Ken Early: Arsenal have lacked courage not money
Arsene Wenger has missed glorious opportunity as fortune has favoured the brave
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on the sidelines during the Premier League game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Arsène Wenger has long been on intimate terms with disappointment, so he was well qualified to comment on just how big a disappointment it was to lose to a Marcus Rashford-inspired Manchester United yesterday afternoon.
It seemed that for Wenger, one of the most disappointing aspects of the day was the way everyone was going along with the cute storyline that United had beaten him with a team of soft, pimply youths fresh out of the academy.
“Let’s not go overboard,” Wenger said. “They had still a few millions on the pitch from De Gea to the midfield. They spent a lot on Depay, he is not a player from the academy.”
As so often in matters concerning the price of things, Wenger was correct. United’s starting 11 had cost €234 million in transfer fees, while Wenger’s had been scraped together for a comparatively miserly €188 million.
That meant United’s starting 11 cost more than the entire first-team squad of any Italian club except Juventus, any German club except Bayern, any French club except PSG, and any Spanish club except Real Madrid and Barcelona. Even when some of their highest-profile players are absent through injury, it’s plain United have ample resources at their disposal.
But Wenger can’t have it both ways. It’s all very well sniffily pointing out that even a weakened Manchester United team is still actually quite expensive. But it sounds a bit rich coming from the manager who is losing the title race to Leicester City, whose squad cost less than a quarter of his.
Ever since English football entered the age of the petrodollar oligarchs, with Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour bankrolling the establishment of superclubs at Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsène Wenger has been justifying his failure to win the title by claiming that it is unreasonable to expect him to compete with “financial dopers”.
Football is a game where 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and in the end the ones with more money win. That argument seemed persuasive enough in the seasons when Arsenal were seeing the title go to big-spending sides.
Wenger was happy to preach that crude financial determinism while it suited him, but what is he going to say if he now finishes behind Leicester in the league?
That would be evidence that, given a little luck, a well-coached, well-motivated side who have made some good signings can finish ahead of far richer teams. In football, you don’t necessarily need more money than everyone else, you just need enough to be competitive. The rest is up to you.
Many neutrals would see Leicester finishing ahead of Arsenal as an inspirational story. For Wenger, it would be the worst possible nightmare.
It would prove that Arsenal have had the economic firepower to compete with Chelsea, City and United all along. Deep down, we’ve all known this was true. Arsenal might not have recourse to City-style financial doping, but they have the structural advantage of their location at the heart of Europe’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city. Not only does this mean they can charge their fans Europe’s fanciest prices, it also helps to attract foreign footballers who know that in London they can plug into established cultural networks that don’t exist to the same extent in northern England.
The thing they have lacked is not financial firepower. It’s courage.
Arsenal finished last season’s league campaign strongly and it looked as if they would be primed to challenge for the title this season. That optimism was reinforced by the signing in June of Petr Cech. There were really only a couple of issues remaining with the squad, such as finding a striker to compete with Olivier Giroud. But Wenger made no more signings.
After the transfer window closed, he justified his inaction in the usual way: “It’s not the money that’s missing at the moment, it’s not the desire of investment that is missing, it’s the number of players available who can strengthen the big clubs.” It wasn’t his fault Arsenal hadn’t signed anyone, it was the world’s fault for not producing anyone good enough.
You only need to look at the list of players who arrived in the Premier League last summer to see what nonsense this is. N’Golo Kanté, for instance, joined Leicester for less than £6 million, and he has been the outstanding midfielder in the Premier League (in what, admittedly, has not been a vintage year for midfield play).
Wenger has a point when he says there are not many players who are capable of coming straight into a team like Arsenal and improving it. But in order to strengthen the squad, he doesn’t actually have to sign somebody better than Olivier Giroud. He just has to sign somebody better than Alex Iwobi, who came on to play the last 10 minutes yesterday, and made no impact.
The only reason Arsenal don’t have a better reserve centre-forward than Iwobi is that Wenger would rather do nothing than risk making a mistake.
It’s been a season when fortune has favoured the brave, and Arsenal, peering ahead at Leicester and Spurs from their position among the also-rans, are getting what they deserve.