Monday 5 September 2011
Brian Viner: Wenger may regret the day he ditched his ruthless appliance of football science
He works out with extraordinary precision what will make his machine more efficient
Wednesday 31 August 2011 might very well go down as a bleak day indeed in the career of one of the top three longest-serving managers in the Premier League. But which one? Not Sir Alex Ferguson, that's for sure, who spent last Wednesday still basking in the glow of Manchester United's 8-2 victory over Arsenal, not that he did much visible basking in the immediate aftermath of the match, presumably out of respect for his shaken old adversary Arsène Wenger. Moreover, the last day of summer shopping was of little concern to Fergie, who had finalised his purchases long before.
So that leaves Wenger, and David Moyes. Ostensibly, it was the Everton manager who suffered a calamitous last few hours of the transfer window, unexpectedly losing his midfield playmaker Mikel Arteta for a comparatively paltry £10m. Arsenal's hopeful bid was at first rejected, but when Arteta himself started agitating for the move, Moyes realised his hand was being forced. That's the same Mikel Arteta, incidentally, who in January this year explained to your columnist the reasons why he had signed a long-term contract at Everton.
"This is a unique club," he said. "When I came here six years ago, I could speak English but I didn't know anyone. I knew nothing about the club. After just a week I felt so welcome, joking with the kit man, the masseur, the gaffer. It's so nice to come here every day, to feel part of something and know that everyone feels the same, from the players to the chefs. I've never felt that atmosphere anywhere else. And it's always there, whether the club's going up the league or down."
Seven months later that unique atmosphere was evidently no longer enough to keep Arteta at the club, but none of the Everton supporters I know blame him for his decision to tear up his contract and become a Gunner. Most of them, indeed, have ventured the hope that he is given a rousing welcome on his return to Goodison Park, and they understand his desire to play Champions League football, which certainly doesn't look as if it's coming to Goodison any time soon.
As for the Spaniard's decision to take an estimated £20,000-a-week cut in pay, clearly it's a little troubling, not to say humiliating, that someone who so recently and so eloquently expressed his love for the club would willingly sacrifice more than 25 per cent of his salary in his desperation to leave, but still, even jilted Evertonians can find a certain nobility, in this day and age, of a footballer moving for a much slimmer pay packet rather than a considerably fatter one.
Besides, while most media commentators are portraying Arteta's departure as a disaster for the club, the Goodison faithful are not so sure. For them, Arteta has all too rarely scaled the sublime heights he reached before a ruptured cruciate ligament in early 2009 put him out of the game for almost a year. And his reputation as a dead-ball specialist is something of a joke among the cynics on the Gwladys Street, who recognise in Leighton Baines a superior taker of corners, free-kicks and, notwithstanding the fact that Everton's solitary league goal this season came from an Arteta spot-kick, of penalties.
In addition to all that, a club with barely a brass farthing to its name has effectively been paid £10m to shed the biggest burden to its wage bill. So while it is true that the two last-minute loan signings secured by Moyes, the Dutch midfielder Royston Drenthe and the Argentinian striker Denis Stracqualursi, did not so much launch a frenzy of happiness as a frenzy of Google searches, the consensus among those who watch Everton week in and week out is that last Wednesday's sales and acquisitions might just add up to smart business.
Which leaves Wenger as the manager who might yet consider it to have been his very own Black Wednesday. In Simon Kuper's excellent book, The Football Men, a fascinating profile of the Arsenal boss sheds light on a man who has his finger on the pulse not only figuratively, but actually. In 2004, looking for a defensive midfielder who might one day replace Patrick Vieira, he ordered a search through computerised databases for the player in that position, anywhere in the world, who covered most ground per match. The search threw up an obscure rookie at Olympique Marseille called Mathieu Flamini, who ran his heart out every game. Wenger bought him, and Flamini duly became a first-team regular.
The point is that Wenger's transfer policy has always amounted to an appliance of science. He works out with extraordinary precision what will make his machine more efficient, and what won't. And traditionally he does so by investing in youth. Arteta, aged 29, and 31-year-old Yossi Benayoun could undoubtedly turn out to be exactly what Arsenal fans were hoping for in order to put behind them a traumatic start to the season. But it seems at least as likely that Wenger, not Moyes, will have most cause to regret a day when some old players climbed in through the closing transfer window, and some old principles flew out.
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