Wenger knows, or does he?

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.


  1. It’s hard to disagree with any of this and the last paragraph is perfect.
    The players have much to answer for as well but if Wenger could genuinely improve this dismal season he would have done it already. If he could have won the Champions League or the Premier League in the last 10 years he would have done it already.

    It hate that his legacy might end on the worst season of his tenure but I also have zero confidence that board will act so it’s really up to The Man to step away. There are good, young managers out there that deserve a chance.

    After all the man who came here over 20 years ago had a pretty thin resume to be managing The Arsenal and he did pretty well.

    1. It does not mean any young manager thin on his resume can do a job Arsene did 21 years ago. Now it is the club’s responsibility. They missed Klopp who might keep Arsenal in top 4. They missed Pochettino who has a good eye for young players and good tactical ideas.
      Arsene missed a lot of good young budding young players: players like Kante, Sane or Mane….
      All dynasties must come to an end. This Götterdämmerung could last a few years more.

  2. I agree with imothyt in almost everything, except to say that Wenger was never a brilliant tactical manager. There is frustration and fans could say all sort of things with such prevalent high emotion, but the past must never be forgotten. The world seems to be collasping on Wenger, but such is life-football. You laugh today you cry tomorrow, or they sing songs of love and praise for you today but tomorrow they sing ‘out’ songs for you, shout ‘crucify him’ and castigate you as if you are the worst thing that ever crossed their path.
    Well, I beleive Arsenal are reaping what they have sowed all these years. While all clubs, including smaller ones, have been strenghening, increasing their spendings on players thus making the EPL strongest Arsenal have been too smart, making the money. You can’t eat your cake and have it! We all know that Arsenal have declined over the last dozen years or so as you compare the players of then and now. Sadly for Arsenal, all other clubs in England have improved over this period, player-wise.
    We as fans must be frustrated, we have every reason to be angry. We can curse and shout ‘Wenger out.’ But we should also shout the board out.
    We must accept one fact: that the gods of football will be sued for cheating or compromise if Arsenal were to win anything over Bayern, Mancity, Chelsea, Barca, Real, Monaco, (even) Spurs, etc. with the players they have and the kind of shambollic and lazy performances they produce these days.
    I pity Arsenal fans, because it’s unlikely anything will change positively for them in the next 2 years or so. I pray something drastic and dramatic happens. May the God of soccer help Arsenal and prevent the impending heart break.

    1. If you read ny of the books about Wenger and quotes from former players, it’s clear that Wenger preaches just a few simple rules to football: verticality is the main one. After that, he expects the players to sort themselves out on the pitch and off the pitch.

      I’m not trying to be harsh on the man, I actually think this is a strength. But it’s a strength ONLY when you have the players who can pull it off. We don’t have those players any more.

  3. I agree with the basic thrust of your post; that Wenger’s main gift was an ability to work the transfer market masterfully and bring in undervalued/underappreciated talent within the team’s budget and then sell them off at the right time for profit. His strength has never been tactical and even now I am questioning whether his aesthetic style was more down to the players than manager, because the team for several seasons now has been just plain boring to watch for the most part.

    If he stays we will lose players this summer or pay outrageous sums to attract/retain them. That’s lose/lose.

  4. big clubs wait on Wenger to discover talents and snatch it
    they’ve stolen all the magic from him
    truly he should have left 5years ago
    if he stays another 2yrs will he reproduce 49 unbeaten runs?
    I’m sure a man of honour will end unceremonious
    in man they trust

  5. I’m not inclined to believe that he cannot spot talent. Why would you suddenly lose that skill? If anything, it should improve with age because the brain’s abilities to perceive patterns is only enhanced with repetition. No, Wenger knew Hazard was quality, but had to settle for Gervinho because the player wanted Chelsea. He knew Neymar was destined for greatness but he couldn’t match what Barca offered. He was hot on Cristiano Ronaldo’s trail as a callow teen (but Quieroz’s connections won the day), he had tried to invite Zlatan for a trial (which he didn’t realize would offend the player), and only a failed work permit nixed the signing of Yaya Toure; but even in the crop of players we have now there are gems: he saw something in Koscielny sooner than others, he picked up Alexis when another club could have beaten him to it, Bellerin is going to be a star, Cazorla was a steal, and but for injuries who knows what may have become of DIaby, Wilshere and Ramsey?

    No, it’s not his eye that has failed him. It’s Arsenal’s ability to sign players that has failed. It has failed because of the rise of the super clubs and the rampant inflation of player wages and transfer fees that followed them. Do you think there is any chance Arsenal signs Ian Wright or Dennis Bergkamp in today’s climate? Elite footballers of all stripes have become the hottest global sporting commodity. The super-elite clubs can afford to out-do us for the super-elite players, while mediocre clubs are rich enough to over-pay above average players like Benteke and Cabaye. Everyone is playing with house money these days and every player with a shred of talent has his choice of destinations. It’s a warped economy and not one that can last, but the relative and unprecedented equality in terms of player talent and coaching sophistication that has come to the PL has leveled the playing field and as Tim says, that doesn’t play to Arsene’s strengths because he is not a coach that will “out-tactic” people. Wenger still knows talent when he sees it. It’s that Arsenal haven’t bought enough of those players to keep up with the elites despite sitting on a pile of cash that resembles the hoard of Smaug. Some of that has finally started to be spent but you can’t escape the feeling that the spending only goes far enough to keep us near the top, not put us over the top, and Arsene doesn’t seem to be able to make the most of what he has anymore.

