On Tuesday, Arsene Wenger celebrated 17 years in charge of Arsenal Football Club.
It’s an incredible length of time to be at any one club. Some managers won’t have a career that lasts for that long, let alone in one post.
When your time in charge of club spans almost two decades, its inevitable that there will be shifts in policy along the way. Sir Alex Ferguson is the ultimate example of a coach who continually reinvented both himself and his teams in order to remain competitive. Wenger shares that chameleon tendency.
Perhaps the greatest shift in Arsene Wenger’s philosophy has been in regard to his attitude toward British talent.
When Wenger arrived at Arsenal in the mid-1990s, he inherited a squad that was primarily British. There was a sprinkling of foreign talent: Dennis Bergkamp had been signed previously, and Patrick Vieira and Remi Garde had been acquired at Wenger’s say-so. However, the team had a predominantly English core.
Wenger discovered an English game that was full of antiquated attitudes to training and preparation. He revolutionised the club’s fitness program and began supplementing his squad with an increasing number of foreign imports, some of whom were more successful than others.
Players like Vieira and Emmanuel Petit are remembered as Arsenal greats. However, the less said about the likes of Alberto Mendez and Fabian Caballero, the better.
There was the occasional British signing, but Wenger was largely burned by his experiences signing English players.
Francis Jeffers and Richard Wright both arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2001 with big price tags and equally high expectations. However, neither ever reached anything like their potential in an Arsenal shirt. Both players confirmed Wenger’s underlying fear that English players were both overpriced and fundamentally lacking in technique.
It would be five years before Arsene Wenger would sign another English player.
With financial restrictions beginning to creep in to fund the move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, Wenger could no longer afford to gamble on the inflated price tags attached to English talent. The Frenchman believed he could find cheaper players better suited to Arsenal’s playing style on the continent.
The culmination of Wenger’s drive to turn Arsenal in to a multinational outfit occurred on Valentine’s Day of 2005. When Arsenal took to the field to face Crystal Palace for a London derby, there was not a single British player in the Gunners’ matchday squad. Palace, by contrast, fielded eight British players in just their starting XI. Arsenal, it should be pointed out, triumphed 5-1.
Wenger’s policy was paying dividends. The Invincibles team of 2004 contained just two British regulars: Sol Campbell and the homegrown Ashley Cole.
However, almost 10 years on, Wenger seems to have reneged on his ideals.
Last season, Arsenal made much fanfare of signing up a British sextet on long-term contracts. Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott were all handed bumper contracts to ensure they will be at Arsenal for years to come.
Gibbs and Wilshere are academy products who’d been with the club for years prior to making their first-team bow. Jenkinson was a shrewd signing from Charlton, languishing in League One at the time. However, the likes of Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott were all acquired from other British clubs at a young age with hefty price tags.
It was interesting that when Wenger chose to break Arsenal’s rigid pay structure, it was not to sign a foreign import, but to secure Walcott’s long-term future. The English winger is seen as integral to Arsenal’s future. It’s not just what he does on the pitch: It’s the fact that he’s part of a growing British core to the squad.
Why has Wenger changed his policy so dramatically?
There are several reasons. The first is that British coaching methods are catching up with those on the continent, and subsequently the technical level of players being produced is higher. Arsenal’s academy has been attuned to Wenger’s specifications. When Wenger first arrived in England, Arsenal simply didn’t have a youth system capable of producing players of Wilshere’s ilk.
Wenger has also learnt to appreciate the value of British players in the highly combative Premier League. They instinctively understand the challenges better than many foreign imports can ever hope to. It is telling that the recent title-winning sides of Manchester United and Chelsea have both had a strong British element at their heart.
However, Wenger also became sick of losing the young foreigners he developed. All too often a player would reach their peak at Arsenal, only to seek pastures new. The prime example is Cesc Fabregas. Wenger coaxed Fabregas to London from Barcelona as a teenager, only to lose him just as he was arriving at the apogee of his talents.
Wenger will hope the British youngsters he is building around now will be less keen to fly the coup. The likes of Jack Wilshere are already home. The new contracts signed last year should ensure that their best years are experienced at Arsenal. As the superb form of Aaron Ramsey shows, the Gunners are already reaping the benefits of Wenger’s wisdom.
Arsenal’s future is bright. What’s more, it seems their future is British.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013/14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.