Continuity is king at Arsenal – and it's why they might just win the league this year
Has your club’s boss splashed out on a clutch of new signings this summer? No? Well, lucky you. Sometimes, the best new ‘signing’ a manager can make is not Karim Benzema or Robert Lewandowski. It’s that old-fashioned but elusive beast known as ‘team spirit’ – so stick that on the back of your shirt.
Barring a last-minute announcement, Arsene Wenger’s only significant signing going into this weekend’s league opener will be Petr Cech. While the keeper’s arrival was warmly welcomed by Arsenal fans, the lack of other acquisitions has sent many into characteristic meltdown.
A glance back over Wenger’s reign will show that some of his finest hours have come following relatively quiet periods on the transfer front
The latest hysteria comes in spite of the team’s impressive pre-season. Palpably potent togetherness has powered the Gunners to a trio of pre-season pots: the Barclays Asia Trophy, the Emirates Cup and the Community Shield.
Not since the era of the Invincibles more than 10 years ago has an Arsenal team oozed such cohesion and camaraderie. This happy chemistry is a priceless and fragile entity. A new star signing at this stage could just easily disrupt as enhance it.
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A glance back over Wenger’s reign will show that some of his finest hours have come following relatively quiet periods on the transfer front. For instance, in summer 2003, Jens Lehmann was the only significant addition to the first team. The Gunners would be crowned champs without losing a single match.
Wenger has preferred to make rather than buy stars. True, he succeeded with the big-name purchases of Marc Overmars, Sol Campbell, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. But Andrey Arshavin’s stay was most disappointing, while Jose Antonio Reyes, who became the club’s then-record capture in 2004, had a mixed spell in north London.
When the squad has been short in a position, the manager has often adapted an existing player, rather than simply buy a new one.
Emmanuel Petit, previously a left midfielder and left-back, was moved to a central, defensive midfield berth. Thierry Henry was, famously, moved from the wing to become one of the Premier League’s finest-ever centre-forwards.
More recently, Arsene has reinvented defenders. During the run-up to the unbeaten season, his only options as a centre-back partner for Campbell were the one-boot-in-retirement Martin Keown, and the mediocre Pascal Cygan. Rather than buy a new centre-back, during pre-season he tried out Kolo Toure – previously a defensive midfielder and right-back – alongside Campbell. It proved a title-winning partnership.
Even when such experiments are not unqualified success stories, as with Nacho Monreal’s emergency foray as a centre-back last season, indirect benefits can be felt. Once the Spaniard slotted back into his full-back role, he was twice the player he had been before the botched central experiment.
Dodge the disrupters
In the summer there are no goals to be scored, so our equivalent is a new face
The last two years alone have shown Gunners fans the mixed blessing that a big summer spree can be. In summer 2013, Ozil, that unassuming, team-spirited genius, was the only major signing. The team hit the ground running, shooting quickly to the top of the league and spending longer there than even eventual champions Manchester City.
Then, last summer, Wenger signed five new players, including the individualist showman Alexis Sanchez. It took until January for the team to find any shape or consistency in the league. By then, the title challenge ship had sailed.
Fans still love a summer signing, though. Throughout the season, the ‘hit’ we crave is the goal, a craving that is fed regularly, even in a bad campaign. But in the summer there are no goals to be scored, so our equivalent is a new face. The pragmatic, versatile acquisition is the tap-in from two yards out; the loan signing is the beneficial own goal; and the big-name coup is the 40-yard screaming late winner.
So we keep demanding money is spent, and the more consumerist society has become, the more we have insisted that, in each transfer window, our respective clubs’ managers shop until they drop. Little thought is given to such things as team balance, squad morale, or even a sense of dignity for our clubs. Just keep spending, we cry.
Thankfully, the more intelligent bosses and boardrooms ignore our pressure, because the ‘flop’ signing can sometimes be the least of a manager’s worries. Worse than the flop is the disrupter – the player who, rather than merely contributing nothing of worth, actively knocks a team off course, destroying the momentum that preceded their arrival.
The most famed example is Faustino Asprilla, whose mid-season arrival in 1996 at Newcastle is widely blamed for them blowing a 12-point lead. Further back, Jim Baxter and Rodney Marsh had not dissimilar effects at the City Ground and Maine Road respectively. Much the same accusation has been levelled at Juan Sebastian Veron, Mario Balotelli and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The last thing Arsenal need is a disruptive character at the Emirates. The club’s barren spell between 2005 and 2014 was a time of grisly discord in the dressing room, an ugly trend personified by such unlikeable characters such as William Gallas, Sami Nasri, Nicklas Bendtner and Emmanuel Adebayor. Even the lovely Cesc Fabregas seemed a tad short on the selflessness front.
Actual adults, with jobs, children and mortgages, have started online petitions off the back of such virtual ‘scouting’
Team shape and harmony are important qualities. An obvious truth, admittedly, but one that is often forgotten by drooling Gooners as they demand Wenger spends early and spends often.
With chemistry and team spirit so wonderfully high at Arsenal right now, it would be a huge gamble for the boss to risk it, even to buy the brilliant – but hellishly over-speculated about – Karim Benzema.
This is not just an issue for Arsenal. In this era of dream teams and computer games, many fans have lost sight of the fact that real-life management is a far more complex beast than these simulations suggest. I’ve heard grown men sincerely argue that because bringing, say, Nemanja Matic to Arsenal worked for them on PlayStation, then it will work for Wenger.
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Actual adults, with jobs, children and mortgages, have started online petitions off the back of such virtual ‘scouting’, demanding their club managers buy the players that worked for them as they fiddled with their joysticks.
Thank goodness for the dignity, sanity and loyalty of Wenger. Yes, a big signing before the transfer window closes at the end of the month could prove the missing piece to his jigsaw. But as Arsene knows, it could also mess the whole assembly up, just as it looks like the Gunners can properly challenge for the league.