Arsene Wenger was the keynote speaker at a soccer conference last year when he was asked, in a room packed with performance analysts and sporting directors from rival clubs in England and Europe, what the next innovation for coaches would be.
"If the last 15 years have been about improving the physical and technical side of things, I think the next step is vision and speed of understanding in the game," he said. "No one knows at what age you develop vision [for the game]. When you're young, it's all about a good first touch, but is that because of talent, or vision?" Wenger has since commissioned a study into tennis players, who have a better depth of vision than soccer players because they play only facing forwards.
This is relevant now, because since the season began, Wenger's vision has come under more scrutiny than ever. His Arsenal team has endured a wretched run since losing the Carling Cup final back in February, winning only six of its last 23 games. Recent results have included a 2-0 home loss to Liverpool and embarrassing away defeats at Manchester United (2-8) and Blackburn Rovers (3-4).
In the summer, Wenger admitted he had spoken to Paris Saint-Germain's new owners Qatari Sports Investment (he advised it to spend €100m of its €150m budget in year one, which it did) but vowed to see out the remaining three years on his contract with Arsenal. After all, it was only in March when the club was still in the running for all four trophies. "We may have been too greedy because we tried to win everything and in the end we were a bit short physically and paid the price in the final sprint," he told Alsace TV.
The transfer market did not go well either: Arsenal had agreements in place to sign Spain internationals Juan Mata, 23, and Santi Cazorla, 26, but chose not to complete as it felt getting them too early in the window would reduce the fees it could fetch for Cesc Fabregas, who joined Barcelona and Samir Nasri, who went to Manchester City. Arsenal earned maybe an extra £5 million ($8M) from that decision, and instead they bought Mikel Arteta and took Yossi Benayoun on loan.
That decision could define its season, and it reveals two things about Wenger and Arsenal today. The first is that Arteta and Benayoun, while undoubtedly good players, do not fit the profile of a Wenger signing. Arteta is 29, injury-prone, cost £10 million ($15M), and signed a four-year contract. Benayoun is 30. Wenger is the coach who would only give Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp one-year rolling contracts as soon as they turned 30. As he told the conference audience last year: "A player reaches his peak performance at around 23 and it lasts maybe until 29."
Wenger is either changing his strategy or, as appears more likely, he is now taking orders from someone else. Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis, former MLS deputy commissioner who once admitted of Arsenal, "We are not a democracy," told the International Football Arena in Zurich that Wenger has the final word on all transfers. But those days might be over now, and certainly the arrivals of Arteta, Benayoun and even Per Mertesacker, a 76-capped Germany international whom Wenger decided against buying 12 months ago, suggest that he no longer has 100 percent control over every aspect of the club.
The other aspect of the recruitment could be seen in a video that Manchester City released on their website on the day that Nasri signed. It showed the French midfielder walking through the club's open-plan offices before a besuited executive appearing stage right shook his hand and gave him a warm welcome. That executive was Patrick Vieira, and he played a major role in persuading Nasri to move. "Patrick helped make my decision and convinced me by telling me that City was the club of the future," Nasri told France Football. "He played for Arsenal and he can compare."
Vieira spent two seasons as a player at Manchester City, and nine at Arsenal, where he was captain and won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups (the last of which, in 2005, was the club's last trophy which he sealed with the winning penalty, his final kick in an Arsenal shirt). Yet it still seems strange that Vieira is now representing City and not Arsenal, where he made his name and, as he once put it, "is the club of my heart."
While he may not have the qualifications to be an assistant coach, Vieira's presence would be a huge motivating influence on Arsenal's young squad. His role at City, after all, was as much off the pitch as on it: "City has a group of young players who need to lean on experienced players and I try to help them, push them to the limit to reach the top," he told L'Equipe. Arsenal, rather than City, would appear to be his natural home.
The current debate in England is whether Arsenal needs to employ a specialist defensive coach to solve its problems at the back. Never mind that Arsenal had the fourth-best defense last season, has in Wojciech Szczesny, the outstanding goalkeeper of this season's first month, or that the team's best defender, Thomas Vermaelen, has only played one full game at center back (in which Arsenal kept a clean sheet). SI.com's Gabriele Marcotti, writing in The Times, pointed out that defending is not just limited to a team's back four and any new arrival would have to be "someone who is 100 percent on his wavelength."
Those names would appear to be in short supply, though it is a surprise that Steve Bould, a former center back under Wenger and currently youth team coach, has never been asked to work with the senior team.
Gazidis this week was supportive of Wenger, and made the sensible point that clubs often do more damage by changing coaches than showing patience. "The number of clubs around the world that look at Arsenal as a role model for what they want to become is dramatic," he told the Sport Industry breakfast. There is no short-term threat to Wenger's position, though the current issues may have brought the idea of planning for a successor into sharper focus.
For now, though, Wenger battles through the storm, reminding Arsenal fans after the come-from-behind League Cup win over Shrewsbury, that his team has qualified for the Champions League 14 seasons in a row. He may now have new signings foisted on him; he may stubbornly refuse to ask any former players to get involved; but if he is going to turn this around, it will be on his terms.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.