In the summer of 2005 I was heartbroken by the news that Patrick Vieira was leaving the club. I had known for a while that Vieira was probably leaving the club. There were reports every summer about clubs “swooping” for him and when he took the final kick of the 2005 FA Cup, winning the trophy for Arsenal with a penalty, it felt like the end of an era.
That summer I remember reading these official reports which had an almost surgical feel to them — cold and sterile “Vieira ready to accept Arsenal exit” read the Guardian — and thinking Vieira was ready to accept his exit but I wasn’t. He was the heart and soul of the Invincibles, the team that went 49* games undefeated. And while that feat seems almost mythical, it happened and Vieira was actually this massive figure in real life; imposing and powerful he stood by his teammates when they needed him and stood in front of his teammates when they thought they didn’t need him. Vieira was the one player you wanted to go to battle with.
I wanted Vieira to retire at Arsenal. I wanted him to stay forever. And yet he was sold with little fanfare.
We were told that Vieira needed to go to make room for Arsenal’s young protege Cesc Fabregas. We were also told that “Wenger knows” and that he only sells players that are either approaching or have passed their sell-by date. Before Vieira, Wenger had sold Overmars and Anelka, both for huge sums and neither player having nearly the same impact as he’d had when he was at Arsenal. So prevalent was this idea that Wenger only sells at the perfect time that Wenger even hinted at this whole “Arsene Knows” thing in the press conference announcing Vieira’s departure:
“I share the sadness with our supporters that Patrick has left us. But on the other hand I would say to them ‘trust us and support us’. The sad thing is he leaves us, but the good thing is that he leaves us on a high.”
After Vieira left, speculation turned to “who would replace Vieira”, a fun little game that Arsenal fans play to this day. In that BBC report (above) the player Arsenal were linked to, and I remember this well, was Jermaine Jenas. Jenas was going to be the man Wenger brought in to replace Vieira. Arsenal didn’t buy Jenas, player who went on to feature for Tottenham during their leanest years. Arsenal didn’t buy any of the players that the press thought Arsenal were going to buy to replace Vieira.
Arsenal didn’t replace Vieira. They still haven’t replaced Vieira. They will never replace Vieira. What happened instead was that Wenger played Fabregas with Gilberto and eventually Fabregas with Flamini or Fabregas with Song. The truth is that Wenger replaced Vieira with Fabregas, which had been the plan all along.
I didn’t get to watch Italian football so I only caught dribs and drabs of how Vieira was doing at Juventus, but the reports were that he was fine, not great, not terrible, but not the Vieira we had once loved. Italian football was consumed by scandal, Juventus were convicted of match fixing, Vieira moved to Inter.
I saw Vieira for the first time since he’d left when Arsenal played Juventus in the Champions League quarter final. On that night in 2006, a little over a year after he’d left Arsenal, the Daily Mail gushed,
Cesc Fabregas stepped out of Patrick Vieira’s shadow with a fabulous performance against Juventus which put Arsenal within touching distance of their first Champions League semi-final.
The 18-year-old midfielder, who spent two years under Vieira’s tutelage at Highbury, came of age against the Italian champions, scoring the first goal and making the second in a 2-0 victory packed with incident and emotion.
Juve, eight points clear at the top of Serie A, disintegrated in an astonishing second half in which Mauro Camoranesi and Jonathan Zebina were sent off and Vieira booked. That caution compounded the former Arsenal captain’s misery since it will rule him out of next Wednesday’s second leg.
For Arsenal fans, however, it was a night of unconfined joy. First, they welcomed Vieira back with warmth and then watched their young team overrun Juve, with Fabregas at the heart of almost every positive move as the Italians fell apart.
The changing of the guard at Arsenal happened quickly, in the middle of the night. Vieira looked old and tired, Fabregas looked young and hungry, Arsene had gotten it right. Arsene knew.