    1. I agree with you that he may not necessarily (my caveat) have lost the ability to spot top talent, but that ability is not merely on observation… it is also in acquisition.

      You cant reasonably credit him for spotting Mbappe or Neymar. Who didn’t? In other words Wenger can talk as mucgh as he likes about how he hearly signed Drogba or Ronaldo, the fact is, he didn’t. Somebody else did. It’s true that the arrival of Abramovich changed the football market forever, but our manager still cant be credited for spotting talent he didnt acquire or nurture.

      In fact I’d argue that some of his acquisitions have been of questionable value; Calum Chambers and Danny Welbeck together cost about £33m. At the same time, low-value punts (Sanogo and Jenkinson) haven’t worked out.

      In other words while he played the market masterfully in the past before Abramovich distorted it, he had his share of Christopher Wrehs, Rami Shabaans, Junichi Inamotos, Pascal Cygans and Igor Stepanovses

      1. I agree with Tim that with respect to scouting, “Wenger’s strength is now everyone’s strength.” The game has changed so much in a relatively short amount of time. He came on the scene when his knowledge of and connections with the continental game were somewhat unique, and which therefore gave him a leg up in terms of identifying (and acquiring) raw talent on the cheap. Nowadays, nearly all Premier League clubs have scouting resources of this kind. What made Wenger special in this regard is now by and large assumed.

    2. @Dr Gooner
      I hope this doesn’t come across as me stalking you up and down this site – I’m not, or me being too pedantic- again , I don’t think I am, but I have to call b.s on the whole Yaya Toure /work permit reason for not signing for Arsenal.
      This is just something Arsene said and everyone took on faith despite the overwhelming evidence to contrary.

      If Wenger really thought so highly of Yaya Toure, then why didn’t he get him from Metalurh Donetsk in 2005 when Olympiacos got him for €2.7m. This was the year Arsenal spent €2.5m on Eboue and €5m on Almunia. Or a year later when Monaco got him for €5.5m, when Arsenal paid €15m for Hleb,€10m for Theo,
      €10m for Adebayor, €4m for Song, €3m for Diaby and Vela.

      The fact is Yaya went to play in Ukraine because of passport issues, but it is also a fact Wenger never thought highly of Yaya and that’s why he never made a move for him.
      We know this from Toure himself , who said when Arsene asked what position he saw himself playing in and Yaya replied box to box med, Wenger just smiled and said no.
      He saw Yaya as a number9.

      I think it’s relevant and important to set the record straight re Yaya Toure, since not replacing Patrick Vieira was an integral part of Tim’s article.
      There have been many near misses in Arsenal transfers under Wenger, and on most of them Wenger needs to be given the benefit of doubt since there’s scant information about them, but Yaya Toure transfer isn’t one of them.

      1. I don’t remember where, but I definitely have read a detailed version of the story that follows Wenger’s and Doc’s version of events from somewhere other than Wenger himself.

      2. Tim, that’s a stretch. There really aren’t Ian Wrights out there anymore because anyone that talented is playing for a big club and not Crystal Palace, but if there is an Ian Wright in in the PL, it’s Diego Costa or Kun Aguero.

        Orm, yeah he had misses, everyone has misses. But his hits were spectacular, and he was able to hit year after year after year. His ability to release players at the right time was Belichickian. But the NFL by contrast is a stable market, top value of players is capped, and there is league-wide financial parity; therefore teams have much more protection to hang on to prize assets because the league structure values parity. Wenger would thrive in a system like that.

        Tom, sources for this version of events? It’s not that I don’t believe you but this topic has cropped up often enough in my years of posting that I think someone would’ve mentioned to me by now if this was easy to infer.

  6. Mate, great article as always. However to give Mr Wenger his due, he has always been and remains able to spot elite talent like very few in the business: Julian Draxler (dribbles – your copyright), Kylian Mbappe, Anthony Martial all recent examples on his radar before most other clubs were aware of their ability. The difference is now many more clubs exist with infinite financial resources. They offer transfer fees and wages far in excess of what we currently can offer. Parents clubs will wait and expect such fees for their young precocious talent.
    The question is not Wenger “in” or “out”, it is how do we want to finance the club. Ridiculously wealthy benefactor or using what we generate. I prefer the latter.

    1. Lol…like youthful Zlatan and Ronaldo’s and always finding an excuse not to buy them…the real kings are always on the radar or just missed

  7. It’s just very difficult to imagine Wenger objectively analyzing his own performance when 1. He wants to stay on as manager, 2. It’s a club he loves and 3. He has claimed that he has sacrificed his life for the club.

