…while Wenger mixes unswerving faith with welcome dose of pragmatism

It is for the opposite reasons to those spelt out in my post about Alex Ferguson below (http://talksportblog.com/2012/08/20/ferguson-driven-silly-by-citys-relentless-spending/) that Arsene Wenger grows in stature year upon year. Which other manager sticks to his principles quite as bravely in the face of an overwhelming chorus of criticism, and in the conviction that football has so much more to offer its exponents and supporters than just a glittering piece of silverware? As Alex Song left, he was talking as much about what it would mean for his strategy as he did about how they had endeavoured to give him a meaningful education: “Part of our club is to influence people’s lives in a positive way.” If this also means demonstrating to them and supporters that the onus is on coaches to put in the hours to develop their players, rather than risk financial meltdown through adopting a model that no-one in the real world abides by, then so be it. Arsenal have slipped as a result of his determination, but there is no other elite manager who has even attempted to deal with the football-specific problems he faces every day. Ferguson’s instinctive reaction to the first sign of danger was to panic-spend on the best striker currently in the Premier League in a way that financially burdens his club; Wenger has instead made brave sacrifices because he wishes to protect a long-term vision of his club’s prosperity that doesn’t even enter the thinking of his counterparts.

However, today I want to instead applaud the more pragmatic measures Wenger is taking in the knowledge that a long-term vision can only be fulfilled if short-term goals are accomplished. Arsenal must find themselves in the Champions League places again at the end of the season to avoid permanent divorce with their fans, and Wenger has realised (surprisingly, some would say) that this is threatened currently by the lack of requisite quality in his midfield. His remark that Arsenal were maybe “one creative player short” after the Sunderland game tied in with the opinion of fans that the club still needs to compensate for the departure of Van Persie by adding more quality to their team. A player of Nuri Sahin’s reported characteristics and discipline will add to Arsenal’s technical excellence, and take some of the burden of responsibility in that area off Cazorla’s shoulders (as of Monday night, Arsenal were still locked in negotiations with Madrid over aspects of the transfer, and overcoming any stumbling blocks could prove a ‘swing’ factor to whether they maintain their residency in the top four this year). Equally encouragingly, Wenger is alert to the threat of falling short in defence should injury strike once again and has promised that Arsenal are trying to bring in “maybe one more defender.”

More generally, amid the doom and gloom, there are flashes of hope that Arsenal fans can justifiably entertain. Wenger has finally adopted a more pre-emptive, necessarily selfish approach to culling bad influences from the club by selling one of his more ungrateful students in Alex Song. Spending on new blood also means that, for the first time in a while, important players in the team have not yet had their heads turned by more glitzy proposals from other clubs and are fully behind Wenger’s plans. Cazorla in particular has already voiced his opinion in various matters concerning Arsenal, and his engaged presence bears all the hallmarks of a player with the ability to develop into the inspiring general that Wenger has been missing for years (mainly as a result of player disloyalty). It is also inevitable that a leading player like Jack Wilshere will, despite his best intentions, have his loyalty tested by subliminal doubts in the wake of another star’s departure from Arsenal. Negative thinking is contagious, breeds negative performances and thus contributes to the vicious cycle where players eventually have their doubts confirmed and want out of the club. Cazorla has happily arrived with exactly the opposite mindset, and should his commitment translate to success on the pitch, it will provide the earnestly loyal Wilshere with the reason he is looking for to banish those lingering doubts and play wholeheartedly for his boyhood club once again.

Ferguson driven silly by City’s relentless spending…

The most surprising aspect of Manchester United’s capture of Robin van Persie is the amount they have stumped up for his services. United have been squeezed both by Arsenal, who forced them to increase their original bid of £15 million by 9 million to £24 million before selling, and the player himself, who stands to enjoy a £50 million reward if he stays the length of his contract and millions more in bonuses should United win trophies during his time with them. For a club saddled with frightening amounts of debt, and a manager acutely aware that the largest weaknesses in his team remain in midfield, the glamour of such a move cannot entirely put to bed questions it prompts of Ferguson’s management. Is it possible that City, in the way they riled him last year through the 6-2 annihilation at Old Trafford, and tortured him with the illusion of a close-fought race before confirming the brutal truth of their superiority in the dying seconds of last season, have clouded his judgement? Reports are circling that Ferguson is planning a final stand against the new might of City over the next two years, and that the pursuit of van Persie was part of a strategy to bequeath a legacy worthy of Manchester United to his club. However, at the risk of sounding condescending, the modern-day manager has more to worry about than winning trophies at any cost, and should Ferguson’s incredulous outlay on an injury-prone player be a contributing factor to United’s continuing slide into financial trouble in the future, then his impact on the club will be up for review.

