After Arsenal’s Champions League Last 16 elimination at the hands of AS Monaco, questions are once again being asked about Arsene Wenger.
The coach is often criticised so fiercely because he achieved so much in the past at Arsenal, and it’s easy, when things aren’t going well, to recall the golden years of the manager’s early reign.
African Imports Key to Wenger’s Glory Years
The most successful period of Wenger’s time in North London was between 1998-2005, One major component of Wenger’s success during these years was his African imports.
Even before he came to North London, he had a penchant for players from the African continent. He nurtured and developed Victor Ikpeba at Monaco despite the Nigerian having a difficult start to life at the club,
Ikpeba scored 13 league goals to help Monaco win the French title.
In 1999, after just 12 games and one goal for Inter Milan, Wenger struck gold by signing lanky Nigerian international Nwankwo Kanu who had just recovered from a life-threatening heart condition.
The rest is history,
30 goals in 119 appearances doesn’t tell the whole story; Kanu scored important goals for Arsenal and rose up to the occasion when it mattered most. A memorable hat trick in a 3-2 comeback win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge remains the highlight of them all.
Kolo Toure was snapped up from ASEC Mimosas for a meagre £150,000 after a short trial and went on to become an important member of the club’s Invincibles squad. After coming into the team as a defensive midfielder, Wenger converted Kolo into one of the best centre-backs in England.
The same thing happened with fellow Invincibles teammate Lauren, The Cameroonian came in as a midfielder but was converted into a very effective full back by Arsene.
Alex Song was signed for £1 million after a successful loan spell at the club from SC Bastia. He went on to become a key member of the side and forged good partnerships with Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie.
The Indomitable Lion was sold to Barcelona for £15 million in 2012.
Strength has always been a most abundant trait with African players signed by Wenger, and there was an abundance of it in the coach’s most successful teams.
Even Emmanuel Eboue, not the most successful, was quick, strong and physical. Despite his rashness and poor judgement in tackle at times, Eboue had an incredible level of strength.
Kanu wasn’t the strongest but he drew fouls in important positions with his lanky frame and languid style of play.
In recent years, however, Arsenal’s team has been derided by fans and pundits as one lacking strength and steel in the middle of the pack. Patrick Vieira was Arsenal’s last midfield powerhouse but he had the strength of Kolo Toure to rely on in defence alongside Lauren on the right flank. Teams just couldn’t outmuscle them.
So is it possible that the lack of steel in recent Wenger teams has been down to his continued ignorance of African players?
Arsenal Ignore African Talent, Chelsea and City don’t…
It’s not an enormous leap, especially if you consider the fact that during Arsenal’s fallow period, Chelsea signed Michael Essien, Didier Drogba and John Obi Mikel while Manchester City signed Yaya Toure. Both teams are at the summit of the EPL table at the moment.
With those players in their teams over the years, Chelsea have three EPL titles, one Champions League, one Europa League, five FA Cups and four League cups, while City have two EPL titles.
Many would point to the huge financial investment by both teams but on the flip side, none of Wenger’s African imports were expensive signings, except Gervinho of course, who claimed the Frenchman never really believed in him while he was at Arsenal.
Gervinho’s Arsenal career never really kicked off. Maybe he just wasn’t good enough or Wenger had probably lost his eye for spotting and nurturing young African talents into top level players.
Maybe Gervinho was the right man, at the right club, at the right moment, but he was mismanaged by the coach as he claims—his subsequent glistening showings have certainly inferred a fault on the manager’s part.
Wenger had the chance to sign Drogba from En Avant de Guingamp but ignored him and the Ivorian went on to torment Arsenal for many years.
Yaya Toure had a trial at Arsenal but was not signed due to work permit issues, or maybe the Frenchman just didn’t see the talent in him and failed to press harder to secure him a permit. The African champion has, of course, grown into one of world’s best midfielders in recent times.
Latterly, Arsenal had the chance to sign talented Ivorian full back Serge Aurier, but Wenger went for Mathieu Debuchy instead.
The French international has spent more time on the treatment table than the pitch since moving to London Colney.
Aurier had a good World Cup which secured a loan move (with an option to buy) to French giants Paris Saint-Germain, and was recently crowned an African champion with the Ivory Coast.
Debuchy, meanwhile, continues to battle with injuries.
Arsenal have been heavily linked with Morgan Schneiderlin since last summer while Victor Wanyama continues to be ignored despite being the important physical foil to Schneiderlin’s success at Southampton.
Wenger’s career at Arsenal has had two fairly distinct halves, one characterised by achievement, the other, as Jose Mourinho likes to point out, responsible for his reputation as a specialist in failure.
The coach has begun to suggest that his ability to spot, assess and recruit excellent African talent has also deteriorated. Arsenal are the worse for it.
Wenger opened the eyes of the world to how effective and adaptable African players can be. However, everyone else has caught up with him and left him trailing in that aspect.
He recently claimed that Arsenal would win the title in the next three years, he’s obviously building his team towards that and there are many talented players in the squad but they still lack that raw strength and steel in certain areas of the team, and that is a quality synonymous with many title-winning outfits. Maybe if he’s ever going to reach the levels of success he managed to attain during his early years at the club, he’ll have to pay more attention to players from a continent that has played an important role in his past success.