    There is just no way any one can be totally objective when it comes to dealing with something that’s so close to their heart. Just think about how long it took the fans to objectively start measuring his performance. I, for one, think that for the longest time my love for Wenger blinded my judgement of him. It took years of the same story repeating itself before I came to terms with reality.

  8. Wenger is a revolutionary, visionary manager. PFo is right about one thing. He gets to get the credit for the success — along with the stick for the garbage that his team is serving up now, or the lack of effectiveness of his management.

    A great man, who used to be a great coach. The game’s changed and left him behind, and he hasn’t kept up. Who can? It’s simply not possible to be chief cook and bottle-washer these days, for the club the size of Arsenal.

    Ironic that despite all those well-timed exits, he’s hopeless at managing his own. Would Arsenme of old be scared to tell hsi own fans, right away, that he’d extended hsi contract? This is the saddest thing about this whole, sad saga.

    Arsene knows, except, it seems, when to leave the stage.

    1. …sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

      The funny thing about that cynical speech — spoken by Jaques in As You Like It — is that at its conclusion a young Orlando enters carrying his old and feeble servant, Adam, thereby proving its antidote. One need not leave the world alone, uncared for, provided that those around you are kind and graceful. We might take a similar lesson in our approach to Wenger, who I believe must leave the club, but hopefully with our thanks instead of the graceless chanting of the kind leveled at him as he left Selhurst Park on Monday.

      I agree that he has brought a lot of this on himself by failing to recognize that his own stagnation, but this is precisely why you have failsafes at the board level. Put simply, Gazidis and Kroenke fail or will fail to do their jobs when they refuse to recognize what their employee cannot.

      1. Agree with you. The most frustrating and depressing issue is the paralysis of Gazidis and the board. They should be taking Wenger aside and telling him the truth about his situation. He can’t be objective about his position. Few people can when they enjoy so much power. I can’t imagine any other club being in this farcical, perilous situation over a manager.

  9. Tim, love your telling of the passing of the torch from my favourite Arsenal players of all time, Viera, to my second favourite player of the all time, the wonderful, precocious Cesc Fabregas. Number 4s, a shirt worn by the guy who two years ago became my favourite (as much off the field as on) Per Mertesacker.

    Every tall balck kid who looks promising gets labelled the new Viera, but it’ll be some time before we seek his like on a football field. A defensive midfielder? In your dreams. Dont get me wrong, he was a superlative tackler and destroyer, as good as any you’ll see. But man, he was VERY skilful on the attack.

    If Coquelin is half a player, Viera was two players in one. The complete midfielder. Insane stamina (he rubbed something, probably Vicks Vaporub onto his chest. You could see it staining his jersey). Graeme Souness once said of Viera (and the Invincibles generally) that if a team came for war, he could do go to war… if a team came to play skill ball, he could do that too. I loved him to pieces, and don’t care how many red cards he got (some were unjust, awarded on reputation).

    To see Cesc for the first time (17 or 18) was to stare at the TV with your mouth open. A kid COMMANDING the field, orchestrating the play. Head up, time to spare, two plays ahead of everyone else. The pain of seeing him in Chelsea blue has eased, but, given what he has given to us, I was never going to hold it against him forever.

    Cesc, given how young he acquired him and what he made him into, may have been Arsene Wenger’s finest buy. Sorry Thierry. I know that that’s a big call.

    Arsene, this is what we prefer to remember you for. Not this. Do the right thing.

  10. Wenger’s whole reputation of having an eye for talent is based on the signings, Vieira, Henry, maybe Pires, V.P and Kos. I’ve excluded those that passed through our Academy ie Fabregas. Mind, Wenger didn’t sign Bergkamp. Does this number relative to all he has signed for Arsenal justify such a high reputation? I don’t think so.

    As a matter of fact I believe he became a prisoner of that reputation which then pressured him into trying to be a bit too clever with his subsequent signings. Always bent on unearthing instead of going for talents that are so clearly on display.

    1. Wha?! Now you’re just being silly. And why do you get to exclude those that have passed through our academy, even if it was Wenger who brought them to the academy?
      Anyway, just off the top of my head, here are others:
      Anelka (could have been as good as Henry, if he’d stayed at Arsenal and kept his head on straight)
      Petit (yes, he wasn’t a kid when he came, but no one outside of France had really heard of him)
      Overmars (a young star for Ajax, but season-long injury meant he was on no one’s radar, Wenger picked him up for peanuts)
      Nasri (a huge jerk, but a very good footballer, and would probably have been better if he’d stayed with us)
      Adebayor (see above)
      Plus lesser lights like Eduardo, Lauren, Edu, who weren’t big names when they came and we got on the (relative) cheap

  11. It is a little (a lot) revisionist to discard 21 years of work now. Has he lost his mojo? May be we will find out if he leaves and moves to another club. Is he having a bad season? Yeah, he is, along with everything else connected with our club. Its amazing that some fans are happy to call him overrated. Is he due for change? Sure, yes, maybe, lets give him another 2 years – it doesn’t matter what the opinion is but this “Arsene has never been all that” discourse is too depressing.

  12. “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.”

    I love when you write stuff like this. It’s true, hilarious, and I know it pisses Chel$ea fans right the fuck off.

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