Despite the array of success that Josep Guardiola and Barcelona had in the first 2 years of his tenure as manager, there was a problem that troubled the young manager. When he first joined the club he resolved to sell Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o. 2/3 of this small project were completed; Ronaldinho and Deco both left the Camp Nou. However, after a strong, hard-working pre-season, Guardiola kept Eto’o at the club. The rest, as they say, is history: Eto’o shone at various times, including the first goal in the Champions League final against Manchester United in Rome. The next season, however, Samuel Eto’o was traded for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose relationship with Guardiola gradually disintegrated before they, towards the end of the 2009-10, stopped communicating with one another altogether. Ibrahimovic left the Camp Nou in the summer of 2010, after 21 goals and 9 assists.
Although Guardiola was unable to get the best out of the two strikers (this was for a multitude of reasons), the fact that he discarded them both when they didn’t give Barcelona what he wanted them to give the club is indicative of his vision. When Guardiola joined Barcelona, he already had a vision of Lionel Messi being the focal point of a triumvirate of attacking players; the infamous ‘false nine’ that we are now accustomed to seeing in a Barcelona side. However, Messi was still, at that stage, a ridiculously talented young man, as opposed to the goal machine we are now familiar with. Guardiola knew he had to bide his time. So, despite the fact that Eto’o and Ibrahimovic are undeniably fantastically talented players, they were unable to remain at the club if they were not willing to work with (and ultimately, to Ibra’s discontent) for Messi.
Guardiola is a man who strongly believes in the ethos of a squad, of a collective goal. However, he recognised Messi’s extraordinary young talent, devised a plan to get the best out of Messi, and then began to develop and work with the player himself. This vision, although it may not have been obvious to the public or at the forefront of his thoughts, never left Guardiola’s mind. What Guardiola, did, however, is show that, far from compromising on the end product of the vision itself, he could compromise in terms of the means of achieving that end result. Guardiola was able to experiment and compromise in the pursuit of a tactical plan that Messi would eventually be the epicentre of. A tactical plan that Barcelona are now reaping the benefits of.
This is something that Arsène Wenger would do well to note. Wenger, like Guardiola, is a man of vision. Wenger has a stringent belief in the way football should be exhibited; a stringent belief in the way that a football club should be run as a business; a belief that looks to nurture and develop young talent, as opposed to spending lavish sums on established footballers.
Despite this, Wenger should not lose perspective. We, in football, are in an age where excess is the order of the day. Excessive transfer fees, excessive wages, excessive sponsorship deals, excessive agents’ fees. Football has become an extortionately costly business. Arsenal, financially, are an incredibly well run club, but many would argue to the detriment of the on pitch success of the club.
Previously, the board had been the scapegoat for the club’s unerring prudence in the transfer market and lack of big money acquisitions. However, after repeated claims that there is money there to spend, attention has now turned to Wenger himself, and why he appears reluctant to galvanise a squad that has fallen short on so many occasions in the previous 8 years of his 16 year reign.
Despite Wenger’s (in some ways understandable) stance that he will not be hurried and harried into making rash decisions in the transfer market at irresponsible expenditure, there is value in the market, if you look hard enough. Michu has Swansea laughing all the way to the bank (and to a potential top ten finish and Carling Cup final) after his £2 million move from Rayo Vallecano. Christian Benteke has been a revelation for struggling Aston Villa at £7 million. Although still early on, the signs are encouraging from Moussa Sissoko, who cost Newcastle £1.8 million. Lewis Holtby joined Tottenham for £1.5 million this January.
Arsène Wenger, for me, simply must spend the money available to him this summer. Whilst bargains are arguably much more satisfying than a big money outlay on a player, pragmatism must give way to this dogmatic idea of financial prudence. Arsenal’s squad is a good one; there are established internationals, good young players, pace and guile. But they have stagnated when others have moved forward. Everton and Tottenham this season have shown marked improvement (in the latter’s case, despite the loss of Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart). If Roman Abramovich ceases to throw his toys of his pram, Chelsea have a squad which is not far from challenging consistently for honours. After the (currently) dismal season Manchester City are suffering, it would not be surprising to see them dip indulgently into the pool of wealth they have inherited.
