At some point at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday afternoon, Arsène Wenger will encounter a blast from the past. Alex Manninger, the 39-year-old Austrian goalkeeper who signed for Arsenal as a fresh-faced prospect almost two decades ago, is part of the Liverpool set-up. If they catch a moment to briefly reminisce they will fondly remember a shared experience.
That dates back to the summer of 1997, when Wenger recruited the young Manninger in what was a particularly memorable chapter in his book of team-building. The Arsenal manager’s largesse in the transfer market back then was remarkable. He signed seven players in various positions. Among them were two who became instantly integral – the skipping goalscoring winger Marc Overmars and the stylish-passing midfield presence of Emmanuel Petit. Of the seven some were sensational, others useful, one – the lesser-spotted Alberto Méndez – forgettable. Such are the nature of transfers. Irrespective of money spent all represent a gamble. It was ever thus.
The reason for reflection on the great splurge of 1997 is to remind those who regard Wenger as a scrupulously parsimonious figure in the modern transfer market that he once operated in a completely different mode. Highly successful it was too. That influx – during Wenger’s first summer as Arsenal manager – was influential in the team evolving quickly and radically enough to immediately win the Premier League and FA Cup double. Manninger stepped in to cover brilliantly for David Seaman for a few crucial weeks.
These days, Wenger has a different view on the impact of multiple signings. In 1997, he needed to do it to accelerate the change in the culture of the team and to bring down the average age of a side that was short on youth. Today, 19 years on, perhaps piqued by the voices who critically compare his modest activity to the heavyweight recruitment at the Manchester clubs, he espouses a different theory. “If you want to make everybody happy, then just buy 20 new players and everybody is full of hope until the first game starts and then we’re back to reality,” Wenger says coolly.
He resists the idea that new personnel are needed for the sake of shaking things up and bringing a freshness to a squad. “Vibrancy doesn’t make you win games,” he says. “What makes you win games is the quality of the performance and the quality of your football. You have to focus just on that. It is very difficult in the modern game. There is always demand for new – but new is just new. After six months it’s not new anymore. If every time you don’t win you throw everything out, it is not the best way to win.”
His reluctance to buy the latest toys would presumably carry more favour with supporters if there was more faith in the same old. There is a familiar look about Arsenal going into their first game of this season (and that means the potential for familiar vulnerabilities). Wenger has recruited Granit Xhaka to bolster midfield and the young defender Rob Holding, who may be pressed into action against Liverpool given the unavailability of three senior centre-halves. Takuma Asano, the Japanese forward, has also signed but does not have a work permit and is expected to go on loan. Is that enough?
While well stocked in midfield, two key positions remain complicated by long-term injuries. At centre-forward and centre-half Arsenal are starting understrength. The options are clear: to buy or to get by. While trotting out the usual line about being in the market if something exceptional comes along, Wenger is placing trust in the group he already has.
Easily-found guaranteed brilliance doesn’t fall off trees, so he is pinning his hopes on the players he knows growing and finding more to give. “You come in and you feel you can improve as a player, you feel you can win things together, you can share things with people who live inside the club,” he says. “What is new makes news. But apart from that it makes noise. But the noise is not necessarily always quality.”
So Arsenal will have Alexis Sánchez leading the line, not a position he has played regularly. Asked if the need was still pressing for another centre-forward to share the load with Olivier Giroud, Wenger simply replied: “We have Sánchez. We have Walcott.”
There will also be a makeshift pairing at the back. Either Holding or Calum Chambers – possibly both – will be in the spotlight. “It is very challenging but it is as well an opportunity,” Wenger says. “All the players, no matter how big they are, they started at some stage [intending] to play at the top level. And top-level sport is about grabbing opportunities. When you get it, you have to be ready.”
Wenger feels ready. Arsenal finished runners-up last season and it is crystal clear where there is room for improvement. He has talked to his team about being more clinical. Only Giroud (16) and Sánchez (13) managed double figures in the Premier League last season. The next best was Mesut Özil (six).
“That’s one of the domains where last year we were not the most efficient,” Wenger says. “We were the highest team in expected chances created. We were the highest team in quality of chances created in the final third. And we were not at our level in the finishing qualities and that’s where we want to improve.”
He regards last season’s second place, finishing behind Leicester despite beating the champions twice, as a missed opportunity. He could not help mentioning that Claudio Ranieri’s team were awarded 11 penalties and, perhaps with a point for referees for this season, noted Arsenal had two – before laughing as he quipped his team should have had 25. Still, a missed opportunity rankles. “You never forget,” Wenger says. “You live with what you missed for the rest of your life. But you have the next challenge and the next challenge is the most important one.”
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