Arsenal after Fabregas: The emergence of Arsene’s fourth generation
Robin Van Persie became vital to the team last season, and until the uncertainty over his contract is resolved this remains in the balance.
June 24th, 2012
As the second stage of Euro 2012 gets underway, the focus on club football is somewhat diminished.However, as with every summer there are the inevitable transfer rumours surrounding each team. Those following Arsenal should pay particular interest as the policy this summer may shape the future of the team under Arsene Wenger.
Here we look at the emergence of a new transfer strategy, and development of a fourth generation team under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.
Wenger’s tenure since September 1996 can be broadly understood through the teams he created. Initially this was a fusion of the old Arsenal of Adams and Bould, combined with new continental recruits such as Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, the first generation, which went on to win bring him his first successes, winning the Double in 1997-98 and developing a title challenging side.
A second generation, albeit with a similar core won the 2001-02 double, and the best of this side matured as the Invincibles, arguably Wenger’s finest side, infamously winning the league without losing a game in 2003-04.
Since winning the FA Cup in 2005, Wenger began the break-up of this team centred around Henry and Vieira, and from that point they moved into a transition phase, with the creation of a third generation.
Competition from a strong Chelsea side and resurgent Liverpool, as well as the ever present Man Utd, over the following seasons coincided with a period of restructuring at Arsenal. 2005-06 and 2006-07 saw the club leave Highbury and the departure of many of the Invincibles squad. The team did reach the Champions League final, Paris 2006, where they lost to Barcelona, but during this phase they struggled in the league, winning no silverware, finishing fourth or third every year since 2006.
This side was arguably the most controversial of Wenger’s creations, developed in an embryonic state through the acquisition of talented youth players from across Europe, and the club’s own products. The squad was built around Fabregas and his side was intended to be a pinnacle of footballing perfection.
The emphasis was on developing the club’s youth talent to create a squad of higher quality, fully integrated players at a fraction of the cost of the big money transfers. In this respect Wenger was ahead of the curve, understanding that with clubs turning to the Chelsea/Abramovich model from 2003 onwards, it would be increasingly difficult to compete in an inflated market. Players such as Van Persie and Fabregas were cornerstones in this plan. His predictions were correct, and the rise of Manchester City as the latest billionaire side has only added to this paradigm.
However, though the third generation were competitive, the project never fully took off. They challenged for the title in three seasons out of six: 2007-08, 2009-10 and 2010-11, but failed at the final hurdle each time more painfully. Fabregas commented in August 2011 after joining Barcelona that at Arsenal:
“It wasn’t really the losing, it was the routine. Year after year, it was always the same story. Fighting until the end only to see we didn’t have the energy, in the semifinals, the finals, to arrive in the final sprint.”
Some of the failures of this team could be arguably down to the fact that the transition was rapid, and few older experienced players stayed on as in previous generations, whilst the club began to shown defensive frailties more regularly. What difference might it have made to retain the services of some of the older players such as Henry or Toure?
In some ways the departure of Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy over last summer, as well as the probable sales of Denilson and Bendtner this summer can be seen as the clear-out of much of the ‘Third Generation’ team.
Wenger brought in five new players last season on deadline day, Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun, Per Mertesacker, Ju Young Park and Andre Santos, and the team was rebuilt.
This is now a fourth generation based around Robin Van Persie and a central defence of Koscielny and Vermaelen, with Szczesny as a consistent keeper. Most crucially, all of the players signed on deadline day were 26 or older, signifying a change in policy.
The poor performance of Arsenal in the early part of last season, in particular the 8-2 defeat to Man Utd at Old Trafford, and then against AC Milan 4-0 at the San Siro, were disappointing, and this could be considered as a continuation of the cycle of title challenge disappointment and struggles for fourth place. However, this may be more emblematic of the deep and profound changes within the squad, prompting a change in policy and the building of a new Arsenal.
The team was considerably shaken by the upheaval, but with the recruitment of new talent, the squad changed in nature, and though there were early struggles, they went on a fantastic run. By finishing third they improved on the previous year’s position, and again qualified for Champions League football, a crucial piece of consistency on Wenger’s part.
The future is uncertain for this side. Robin Van Persie became vital to the team last season, and until the uncertainty over his contract is resolved this remains in the balance. The signing of Lukas Podolski has already shown focus by Wenger, and he is another more mature international.
The question is whether Wenger will pursue this policy in his development of the fourth generation, rebuilding the team into a squad which can win the title.
James writes about Arsenal on Arsespeak.com where you can find many more in-depth analytical articles on tactics, statistics and players.