I went to the website Transfer League to look at Arsene Wenger’s recent transfers. I was looking for a pattern for this oft-cited project. But you can’t find significant patterns on just dates and prices. And overall, it’s not that important. Yes, Wenger has been very effective and prosperous by spending a mere 11 million net in his 15 years at Arsenal (and that’s without amortization). But that is not the narrative I was looking for.
It took birth dates and age at purchase to provide the patterns I was seeking, and then I needed to expand it to his full time at Arsenal. If you start to look at Wenger’s purchasing history, there is a very different story to the one we hear about his genius at purchasing youth. It turns out that he is far from a genius and is rather pedestrian at scouting teenagers. But once a player hits 20, Wenger becomes the best assessor of talent on the planet. Unlike a Ferguson, Schaaf and Moyes (contemporaries by duration) who all buy duds on occasion of all ages, Wenger rarely buys a dud with players aged 20-26.
Going through the list of his nearly 100 players bought during the course of his tenure, his best purchases have been in the 20-23 range, rather than teenagers. His record is poor for U21’s and U17’s. After age 26, Wenger has almost no concern with players other than goalkeepers and his few buys have rarely produced quality. Comparing this history with the past window, he took too many chances: two 19 year old kids, an 18 year old, 3 players over 27, two that are 26 and one player that is guaranteed to be a success in Gervinho. More on that statement in a moment. One guarantee and eight purchases in areas where historically he hasn’t been strong. That could be a very bad portent to Arsenal’s season. But not their supporters who demanded this. But patterns are often overlooked.
For this exercise, I have broke down his purchases into U17’s, U21’s, U23’s and then added 26 as further line of demarcation.
Let’s start with the kids. First the Academy. Now Arsenal use a very liberal interpretation of graduating from their academy. But it’s just PR. Cesc Fabregas was a product of La Mesia, not Arsenal. The academy has actually produced less talent for the senior side than is sold to the public. Most of their graduates are transfers from other academies, such as Bendtner or Djourou. But that doesn’t mean the system doesn’t produce. Since Wenger took over, Ashley Cole, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Emmanuel Frimpong and Wojciech Szczęsny are the main graduates to help the first team. That’s not bad for a team of Arsenal’s size (massive sides tend to produce less players for their first team). It dwarfs London neighbors Tottenham and Chelsea. And many graduates have went on to contribute to other clubs, such as David Bentley and Fabrice Muamba. Overall, not on the level of Barcelona or even Manchester City pre-Mansour, but nothing to be ashamed of and nothing that needs padding.
But there is the issue of the U17’s that were bought and then used as academy graduates. Looking at Wenger’s record with U17 purchases, he has a fairly poor record. But, to his credit, he has also shown restraint. Understanding that they aren’t physically developed, Wenger has only signed 14 players in his time at such a young age, relying more heavily on the academy as mentioned above. Obviously we focus on Cesc Fabregas, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott; however, the other 11 have been a mixed bag. Obviously Galli can’t be judged due to his untimely death. But Canoville, Traore, Merida, Quincy, Vela and Barazite never lived up to their potential. Djourou and Jermaine Pennant are decent players, but not great and Ebecillo and Freeman are still being evaluated. So three out of 14 isn’t as good as one would be led to believe.
If we look at the U19’s, those signed between the 17th and 19th birthdays, we would expect him to shine. They are closer to adult development and so many greats get started at this age. And we have been constantly reminded of Wenger’s genius at spotting young talent. The truth is that Wenger has had an even worse record here, as he has had just three good signings in this age bracket, but he brought through many more players than the U17’s. Nicolas Anelka, Gael Clichy and Song are the best of this bunch, which actually doesn’t sound very impressive. It also includes Matthew Upson, Guy Demel, Boa Morte, Diaby, Senderos and Bendtner, who are all average footballers. None made the team better nor Wenger much money. The rest, other than Miyachi and Galindo, who are still in evaluation, are a list of people few have ever heard of, except Francis Jeffers, who is best known for his failure. There are 11 players on that list who are nobodies. So here, three out of 22 is rather dire.
