“I had to remember that I was manager of Manchester United, not their father and I had to go and tell them their time had come.”
Sir Alex Ferguson would go on to use the word “difficult” when speaking in November about the constant need to change his Manchester United squad. Whether they had just sauntered to the Premier League title, conquered Europe or fallen short, the Scot would not relent in his quest to improve year on year.
Former captain Bryan Robson once noted that Ferguson “rebuilt probably four or five squads to be successful”. Considering he claimed top-flight titles in three separate decades, with a full 20 years between his first and final league crowns, that seems a fair assessment. No man has better encapsulated the power of evolution over revolution.
Another word Ferguson used last year was “ruthless”. It is a word not often associated with one of his old managerial adversaries, but Arsene Wenger must show no mercy and no pity at Arsenal from this stage onward. Not necessarily to his rivals, but to his squad.
Ferguson mastered the difficult relationship between a manager and his players – he was “not their father”, as he put it – but Wenger has failed to balance parental loyalty and a necessary cold-blooded outlook for quite some time. It is easier to imagine him allowing Kieran Gibbs to play computer games despite his poor grades than grounding him.
At least part of the reason Wenger was offered a two-year contract extension at Arsenal was because he displayed a willingness to change. The switch in formation to a three-man defence, though it did not salvage Champions League qualification, sparked a Premier League revival, and was rewarded with much-improved performances and a shiny FA Cup.
But the Frenchman was not afforded an opportunity to clear up his own mess on the basis of landing a double six on his final throw of the tactical die. He must have made private admissions that his squad, the squad he has assembled and trusted over a number of years, requires an overhaul, and that he is the man to oversee it. The tactical change showed a capacity to learn; now he must display a propensity to churn.
At the end of the season, the 67-year-old claimed that the Gunners should look to “keep 90 per cent of these players together”. Upon the announcement of his new contract, that outlook altered slightly. “We have a very heavy squad at the moment so maybe we might lose some players,” was the admission. It will be interesting to see if he can deliver on that promise.
Since the start of the 2013/14 season, 22 first-team players have left Arsenal. Twelve were not sold, but simply departed upon the expiration of their contracts. The club have earned £48.75m in player sales over the past four years.
Contrast that with Tottenham (33 first-team players sold for £267.65m since 2013/14), Manchester City (29 sold for £113.1m), Manchester United (27 sold for £164.75m), Liverpool (25 sold for £246.45m) and Chelsea (24 sold for £275.8m), and Wenger lags behind in terms of both separating wheat from chaff and generating revenue from sales.
Mauricio Pochettino has sold 25 first-team players for £147.65m since being appointed Tottenham boss in 2014. Jurgen Klopp has sold eight for £76.55m. Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have all seen seven squad members depart for £128.1m, £47m and £23m respectively, having overseen only two transfer windows. Each have shown a capability to be as “ruthless” as Ferguson once was.
Then there is Wenger, who has let an average of under three players go in each of the past eight transfer windows. Wenger, who will stand at the front door and wave as Yaya Sanogo leaves at 24, three years and one goal after joining. Wenger, who made sure Abou Diaby phoned home every evening after the midfielder left in 2015, having played 22 games in his last four seasons with the club. Wenger, who kept doing Nicklas Bendtner’s laundry for nine years, and Denilson’s for seven. Each of those four players, it should be noted, only left because their contracts expired.
It is hard to imagine Wenger saying that he is “really looking forward to improving” the squad as Klopp did earlier this week. One cannot fathom the Frenchman wanting to be “cold and analyse the situation” as Conte said straight after defeat in the FA Cup final last month. “For next season we must pay great attention and understand that we have to improve the quality in the squad,” the Italian added of a title-winning, record-breaking Chelsea side.
Arsenal currently have 32 first-team players. If Wenger, as he says, aims to keep “90 per cent” of them, that means four must go. It would be nice to think that number will include permanent departures for those who can be improved upon – Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Francis Coquelin, Joel Campbell – and not loan deals for Chuba Akpom, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Jack Wilshere, coupled with the sale of a player who no longer wishes to be there anyway in Lucas Perez.
This side finished fifth last season; it must be shown to the players that such under-performance comes with a consequence. And the only consequence really should not be a two-year deal for a manager who will change nothing but the formation now and then.
A number of these Arsenal players have described Wenger as a footballing father figure of sorts, but he has too many kids to combine childcare with success. Any parent that claims not to have a favourite child is a liar; as cruel as it sounds, the Frenchman has to finally discard those who are not fit for family purpose.