“We knew Man United would not be happy to finish outside the top three and that they would respond. They’ve made interesting buys. They did it by buying two important players – Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin – but two top class players, one who goes up to the top level and one who has done it all” – Arsene Wenger.
And we suspected that Arsene Wenger would be incredibly happy to finish inside the top three and not respond at all.
While Louis van Gaal has acted swiftly and ruthlessly in a manner which befits the urgent ambition of his club, and Jose Mourinho has twice moved efficiently to maintain a squad that eased to the Premier League, Wenger has predictably and infuriatingly done nothing other than bring in a goalkeeper. Ignore the bluster of John Terry, that really isn’t worth 15 points.
Under seven weeks remain of the transfer window and yet we would not be remotely surprised if Petr Cech is Arsenal’s only first-team addition, a theory boosted by the most Wenger-esque of all Wenger quotes when he stressed the importance of ‘cohesion’ over transfers. Because of course fans renew season tickets at exorbitant prices in order to catch a glimpse of ‘cohesion’.
“I believe we have the quality and it’s now how much we can be stronger together,” he continues. But you always believe you have the quality, Arsene – your loyalty is commendable and exasperating in equal measure. Looking around the training ground and thinking ‘they’re all sodding brilliant and nice boys to boot, how could I possibly replace them?’ might make you a very lovely man, but not necessarily a perennial title challenger.
Great managers upgrade. Great managers look at players they like very much and still think ‘I can get better’. Van Gaal appreciated the efforts of Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valancia last season but none will be first-team regulars this season. In the same situation, Wenger would be talking about the ‘quality’ of those footballers and the importance of cohesion. Had Wenger taken over Chelsea when Mourinho returned in 2013, Juan Mata, Fernando Torres and André Schürrle would still be at the club and Romelu Lukaku would be hailed as ‘just like a new signing’ on his return from a third loan spell. They would not have won the title.
At close to £50m, Arsenal fans might not have approved of a move for Raheem Sterling, but Wenger’s reason for inaction revealed his reluctance to upgrade. “I didn’t make a bid because he plays in an area where we have plenty of players. We have Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Alexis Sanchez. Jack Wilshere can play there, Serge Gnabry,” said the Frenchman, who namechecks six players, at least three of which would prefer to play elsewhere and all but one of whom could potentially be eclipsed by Sterling; all of them helped Arsenal to third last season.
Last summer Wenger turned down the chance to re-sign Cesc Fabregas because he wanted to back the maligned Mesut Ozil as a No. 10. Fabregas of course went to Chelsea, largely played in a more withdrawn position, and promptly won the title. Ozil’s confidence may have remained intact, but so did the Gunners’ long wait for a bona fide title challenge. Olivier Giroud and Francis Coquelin could be similarly protected this summer. Are they good? Yes. Are they good enough to take Arsenal forward again? Probably not.
“There’s a lot of competition. It’s a big club,” said Mathieu Flamini this week as he talked about losing his place to Coquelin. At Manchester United, he would be fifth or sixth choice. Van Gaal did not dismiss moves for Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger because he already had Daley Blind, Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera, Fellaini and high hopes for Andreas Pereira; he brought in two players he believed to be better than all those players barring an ageing Carrick.
There is a reason why we find ourselves Googling ‘infuriating synonym’ when we write about Wenger – he is a man that infuriates, exasperates and aggravates. I sentimentally tipped Arsenal to win the title last season, but I will not be listening to my heart and repeating that mistake. Not until Wenger starts listening to his head.
Arsenal are bizarrely shorter odds than Manchester United for the title with BetBright.