This pattern continued for Arsenal for several years. After Vieira, Thierry Henry left for Barcelona and once again a sizeable portion of Arsenal fans shouted “Wenger knows!” Then Sol Campbell went off to Pompey, and once again people said that Arsene was selling at just the right time, making room for the younger players like Kolo Toure and Philippe Senderos. Wenger sold Hleb to Barcelona and Hleb went on to say that he’d wished he’d had stayed at Arsenal.
There have been blips in the Wenger knows doctrine, players who were sold before their prime and for less than they were worth. That started with Ashley Cole.
There is no question about whether Ashley Cole left Arsenal too soon. This was a player just coming into his peak who would go on to feature for the most successful Chelsea side in their 12 year history. Cole would go on to win a 4th Premier League title, the Champions League and the Europa League, along with four more FA Cup trophies and a League Cup. Wenger got just a small amount of cash and a huge albatross (William Gallas) in return for Cole. Arsenal supporters were able to write Cole off as a one-time failure, Cole, after all, was the problem. He was the one who agitated for a move and complained about his salary. He didn’t love us enough.
While Arsene got some sales right, getting rid of Adebayor at the height of his value, after Cole he also was forced to sell players who Arsenal shouldn’t have sold. Fabregas was another Cole: a player who agitated for a move and ultimately ended up leaving for a fraction of his value. And of course there was Robin van Persie, who is an example of both the player who left too soon — because he went on to win the Premier League (scoring 30 goals) the year he was sold to Man U — and the player whose powers were clearly diminishing as he scored just 18 goals in his second year at Man U and 10 in his third.
Wenger’s super power in the 1990s and 2000s was the ability to spot talent that was on the verge of breaking out and then to move that talent on when it was on the verge of falling short. As far as super powers go, this is a great one to have in the world of sport where so much hangs on the fine margins between one or two shots in a game or between one or two tackles in a game. One missed tackle at the wrong moment, one blown shot in front of goal, or one lapse in concentration can mean you lose a game.
And as Wenger’s powers of observation toward his players have waned, so too have Arsenal’s fortunes. Xhaka isn’t a terrible player but he’s just not quite complete enough. And pairing him with either Elneny, Coquelin, or Ramsey presents its own massive problems. Meanwhile in defense, Gabriel has turned out to be a bit flaky, Mustafi is struggling to adapt to the Premier League and the Champions League, and Nacho Monreal is starting to look old. Up front, Wenger has persisted with Theo Walcott for years despite observable fact that he’s never going to be more than a one-dimensional player. The old Wenger would have sold all these players long ago. He might even have sold Alexis Sanchez, just for the stroppy attitude he’s shown in the last six months.
Wenger’s strength has always been is in recognizing and developing player talent. But as the Premier League grows richer and as scouting becomes more ubiquitous, Wenger’s strength is now everyone’s strength. Five years ago most Arsenal fans wanted Wenger to buy Benteke and Cabaye. Benteke went to Liverpool for £30m and Cabaye went to PSG for £20m and now both players are at Crystal Palace. For me that’s proof that the poor teams can now afford players that were once only affordable by the huge clubs. Big clubs are now able to spend huge sums on the Negredos, Bentekes, and Cabayes of the world and if they don’t work out, just churn them over.
This means that the margins around player recruitment have gotten smaller and the talent pool, especially in England where there is so much more money than ever before, has gotten bigger. The League now is more competitive on the pitch and in recruitment than ever before.
Wenger was never a brilliant tactical manager. He didn’t invent a new system of football. He instead borrowed other people’s systems, for example the Barcelona passing game, to fit into the very talented personnel (Fabregas) he was able recruit. And now that he’s struggling to recruit these world class players, Arsenal are struggling, and Wenger’s lack of organization and tactical nous is starting to show through.
Wenger claims to be introspective. He claims to constantly be analyzing his own performances. And has repeatedly said that if he thought he couldn’t do the job, he would step down. But I wonder if Wenger knows? If old Wenger, the Invincibles Wenger, was the manager of this Wenger today, I think he would have sold himself 5 years ago.
*In the 50th match, Rooney dived to win a penalty and end the unbeaten run.