Jack Wilshere got in a bit of hot water this week after going full Andrew Flintoff – as its known when a sporting star is clearly experiencing a Category One hangover on an open top bus – and then leading a crowd in a rousing rendition of a slightly, but not really, offensive song about Tottenham Hotspur.
Wilshere was celebrating Arsenal’s retention of the FA Cup, following their 4-0 coast to victory over Aston Villa at Wembley. Six weeks ago, Wilshere was praising Wenger for successfully rebuilding the squad at Arsenal – who prior to last season’s FA Cup win, were without a trophy in nearly ten years.
Wilshere’s teammate Theo Walcott, who scored the opener against Villa, called this Arsenal team the best one he’s been a part of – while last season’s marquee signing Alexis Sanchez scored a firecracker second goal as Arsenal began to cruise out of reach.
Walcott and Sanchez represent the opposite polarities of Wenger’s recruitment policy. Walcott joined Arsenal in 2006, just prior to his 17th birthday, and was a raw talent signed with the future in mind only four months into his senior career with Southampton. Sanchez, just four months Walcott’s elder, was the finished article, signed in the midst of a World Cup where he scored twice, and after a successful three year spell at Barcelona.
The other dressing room at Wembley was a less happy place, and manager Tim Sherwood a less happy man. Asked in the post-match press conference when he would begin the squad rebuild at Aston Villa, he replied that it would begin immediately, and that several of the players already knew they would be looking elsewhere for employment this summer.
Few would argue that Arsene Wenger has successfully turned this Arsenal team into a winning outfit once again – although he took some time to achieve it. And few would argue that Aston Villa could do with some work, particularly if Christian Benteke is to move on.
The crucial thing with a squad rebuild is the integration of players – both with the existing squad members and with each other. Teams are very lucky to transition seamlessly from one generation of players to the next without losing much momentum, but the very best managers, the ones with longevity are masters of this.
Wenger is one of those masters. His successful Arsenal team of the late 1990s transitioned into his Invincibles side of the early 2000s almost without breaking stride – the next transition, as those players past their peak, was a tougher one. Wenger was forced to go with a slow burn, to build season by season, piece by piece, his hands tied by limited transfer funds as a result of the move to the Emirates. When the purse strings were loosened, Wenger’s plan was already in motion, and he stuck to it, despite howls from the Arsenal faithful desperate for silverware.
Sir Alex Ferguson was another master – he built perhaps four title-winning sides during his time at Old Trafford. The first, in themid 90s, typified by Eric Cantona. The second, which followed swiftly in the late 90s, was the team of the Giggs-Keane-Scholes-Beckham midfield. The third, in the mid 2000s broke Arsenal’s dominance, with Rooney and Ronaldo. The fourth, a rag-tag bunch led to the title by Robin Van Persie’s goals.
What Ferguson left behind was a swaying Jenga tower of a squad – Vidic and Ferdinand looking worn down by injuries, Giggs and Scholes still turning in performances to prop up a light-weight midfield. In hindsight, it is no surprise all the pieces fell on David Moyes.
It is telling that this summer talk is, if not of rebuilding, then certainly of strengthening the Manchester United squad under now manager Louis van Gaal. Money alone does not cure the problem. Manchester United spent £145million this season, bringing in Herrera, Shaw, Blind and Di Maria. Not to mention all the money spent on monogrammed tracksuits for Radamel Falcao.
Doing it all quickly is expensive, and risky if it doesn’t come off and you can’t recoup your costs. Manchester United’s spending and approach last season was comparable to Arsenal’s spread across the last three. Sanchez this year, Mesut Ozil the season before, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud the season before that. They’ve also successfully moved players out at good fees in recent years: Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie, Vermaelen, amongst those leaving for significant sums.
So, the slow burn, multi-season rebuild could be the one which pays dividends. The problem, however, for managers that aren’t Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson, is that they are judged on immediate results. Not everyone has that trust from their board or the fans and can say: ‘be patient, I’m doing something here’.
Because of that, chances are we’ll remain stuck in the cycle of clearout-spend big. Clearout. Spend big. Clearout… Spend big…