Arsene Wenger signed many players over his years at Arsenal, but what did he look for when he entered the transfer market?
The right stuff
You may have heard of the game “Arsene Wenger Transfer Bingo”. It was an activity fans liked to play during transfer windows where they ticked off every one of Wenger’s stock phrases he feed to the media.
“If we find the right players, we’ll do it”, was perhaps the most commonly uttered phrased; a line that is utterly infuriating to fans who believe they know several “right” players who could strengthen the Arsenal team and one you could probably make a lot of money on with the best UK bookmakers.
It was evident that Wenger had a very specific criterion when it came to signing players. He was always on the lookout for the right blend of skill, experience and value for money. The latter requirement there held more weight than many believe it should, but signing players within the club’s means was always been a significant factor for Wenger until the end. By his own admission, there are several players he would have signed had he the funds to do so.
But what was the “right” player?
We’ve got Ozil…
There was one player that Arsene Wenger said had “all the attributes” he looks for when signing someone: Mesut Ozil.
Indeed, Ozil was the perfect fit for Arsenal’s and Arsene Wenger’s philosophy. Breaking down the German’s vast array of skills reveals why: he’s super intelligent, unselfish, and a brilliant passer of the ball who can see things other players can’t. Anticipation, decision making, technique, control, vision and team work are the traits that Wenger wanted his players to have.
This mould is easily applied to the midfielders who have played for Arsenal in the last decade.
Cesc Fabregas, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Samir Nasri, Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta and Aleksandr Hleb are just some of the few names who boast the technique and vision that Wenger liked to have at his disposal.
It’s a harder blueprint to apply to other positions, but we have seen Wenger try.
He opted for smaller defenders such as Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, and Sebastien Squillaci due, in part, to their ability to bring the ball out of defence. Up front, Robin van Persie was his ideal striker. After him, we’ve seen Olivier Giroud, whose one-touch play around the box is excellent, and Alexandre Lacazette, who likes to drop deep and get involved in the build-up.
But did he sacrifice power for technique?
Power or technique
A common observation and criticism of Wenger’s transfer policy was that he valued technique too much over power.
This policy broadly applied in the late 2000s and the early 2010s, when Barcelona were the all-conquering side in European football using players with small statures such as Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
Inspired by their success, Wenger opted to fill his team with a similar profile of player, while neglecting the physical side of the game. The result was that Arsenal had players such as Denilson, Fabregas, Rosicky, Nasri, and Andriy Arshavin who could out pass the opposition but couldn’t always withstand the physicality of the Premier League.
However, it’s something of a misconception to suggest that Wenger was always this way.
When he joined Arsenal in 1996, Wenger had a different type of player in mind.
While he was still an advocate of artistic, attacking football, he didn’t just want technique – he wanted power and athleticism, too. Patrick Vieira was the archetypal Wenger player back then, as he was regarded as the perfect blend of physicality and technique. Up front, he paired Dennis Bergkamp with the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry, technical and intelligent players in their own right, but best known for their explosive pace.
At the back, Sol Campbell was a beast of a defender, alongside the much smaller, yet no less aggressive and nippy, Kolo Toure.
The spine of Wenger’s team had to be physical as well as capable of playing with the ball.
His latter signings also carried this kind of physicality.
In fact, the idea that Wenger loved to fill his squad with diminutive, technical players became something of a myth. There’s nothing diminutive about the likes of Granit Xhaka or Sead Kolasinac. Meanwhile, the highly public chase of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy was a clear acknowledgement that Wenger would be prepared to compromise technique and link-up play for sheer pace and predatory instinct if it meant giving his team an extra dimension up front.
We can find evidence of this type of thinking back in 2014.
Wenger’s insight about the state of centre forwards in Europe was very revealing. Back then, he claimed that Europe aren’t producing good strikers anymore, while South America were regularly developing “killers” in front of goal.
“If you look across Europe and the world of football, then South America is the only continent to develop strikers today,” Wenger said. “If you look across Europe where are the strikers from? You will see that many of them – at least 80 per cent – come from South America.
“So we have to question ourselves: what can we add to our academies to develop strikers again? If you look at the 60s, 70s in England, even when I arrived in 1996, in every club you had strikers and I mean strikers – those who could head the ball. We have less now. In Germany they went to the World Cup with Klose, who is 35.
“Maybe in our history street football has gone. In street football when you are 10 years old, you play with 15-year-olds so you have to be shrewd, you have to show that you are good, you have to fight, win impossible balls.
“When it is all a bit more formulated then it is developing your individual skill, your fighting attitude less. We have lost a little bit of that in football.”
