Arsene Wenger's weakness has never been lack of candor, but this is precisely his major weakness as a manager and one he needs to deliver himself from if he and his charges at Arsenal are to seize the moment and win a trophy for the first time in eight years.
His recent interview with reporters during Arsenal's tour of Asia gives great insight into the man, his philosophy and his methods as a manager.
Consistency, he told reporters, is the greatest trait he looks for in his players. It is that dogged determination to persist in the face of obstacles until one’s goal is achieved. Goal, a fixed horizon, is what keeps the determined athlete going even in the face of discouragements. Those who quit or those remove their eyes from the fixed goal never amount to anything in the world of sports.
This may be a veiled description of Wenger's own mission and club’s in the last eight years.
In the years since Arsenal moved to the Emirates Stadium and since the Invincibles were dismantled, Wenger has won himself enemies among his erstwhile admirers and supporters because of his persistent doggedness at pursuing his policy of financial prudence and development of young players.
It was a policy that proved promising at first, producing an exciting team built around Cesc Fabregas, but one that petered out eventually, leaving a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of supporters.
His refusal to tinker with his philosophy, some have said, contributed in large measure to the so-called trophyless years. A good example is the 2010-11 season, when Arsenal could have won the premiership title had Wenger compromised a little and bought supplementary players to provide depth to the squad.
Nevertheless, Wenger might point to Andrei Arshavin and Sébastien Squillaci as products of this exact thinking. For even during these years of drought, Wenger did not fail to buy new players. The question for some, though, is whether the right quality of players were bought.
While the argument could go back and forth, with ready names like Ju-Young Park, Marouane Chamakh and Andre Santos buttressing the contention about failed policy, the fact is that many of these players have been bought when in good form.
Moreover, there’s never a guarantee that a player can continue in good form for his new team, a fact that mitigates the contention about quality.
Indeed, the danger of a promising player not making it on a new team is sharper these days than it has ever been, as the burden to perform instantly at an optimal level has become greater due to the pressure that social media exerts on everything, including sports.
Some might maintain, however, that quality never fades, so that drop in form is a symptom of average or inferior quality. But while this could be true, there are examples that counter this view.
Besides, when the question about quality is submitted to discussion, many admit that Arsenal could not compete with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United in the transfer market, not with the stadium debt hanging on the club’s neck.
This fact has become only more glaring at the rise of nouveau riche clubs such as Manchester City, a club that has contributed to Arsenal’s headaches in recent times.
Those who are bitter about the long wait for trophies, finding no real ground on the front of quality since Arsenal could not really afford world-class players, resort to questioning the need for a big stadium in the first place. This, though, is not the place to address these objections.
But how exactly—to return to the thesis of the discussion—is Wenger’s candor a managerial weakness? By candor I do not mean frankness and sincerity of opinion, but rather being sincere in belief and pursuing this with single-mindedness, a trait normally referred to as being principled.
While being principled is a positive trait, its one error is inflexibility, and this is where Wenger has tended to ere and may be poised to do so again. The objections cited above are in view of this probable weakness.
Wenger states an admirable sentiment in the aforesaid interview:
I believe one of the best things about managing people is that we can influence lives in a positive way. That’s basically what a manager is about. When I can do that, I am very happy. That’s not the only part of my job because the essential part is to win on a Saturday afternoon, but it is an important part. In a world where we only care about stars, it is important to say to players: "You are not a star yet, but you can become one and I will give you a chance.
At Arsenal we are proud to do that, and we have fought against the policy of only buying stars. You have to understand that a player who is a star was at one stage an unknown person who had talent. We want to be the club who gives this guy a chance.
Fighting against the policy of buying stars as the one and only way to success is a commendable foundational principle, but much like most foundations, it ought to be fleshed out, supplemented to and modified as circumstances constrain.
Military strategy, to take an example, only works insofar as it analyzes field conditions and adapts to them as they unravel. The playing field in football is changing due to the advent of rich patrons who want instant success. This demands adaptation.
Patiently grooming stars is no longer a guaranteed path to success, even though it may form an important part of the plan. I suppose this is why Wenger has bought older players in the last two seasons and why he is reportedly pursuing Luis Suarez.
As long as Wenger recognizes that his avowed principle needs to be tinkered with, and as long as he is decisive about it, there is no reason why Arsenal could not continue to be competitive in the premier league.
My fear arises when I hear Wenger retunes his customary refrain about Arsenal being competitive without augmenting the squad.
These are his exact words, courtesy of John Cross of the Daily Mirror:
We still have a strong squad, but we are there on the market to try to strengthen our team. With or without additions, we can be title challengers next season.
Arsenal, indeed, are in the market for more players, at least none can say they are not making a great deal of noise about it. What is troubling, however, is that not a single player has been signed besides Yaya Sanogo, who has joined the club on free transfer.
In the Asian tour interview, Wenger identified strong goalkeeping as necessary for a successful team. Arsenal, I believe, do not possess the strongest goalkeeping department in the league, the reason why it hasn’t been surprising to hear that the club is in the market for a goalkeeper.
What is perplexing, though, is the fact that Julio Cesar, with whom Arsenal have been linked and who reportedly costs only about £1.5 million, has not been signed already. One would expect that Cesar’s experience would augment the goalkeeping area for Arsenal and add some security to this department. What, then, is keeping Arsenal from making the deal? Wages demanded perhaps?
What about the defense? Do we need a supplementary center-back? This is open to debate. But should either Laurent Koscielny or Per Mertesacker become injured, Arsenal could find themselves rather quickly in a crisis of defense.
Already Nacho Moreal is out injured and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be fit for the opening matches of the new season. This leaves the injury-prone Kieran Gibbs as the only viable option at left-back, since Thomas Vermaelen, who could deputize there (although reluctantly), is himself out injured and may not be available for the start of the season.
Were things normal at Arsenal, one would expect an augmentation of the defense, but Wenger’s penchant at erring on the side of optimism will guarantee that this will not happen.
Does the midfield require augmentation as well? I am inclined to think so. We do have good players here, but we may require a different sort of player, one who adds grit to our guile. This is why I have advocated for the versatile Marouane Fellaini.
While Arsenal seem to be focused on the striking area as their transfer priority, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be successful in this quest, having put their eggs seemingly in this one basket called Luis Suarez and Liverpool. What other options do they have lined up should this target escape their grasp? Only the management knows.
What is clear is that if Arsenal want to be legitimate title challengers in the coming season, they need to think seriously about augmenting all three departments of the squad: defense, midfield and attack.
Opportunity, being bald from behind, cannot be grabbed once it passes by. The chance to seize it is when it shows its face and forelock. Therefore, the poet advised that one ought to seize the moment at the opportune time.
And what is the opportune time but now, when other teams are undergoing transition? Failing to be decisive about making the team as strong as possible, by plucking holes in the three departments of the squad, only means Arsenal will yet again be competing for fourth place, a distressing thought to any supporter.
This possibility is the reason why Wenger needs to be saved from himself. It is time he entered the fray of the premier league adequately equipped to deal with the gruesome demands of the title race, instead of going in ill-equipped, as has been the custom in the last eight years.
It appears, though, that Wenger has grown accustomed to limitation. But this, perhaps, is the time he enjoyed some luxury, one that other managers (even brand news ones in the league) take for granted.
Arsene Wenger, save yourself from yourself. Go and buy aggressively. With this I invite Paul & Storm to help me drive this point home.