Arsène Wenger feels keeping his talented groups of players will allow much future success as inspired by Ajax’s “Total Football” sides.
Arsène Wenger was keen to avoid any comparative superlatives with the late 60s and early 70s Ajax sides in 2004 but if his current side realise their fledgling potential, they should comfortably sit alongside the legendary Dutch team.
Emblazoned on the walls of Ajax’s academy are photographs of players who have painted a rich of history of the club; Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edwin van der Sar to name a few. The icing on the cake? All came through club’s fabled youth system and it is that which had kept them consistently challenging in Europe until the late 90’s. “If you have a good youth development system,” says Cruyff, now part-time Catalunya coach. “Then it is obvious first team will one day be good too. It’s not hard to get things right; all that is required is a lot of hard work.”
But as the game became increasingly globalised and money took over (the Bosman rule has also had a particularly adverse effect), they find themselves in a precarious position. Nevertheless it’s the culture, the shared heritage and philosophy that Ajax created which has been highly sought-after.
Growing up, Ajax were the pin-up side for Wenger and have certainly played a part in shaping the manager’s thinking. “Ajax were certainly the first team in relation to my generation because they had the perfect players everywhere,” he said. Rinus Michels, the then coach watched his side grow up almost organically during the ‘Gloria Ajax’ era; a group of supremely talented players from the academy led by Johan Cruyff would garner an almost telepathic understanding and on the pitch that would be allowed to be expressed through rapid passing, pressuring together and the interchangeing of positions. And it’s this philosophy that’s not far removed from the one at the Emirates.
“I want to have success by building a team with a style, a know-how, with a culture of play specific to the club and it’s fans and with young people,” said Arsène Wenger. “Our purpose is not to say are we a great team or not but to try to improve, try to get better. You don’t try to copy. I try every time to add good players to the team based on movement and technique. We know we are mobile, we know we are technically good.”
Wenger has given Arsenal a style to rival that Ajax side, an illustrious history (although with a lack of consistency) and a youth system renowned worldwide for educating the best. “We are able to attract the most promising prospects because we have a calling card stamped Arsène Wenger,” says Gilles Grimandi. (Incidentally, Arsenal are set to profit not only from the more densely populated London area but like the Dutch did from Suriname immigrants, the Gunners from African with promising youngsters such as Benik Afobe, Chuks Aneke, Zak Ansah and Emmanuel Frimpong coming through the ranks).
The recent contract signings, 15 in total since May 2009 and with the talisman of the side, Cesc Fabregas already tied down at Arsenal for four more years, this will allow the captain to carry the current nucleus of talent forward in the next few years. Much like the Ajax team, it is thought bringing a gifted group of players forward together with a shared sense of belonging and loyalty will allow success to be sustained and create a footballing culture which evokes the same sense of collective improvisation as the “Total Football” sides.
Research by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Why England Lose – And Other Curious Football Phenomena, show why there such an importance in keeping your best players because wages dictate 92% of success. Indeed, one of the reasons former chairman David Dein is so keen to bring in an outside investor into the club is because wage bills are rising however with the strategy in place now, total wages only account to around 50-60% of total revenue, compared to around 80% for both Chelsea and Manchester United. The Gunners were able to create a team ethos and mentality in achieving their unbeaten run in 2004 and the same has applied to the recent successful Premiership sides.
Indeed in Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal board have struck more than an just oil. In the Frenchman they have an economist, a forecaster which is every bit as important because of the financial stringent placed on the club since the move to the Emirates and with Ajax’s current plight serving as a caveat. Speaking in September 2009’s International Football Arena in Zurich, the Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis said of Arsenal’s objective of keeping their best players: “We believe transfer spending is the last resort. That’s a sensible view to have. Re-signing existing players is a far more efficient system.”
Wenger expands on the importance of contract renewals, citing new player contract rules which FIFA have recently introduced but could follow the same route as the Jean-Marc Bosman case. “At the moment, after 28 you need only two years. I see the next thing coming is people saying, ‘Why is it 28 and not 27? That’s age discrimination. Why do we have to wait two years after 28 and three years before? If it goes down to two as well, you go from one extreme to the other. It could mean the disappearance of transfer fees.”
Football is very much a psychological game and Arsenal’s recent good form has owed much to keeping the group’s spirits high in the fight for the title and hopefully new era domination. “I know is that within our team we have a great hunger for success,” said Wenger. “We have great solidarity and team spirit. We are a team who has grown up together and wants to achieve things. We have not won anything yet together and that makes us hungry for success.”