Wenger failed to react when Chelsea moved the goalposts
London rivals started spending in order to catch United, but Arsenal manager opted to invest in youth – and it has not worked
The footage of Arsène Wenger once again resembling Basil Fawlty as he threw a bottle of water to the floor in anger and frustration at the Reebok Stadium on Easter Sunday is one of the enduring images of the season.
His petulance reinforces the view proposed a week ago by Harry Redknapp that Arsenal's failure to deliver in key games has transformed Wenger into one of the biggest "nutters" among Premier League managers. Arsenal's form in recent weeks, however, would have tried the patience of Job. Having played themselves into contention in four competitions, they have managed to lose all their important games and will once again end the season trophyless.
Wenger seems alone in believing his team will grow organically into one that has the strength to consistently come out on top against Manchester United and Chelsea. His angry reaction to an interview by Cesc Fabregas with a Spanish football magazine in which the Arsenal captain appeared to criticise the club's current youth-focused policy, suggested deeper anxiety; someone was touching a raw nerve.
Wenger believes his policy of buying young players and nurturing them is compatible with winning trophies. He can also point to his own record of finishing in the top four of the Premier League in each of the 14 seasons he has been in charge. Over the 14 seasons before Wenger took over, Arsenal had finished in the top four on just six occasions.
Wenger's 14 years can be conveniently broken down into two almost equal periods of seven years – up to the 2003-04 season, followed by the period to the present day.
Before the summer of 2004, Wenger was one of the most successful managers in English history, winning three Premier League titles and three FA Cups in seven-and-a-half seasons. His teams married beautiful football with great resilience, and Arsenal reached their zenith in 2004 when "The Invincibles" managed to go the entire season unbeaten.
That summer, however, witnessed a power shift in English football, with Chelsea's move to employ Jose Mourinho as manager. The combination of Russian money and Portuguese guile transformed Chelsea and in the space of one season they supplanted Arsenal as the main challengers to Manchester United. The Chelsea factor caused the leading clubs to re-evaluate themselves, with a rush to attract rich, foreign owners with money, to varying degrees of success.
Wenger's response was to nurture his own young talent, with the club in the process of having to fund the building of the new Emirates Stadium. The approach has so far brought him the FA Cup in 2005, and nothing since. But it also appears to have polarised, and where once it was a policy born of penny-pinching necessity, it has become his own particular badge of honour. The more money other clubs spend, the more Wenger seems determined to keep himself reined in.
Since The Invicibles season of 2004, Wenger is actually in profit concerning transfer dealings with £10.8m in the bank, thanks mostly to selling Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré to Manchester City, while at the same time recruiting players such as Andrei Arshavin (£15m), Samir Nasri (£15.8m), Theo Walcott (£9m) and Thomas Vermaelen (£10m). Such frugality is remarkable, given the net spending of his rivals – Manchester City who have spent £435m since 2004; Chelsea £397m; Tottenham Hotspur £239m; Liverpool £142m; and Manchester United £108m, despite selling Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m.
However, there is no need for Wenger to be so miserly now and the expectation from new majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, will be that his manager will spend some money for key acquisitions.
Wenger was non-committal yesterday, saying: "We have to strengthen the squad where it needs and make the right decision on that front. It [transfers] is always in my mind, every day."
Arsenal also have a strict pay structure, which rules them out of certain high-level deals, but their wage bill is actually higher than those at Liverpool and Tottenham, although it is significantly lower than those at Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs.
Some Arsenal fans are now openly calling for Wenger to leave, filling message boards and radio phone-ins with anti-Arsène rhetoric. For the critics, the first seven years of Wenger's Arsenal career, and the magnificent way he has shepherded the club's move to their glorious new stadium without losing their top-four status, is less important than the club's current apparent acceptance at being also-rans.
Wenger's comment two weeks ago, when he said: "As long as you are second in the league, I am ready to sign for the next 20 years," suggested he was happy to settle for second best.
His behaviour on the touchline at Bolton on Sunday, however, showed his desire to win still remains as strong as ever.
The Independent team assess where it fell apart for Arsenal ... and how it could be rebuilt next season
James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer
What went wrong: Project Wenger. It is a unique football concept involving the coach as a philosopher who sees the game as a blackboard on which he can chalk his idea of perfection. Lost along the way is the importance of having players not just of great skill but genuine competitive character and, not least, some basic defensive skills.
What should be done: Project Arsenal – or the signing of players who have not been groomed by the professor but who have established their ability to compete. Gary Cahill and Wesley Sneijder are such players. They would represent a start.
Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent
What went wrong: The injury to Thomas Vermaelen was a major blow when combined with the failure to buy central defenders of the necessary quality. Despite the emergence of Wojciech Szczesny things would surely have been different if Wenger had been successful in his pursuit of Pepe Reina last summer.
What should be done: They need two top quality centre-backs. Mamadou Sakho at Paris Saint-Germain looks a typical Wenger target. It seems likely that Cesc Fabregas will leave and perhaps Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy too. That is a lot of rebuilding. Eden Hazard and Leighton Baines as replacements?
Glenn Moore, Football Editor
What went wrong: Arsenal's inability to maintain their challenge this season can be traced back to the summer failure to sign a top-class goalkeeper, and the August injury to Thomas Vermaelen. This has resulted in a defensive flakiness which has led to consistently dropping points from winning positions.
What should be done: Sign a commanding centre-half and an experienced goalkeeper. Wojciech Szczesny has potential but makes too many mistakes. If Arsenal could attract Pepe Reina they may even persuade Cesc Fabregas to stay. In defence Lille's Adil Rami is a better buy than Gary Cahill.
Ian Herbert, Northern Football Correspondent
What went wrong: Obvious problems at centre half. Signing Liverpool's Pepe Reina and another goalscorer would have helped. Above all, Arsène Wenger's perpetual victim mentality creates a sense that this is a club and group of players incapable of looking themselves in the mirror. Success requires self scrutiny.
What should be done: Arsenal and Manchester United have been on divergent paths since 2005 when Edwin van der Sar arrived at Old Trafford. David Seaman has never been replaced. The evidence was there when the Dutchman's display at Old Trafford put Arsenal out of the Cup.
Arsenal in numbers
1 Wins in their last seven league games, dating back to their draw with Sunderland on 5 March.
2 Goals scored in their last four home league games, against Stoke, Sunderland, Blackburn and Liverpool.
9 Points dropped due to conceding goals after the 80th minute of games, including at Bolton on Sunday.
17 Points dropped at home. Chelsea have dropped 10, United two.
36 Goals conceded in the Premier League. Manchester United have conceded 32, and Chelsea just 27.
64 Percentage of goals conceded in the second half. They've scored 50 per cent of their goals after the break.
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