Besides, the neutral always associated Ferguson’s stature as a manager with his ability to address every one of the great challenges of their profession: from balancing the books to developing youngsters, from playing an entertaining style of football to winning trophies with tactical acumen. In his apparent desperation, it is doubtful he has even gotten that last part right: overloading his team with strikers and comparing them to the 1999 vintage overlooks the fact that his trophy-winning team were anchored by a dynamic, powerful midfield that is missing today. If reports linking Ferguson to Kaka are to be believed, then that would reassure that he has not completely lost sight of how to tackle a City team that is strong in every area of the pitch, but still doesn’t clear him of the charge of being financially negligent and strategically short-sighted. Kaka and Van Persie will both need replacing by the time Ferguson is believed to be pulling up sticks, and the perils of leaving a team’s long-term future in the vicelike grip of senior players can be seen at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho did the same thing and cast a shadow over the club that was not fully redeemed by their negative triumph in the Champions League.

Fans are in thrall to the win-at-all costs mentality that Mourinho has spread in the game, and Ferguson’s embracing of the same approach has reduced his appeal to the neutral. Watching Manchester United sweep all before them in the most unlikeliest of fashions in 1999, through thrilling attacking play and script-defying comebacks, was a transforming experience that sparked my love of football, but Ferguson has flattered to deceive since then. His 2008 crop that repeated Champions League success owed too much to the individual talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to really extend his reputation beyond being a pure winner in the same way to a creator of great teams thrilling to the mind and soul. Some pinpoint conceding goals like a hole-filled boat against Real Madrid at home in 2003 as the moment when Ferguson sacrificed his pure attacking instincts in favour of a more pragmatic, trophy-sure approach to playing the game. Since that concession, he has also struggled under financial constraints to replicate his successes with the kind of young players he was once famed for developing. Even though fans point to Tom Cleverly and Chris Smalling, there can be no doubt that Ferguson has changed as a manager to keep up with those who splurge to win and has sacrificed some of what made him previously stand out from the managerial crowd in the process.

Robin van Persie might bring him goals and confirm his place in the pantheon of great sporting managers, but one cannot help but feel the achievements that made Ferguson a sporting icon stood for more than just winning while paying scant attention to the collateral damage.

Van Persie seals exit from Arsenal hearts

So Robin van Persie got his way on every last detail of his desired migration from Arsenal: the big fat final pay check (reported to be £200,000 a week), the move to a club that can lend validation in the form of silverware to all the goals he could score for them – and his specific wish to trade Arsene Wenger and Arsenal for Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.

Had van Persie moved to City, Arsenal fans would have explained it away as a money-motivated decision, while transferring to Juventus might have even shown his respect and unwillingness to tarnish the relationship he had built with Arsenal. However, in choosing United, and flagrantly disregarding the particular chagrin and dismay such a choice is causing Arsenal fans, Van Persie has given a startling insight into the coldly self-centred soul of the modern day prima donna footballer that should make them and Arsene Wenger think twice before ever believing a player could be as loyal to one club and his vision again. When picturing Van Persie’s thought process as he deliberated which club to emigrate to, it is both deeply hurtful and a rude awakening to realise that his settling on United as the destination of choice might have paid little more than scant consideration to what this would mean to the club where he spent such a long part of his career. If his honeyed words on topics as ephemeral as sharing similar values as Arsenal and growing a bond with the club meant anything, it may yet trouble him on some small level to know that Arsenal fans have cast him out of their affections for good and that door might never open again. He joins Nasri on the list of exiles, a player of lesser meaning to Arsenal hearts than Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry – and that should yet trouble him.

Despite the force of feeling directed against van Persie from Arsenal fans, the moving on process is bound to be swifter and surer than last year. It is not a shock for anyone connected to Arsenal that he has left – least of all the board and manager, who have known there was no chance of him staying from the minute he concluded his meeting with them in May and they signed Lukas Podolski. His exit remains a loss and, by strengthening both Manchester rivals in two consecutive seasons, Arsenal have struck an effective blow towards voting themselves out of the title race (which may never have been in the board’s sights for this season anyway). Nevertheless, the new buys have added talent and, most refreshingly, hunger (Giroud’s career arc is a testament to that and the world’s biggest league gives him more incentive than ever to prove himself; likewise for Cazorla, who has never been at a bigger club, while Podolski is driven by a determination to resurrect his career and reputation), and this should at least give Arsenal a slim outside chance of challenging at the top of the table. If not, then they are a very strong contender for a top four berth and, as the last star of Wenger’s lost post-Invincibles team leaves to consign that project to the waste heap, that may not be a bad result for the season.

Arsenal face a process as tumultuous as a phoenix rising from the ashes of a fire, and right now, the ashes are still smouldering. They need to take it game by game, and showing the same focus against Sunderland on Saturday that was on display as they ran through Cologne despite the distracting presence of Van Persie would be a good place to start.