This is Arsenal’s problem. Though Wenger this summer brought in established professionals Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski, it isn’t enough. On the contrary, the left wing that Podolski often operates in was not necessarily a weak point in Arsenal’s armoury. There are two positions, in my opinion, that Arsène Wenger needs to reinforce. The first, and most important, is central midfield. Mikel Arteta is a good footballer: he is a good passer, has wonderful vision and is potentially potent and creative from set pieces. However, he is not naturally accustomed to sitting in front of the defence. This isn’t a criticism of Arteta; this is a criticism of the way he is used in the system. Top notch holding midfielders are a precious commodity, and that’s why managers pay top money for them: Xabi Alonso (imagine the improvement he would bring to Arsenal’s midfield) cost Real Madrid upwards of £25 million. Javi Martinez (from a German team called Bayern Munich, who are doing okay this season) only joined the German giants because they met his release clause of 40 million euros. Javier Mascherano (though a squad player and often utilised as a centre back) cost Barcelona, again, upwards of £25 million. On paper, a midfield three of Arteta/Wilshere/Cazorla is a frighteningly talented midfield, but the balance is wrong. Balance is key; the reason Nuri Sahin did not flourish at Liverpool is because a midfield three of Sahin/Allen/Gerrard didn’t work together, and proved that Lucas Leiva is an integral cog in the Anfield machine. Similarly, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick will struggle in big European matches because they are both deep lying playmakers, leaving United with a lack of penetrative force in central midfield. Wenger and his scouts must scour the world, in my opinion, for a midfielder whose natural instinct is to sit in front of the back four, start attacking moves and stop the opposition’s attacking force.
The second area of concern is the lack of a world-class centre-back. When Thomas Vermaelen joined the club he started fantastically: he was capable on the ball, strong and brilliant in the air, both offensively and defensively. However, whether it is the burden of captaincy or the tumultuous injuries that have taken their toll, Vermaelen is not the dominant force he could be. Laurent Koscielny is a good Premier League centre-half, but not much more. Per Mertesacker has either looked towering or totally inept at the back this season. A proven, injury free centre-back must be a priority for Wenger this summer. For this, compromise is necessary.
Compromise is not alien to Wenger. Upon the criticism that he only bought young players with potential as opposed to proven prowess, he bought Andrey Arshavin six months after the Russian had terrorised defences at Euro 2008. Upon criticism that his team lacked a plan B and also lacked brute force, Wenger recruited Mertesacker and Vermaelen in the space of two years, as well as Marouane Chamakh, who was at the time a potent and strong force in France.
Wenger must show the compromise and adaptability that Guardiola did. Wenger will recognise that he cannot ultimately compromise the vision he wants for Arsenal Football Club: previous incarnations of the vision have been extremely rewarding and successful. Although Wenger is justifiably entitled to stick to his guns, this does not mean there is only one way this goal is attainable. This summer, dogmatism must give way to compromise.
1. Bayern Munich, in the first half, were absolutely fantastic. Their pressing was relentless, their passing precise and their movement intricate and thoughtful. They are a force to be reckoned with.
2. Theo Walcott, for all the improvement that he has made this season, struggled against Dante and Daniel Van Buyten. This is not all Walcott’s fault: the deployment of Cazorla on the right wing isolated the Englishman, as well as the trouble Podolski and Vermaelen had with the brilliant Philipp Lahm. Wenger got two calls wrong: Giroud should have started and Cazorla should have been deployed in central midfield instead of Aaron Ramsey.
3. Jack Wilshere is a good player. We all know his strengths and his potential. But lay off the kid. He’s 21, missed 16 months of football, and is by no means a finished article. He is not world class.