a refreshing change
A week ago Mo Farah was the headline act, which means the football season has snuck up on us without the usual welter of speculation and bluster. How refreshing. The Olympics are an impossible act to follow but here's hoping the Ashes goes some way to diverting us similarly next summer.
5. What hope the Olympic spirit going viral?
Is it too much to hope that the post-Olympic spirit will infect this weekend's football, that players will refrain from diving and dissent, and supporters from mindless abuse? Probably.
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