But that’s where it ends. Because once a player hits the 20-23 range, Wenger is amazing at getting value and talent in the market. While he has had some failures, like Bischoff or Daniilevicius, they are rare. He has had maybe six bad signings in his 15 years (not including the current campaign). Along with the two mentioned, there is Tavlardis, Wright, Diawara and Mendez. He signed Lassana Diarra, who is terrific, but left soon after joining because of another person in this age range: Matthieu Flamini. Eduardo and Reyes are very good players, but didn’t fulfill their potential in North London due to circumstances (the horrific injury to the Croatian and the home sickness of the Spaniard). Christopher Wreh was a serviceable player and Fabianski may still come good as a keeper. These are the neutral buys and they are fairly impressive. So let’s look at the list of good (and calling it good is slightly offensive as it is top-heavy with world class players) signings in this age range.
Vermaelen, Nasri, Adebayor, Flamini, van Persie, Toure, Edu, Henry, Kanu*, Lauren, Ljungberg, Viera and Overmars. Wow! Notice how many of the invincibles are in that list. It includes five of the starting XI and two important squad players. Here, Wenger can rest on his laurels if he wishes. His record is that impeccable. And for the count that is 16 out of 24.
But the 24-26 range produced a plethora of good players too. This age range brought in Petit, Grimandi, Koscielny, Sol Campbell, Gilberto Silva, Eboue, Rosicky, Hleb, Sagna, Pires and Wiltord. The only failure in this range is Stepanovs. Chamakh could join him and Manuel Almunia probably will. Silvinho and van Brockhorst were short lived, so are hard to judge. The rest are all outstanding players. Ten out of 15 is superb.
Arsenal, Over 26’s
After this, Wenger loses his touch or more likely, his interest. After 27, he has mostly poor returns. Malz and Sjaaban were forgettable. Cygan was average. Suker was a mistake. Squillaci shouldn’t start. And Arshavin has been a one game wonder. There have been a few backup goalkeepers and some cover defenders. But after age 26, Wenger has not bought often and of them only two have been great players: Gallas and Lehmann, He has also bought two useful squad players: Garde and Luzhny, but both were in the 90’s. One wouldn’t mistake him for Harry Redknapp down the street, who can find value in age, but little in the important 20-23 area.
So what does that tell us about this year’s crop of last minute signings? They might be mistakes. Arteta, Benayoun and Santos are in the age range where Wenger is untested to be kind – or not very good to blunt: 27 to 30. Park Chu-Young and Per Mertesacker are 26, the outer edge of his expertise. He usually does well in that area, but having watched Mertesacker a lot, this might well be a massive mistake. He is very slow in the turn. He reads the game well as it comes at him, but poorly when it goes away from him; thus, he tends to get turned in transition too easily. Teams hitting on the counter would do well to focus on him. Gervinho is almost guaranteed to be great. Carl Jenkinson looks like a magnificent find but like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell, only time will tell. The issue here is that he bought too many players outside of his comfort zone. Three young kids and 3 players over 26 is unheard of for Wenger.He only bought one player in that guaranteed 20-23 range. And one of his 26 year-olds turns 27 very soon, which means there’s as much chance of him being a flop as a success.
In the long run, watching Frimpong, who I think is a revelation, and Conor Henderson, and considering the existence of Song, Wilshere and Ramsey in the squad, plus a potentially healthy Rosicky, it might have been a better choice to stick with the academy than buy two injury prone players in Benayoun or Arteta. Although both Arsenal and Juan Mata may regret that failed deal. At his age and skill level, he’s guaranteed greatness. Links to Cedric Mongongu, Jan Vertonghen or Sedar Tasci would have been better to focus on than Santos and Mertesacker.
An unlucky own-goal and an admittedly horrible bad game led to pressure by supporters and possibly the board that could do more to harm than good this season. In what seems to be panic, Wenger went shopping in a store he doesn’t like. It might make this the worst window in Wenger’s almost unblemished record (08-09 and 97-98 being said blemishes). In the long run, it is not usually good to force a visionary to change tack and it seems somebody at Arsenal has.