With each defeat for Arsenal comes another chance to reassess Arsene Wenger’s legacy.
For many fans, the most pressing concern is Wenger’s future. The Frenchman’s career has spanned three decades and over 800 Premier League games, and until the day his inevitable departure arrives the conjecture over just what he leaves behind will rage on.
“One day I’ll give you the list of those at the top level who have made careers with me and you will see,” Wenger boasted in 2010. “You will be absolutely astonished.”
Wenger’s list, which no doubt contains the likes of: Ashley Cole, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie, appears to have tailed off in recent years. The 68-year-old ended the recent transfer window with two marquee signings that had already celebrated their 28th birthday. These deals were about the present, not the future.
Yet, the greater insight comes from studying the names of those that have departed the Emirates in the last 12 months. Theo Walcott, once England’s brightest prospect, had a one in four goals record for Arsenal before leaving for Everton last month. Upon joining the Toffees there was a tacit admission from Walcott that his development had stalled.
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“It felt like it was time for me to move on [from Arsenal]. It was sad but it’s exciting at the same time and I want to reignite my career and push Everton to win things as they have done before.”
Similarly, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took a pay-cut to join Liverpool months prior, and in discussing his motivation for moving referenced, ‘the next stage of my development’.
Chamberlain was one of five Arsenal players that signed long-term deals with Arsenal in December 2012 along with: Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, and Kieran Gibbs.
In the time since that photo was taken, the group that Wenger referred to as his core, have managed just 408 Premier League appearances between them. Of the quintet, Ramsey is the only ever-present, but even he has had problems.
For Wales, the 27-year-old plays his best football as a number 10, whereas at club level he has found most of his opportunities in central midfield, or out on the right wing.
Elsewhere, Jack Wilshere has struggled to build on early promise amid injury problems, Jenkinson remains a pariah who last appeared for the club in November 2016, while Gibbs followed Chamberlain in leaving the club in the summer after being billed as the next Ashley Cole. January saw another of Wenger’s former prospects not in the photo leave as Francis Coquelin quietly departed for Valencia.
While the likes of Calum Chambers, Alex Iwobi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have shown varying degrees of quality, none of them could be considered a guaranteed starter for the Gunners. Only Hector Bellerin has emerged from the academy and developed into a starter under Wenger, and even he has been subject to criticism from Arsenal fans this season.
Of course, Wenger may argue that some players simply weren’t good enough, while others were halted by injuries.
Danny Welbeck seems an unfortunate mix of both, and yet, it was Wenger that sanctioned the deal for the 27-year-old before later admitting he had only wanted him on loan. It brings firmly into question Wenger’s ability to spot talent as much as develop it.
The 68-year-old has struggled in recent years to actualise potential and develop consistency. The once shrewd signings, often considered unknowns, now seem a long time ago. For every Gael Clichy or Kolo Toure there is an Amaury Bischoff, Thomas Eisfeld, or Yaya Sanogo.
In the case of Vieira, Henry, and Pires, it is fair to say Wenger benefited from being one step ahead of his competition. He knew the trails better than others, and the advancement in Premier League recruitment since that period has shortened the gap and ultimately left him chasing the pack.
Now he is competing with almost a dozen clubs for those same talents, but even that does not excuse his poor record for developing players in recent years.
At Manchester City Pep Guardiola has refined Raheem Sterling and overseen his best goal-scoring season to date. Even across North London Mauricio Pochettino has improved the likes of Harry Winks, Harry Kane, Danny Rose and others.
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Whereas once Wenger could rely on his reputation to help him snag the best young players, (it was said Ramsey spurned Sir Alex Ferguson in favour of Wenger) now he is left talking about those he almost signed.
The likes of Paul Pogba, Raphael Varane, the list goes on, all players that Wenger identified, but that chose another path for their development.
Most recently, Kylian Mbappe was added to the list of nearly men. The French wonderkid held a three hour meeting with Wenger, but upon seeking advice from Claude Makélélé, chose to remain at Monaco for another season. The thought of what might have been seems to resonate around Arsenal, and now, when it comes to developing players, whereas Wenger once was a doer, now it seems, he’s just a talker.