Somebody who once worked for Match of the Day infamously said that winning the league was impossible with kids. Of course, Alan Hansen was talking about Ferguson’s blend of talented kids and season pros after an early season hammering at the hands of Aston Willa. What is rarely commented on was the poor state of Hansen’s memory in 1995, when Arsenal has beaten his own great Liverpool side at Wembley in 1987 and then pipped them to the League so famously at Anfield in May 1989, only 6 years earlier, with a similar combination of experience and home grown youth. I think the term for forgetting May the 26th 1989 and the Arsenal ‘kids’, Adams, Merson, Thomas, Rocastle, Hayes et al is ‘Selective Amnesia’.
I am, I hope amusingly, endeavouring to make the point that in 1989 and in the mid-1990s team did win the league with ‘kids’ but only when combined with some maturity and strength. Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Butt and Neville had Bruce, Pallister, Cantona, Irwin and Keane, just as Merson, Adams, Rocastle and Thomas were blended with O’Leary, Bould, Dixon, Smith, Richardson and Winterburn. The difference between Graham’s Arsenal however and Alex Ferguson’s Man United was that Arsenal’s canny Scot had brought in all new experienced heads to blend with the precocious young talent at his disposal.
George Graham was quite ruthless and over a two-year period from his arrival in 1986, he moved on a large number of senior Arsenal players, most of whom were seasoned internationals. Paul Mariner, Tony Woodcock, a firm fans favourite, Stewart Robson, our midfield lynchpin, Chris Whyte and Tommy Caton were all out of the Highbury door within months of his arrival as I recall. Kenny Sansom, Viv Anderson and Charlie Nicolas, all North Bank heroes and the former, club captain, only survived another season and although part of the club’s first trophy success in 8 years were soon to be deemed surplus to requirements by Graham.
So why am I rambling on about this in 2017 and why now particularly?
Well it just seems that the club is about to face some crossroads and you have to ponder the future and the decisions and actions that Arsenal and their decision makers will take in the next 2 years. We have many senior players, popular ones, nearing the end of their deals, some not showing any inclination to extend and we also have many more who will be in that position in the summer of 2018. We also have a manager with only one further full season left on his contract and whom one assumes is unlikely to be offered another. Add to that, many other senior longstanding squad professionals, as in the summer of 1986, however good, in 2018 will be the wrong side of 30.
There are some huge decisions required by certain individuals and by the board but we have recently had a strong hint from our CEO that Arsenal will be looking to the Leicester City model rather than the Manchester City model, going forwards. Therefore, if the owner is not likely to pump in funds and yet unwilling to sell to another who is then the 1986 to 1988 course of action maybe relevant. Most fans will be disappointed if this is the case but others are quietly proud of the club’s ‘sustainability’ approach, whilst being only to aware that our own ticket prices are a contributor to the model.
Although it will pain us all to admit it, our North London (well, Middlesex) neighbour are proving that combining seasoned professionals with talented youth may still have a place in 2017, 30 odd years on from when George Graham proved so. Old heads in LLoris, Vertonghen, Dembele and even to a degree Eriksen have supported the young players at White Hart Lane and the blend, while not yet producing silverware has seen them challenge.
Therefore, the question is whether Arsenal and whoever is in charge needs to do what George Graham did between 1986 and 1988 and cut loose the senior favourites, stick with or recruit an experienced core and blend it with fearless and exciting talent. However popular or talented they are, Ozil and Sanchez are not likely to be part of Arsenal’s future unless they extend their contracts by Christmas. Similarly come next summer, again however much we love him, Laurent Koscielny is not a player who Arsenal can build around and we already know Mertesacker will be gone. Olivier Giroud is a fan favourite but so were Mariner and Woodcock. Mesut Ozil is the frustrating ‘Darling of the North Bank, as was Charlie Nicholas and he too was moved on despite the protest of the fans. It would be a miracle if Santi Cazorla returns and has his contract extended.
If sustainability is the key then Arsenal will need to invest in the core of the current squad that are in their mid to late twenties who are at either their peak or approaching it and blend that core with new signings and the youth they truly believe in. Players such as Xhaka, Ramsey, Wilshere, is he proves himself again, Kolasinac, Bellerin, Mustafi (if he will commit) Lacazette and Welbeck are the right age to provide the core and this can be added to but the big question is, whether the current younger element have the quality to compliment and supplement the experienced core. I believe Holding, Iwobi, Maitland-Niles and Nelson may well have what it takes but unfortunately, there is only one very unforgiving way to find out for sure.
In addition one must assume that Cech and Ospina do not represent the future but does Emi Martinez? Somehow I doubt it, so any new short stopper such as Jack Butland would also need to be attracted to the project, regardless of the manager.
The investment in the core begins now by deciding which of them deserve and merit having a future team built around them and convincing them of that project now and post Wenger. The first phase of this project has to be to ensure all of those have their contracts enhanced and extended this summer or sooner. Sadly, the Club have made a rod for their own back, by stupidly making public their offer to Chamberlain. The starting point now for any negotiations with Aaron Ramsey and others, is now in excess of £180,000 a week. If the Welshman is the man to build a team around, as his country do, then offer him those wages now and make him Captain next season.
The money saved on the budgeted contract offers to Ozil and Sanchez makes fabulous offers to players in the same position next summer possible but those decisions must be make and acted upon now. Those who will not be staying should be replaced with experience, youth or both and we should learn in the League Cup and the Europa League in the coming months, starting tomorrow, which, if any of the youth of 2017 can replicate George Graham’s bumper crop of 1986/87.