This could be the reason why he wanted Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal. The Chilean isn’t known for his ability to take care of the ball. His risk-taking style was something of an antithesis to Wenger’s desire for his side to keep possession. Yet, there’s no doubting what a success he was in the Arsenal team.
In front of goal, he had that killer-instinct and hunger that most South American forwards possess.
What’s more, the signing of Alexis Sanchez happened a year after the controversial pursuit of Luis Suarez. Then at Liverpool, Suarez was the complete centre forward. The Uruguayan was predatory, unpredictable and creative, capable of providing ruthless finishing and adding x-factor to any attack. At Arsenal, he would have been afforded absolute freedom, much like Alexis Sanchez was.
But that’s not the only thing he admired.
Turn it forward
As much as Wenger is a keen admirer of South American forwards, he is also highly appreciative of players who can, in his words, “turn the play forward”.
It was this attribute that made Tomas Rosicky such a valued player despite his injuries, and what made Alex Iwobi a favourite of his. Speaking of the Nigerian, Wenger said: “I think he’s a kind of player who has a good availability
“He helps you a lot to get out of pressure when you are in a build-up game and creates spaces.
“I like the fact that he can play in tight areas, that he turns the game forwards, that he’s very mobile.”
While the likes of Iwobi and Rosicky struggled to be consistently productive in the Arsenal team, their presence helped the team’s play run smoothly. They were a necessary counter-balance to the risk-takers in the side, so that Arsenal weren’t always wasteful in possession.
Dogmatic as Wenger seemed at times, he was aware of the need for variety in his team.
In wide positions, he favoured pace, explosiveness and unpredictability. Theo Walcott was his first-choice winger for some time, as his pace and running in behind gave Arsenal someone who could attack the space the creative players often made.
Danny Welbeck performed a similar role on the other flank when he wasn’t injured.
Gervinho, a signing from Lille in 2011, was intended to add that extra dimension to Arsenal’s attack with his trickery and direct running. The same year saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also arrive. The common theme amongst these players was pace.
Going back a few more years, we can see that Wenger also appreciated wide players capable of scoring.
Marc Overmars played this role for Wenger in the early 90s, before Robert Pires arrived. Sylvain Wiltord was another pacey winger who could find the back of the net. Even the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Andriy Arshavin and Lukas Podolski, normally central players, were moved out wide to provide that goal threat.
But is there one universal trait he looked for?
If there’s one trait that was universal in Wenger’s teams, it’s good decision making.
He liked his players to be able to make decisions for themselves out on the pitch. At times, that seemed as if the players were being told to go out and do whatever they want.
However, this more off-the-cuff approach to football is what made Arsenal’s attacking play so unpredictable and dangerous.
This emphasis on independent thinking can quickly sort out the high-quality players from the erratic ones, and not every signing Wenger made was able to adapt.
Gervinho, for example, had technical quality and excellent off the ball movement, but was unable to make use of the freedom he was granted.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was similar. Six years at the club wasn’t enough for him to learn how to make the correct choice in the final third, nor come to grips with how to be an effective attacker for the team.
This is, perhaps, what Wenger meant when he said he was searching for the “right” player for his team.
No matter what position he was looking to strengthen or what type of player he was after, he wanted intelligent, independent footballers who could thrive with very little instruction.
Finding those players can be difficult, not least because most of them already play for top clubs and aren’t easy to prise away.
It could be why Wenger’s transfer policy became more generic in his last few seasons.
Far from buying players to fit into a specific style of play and carry out specific duties, Wenger was looking to sign players any way he could.
There was much confusion when Xhaka arrived for £34m from Borussia Monchengladbach with a reputation as a deep lying midfielder, only for Wenger to describe him as a box-to-box player and not use him during his first couple of months at the club.
Xhaka had the technical qualities to play in a Wenger team, but doesn’t possess the agility or quick feet typically associated with a “Wenger” player.
Wenger has also gone on record about players he has failed to sign, such as N’Golo Kante and Antoine Griezmann.
The two barely resemble each other on the pitch, but are top players in their respective positions. Rather than sift through players with a fine comb to find the ones that meet his specific requirements, Wenger wanted the best he could get – for the right price, of course.
That was another policy that changed towards the end.
Value for money was always high on the list of priorities during Arsenal’s period of austerity. However, once the shackles were removed, cost was barely a factor.
Wenger often said that he wasn’t afraid to spend huge amounts of money on the right player if one came along. For the longest time, that line was just another tick on the transfer bingo card.
His last signings, though, suggested that Wenger was starting to put his money where his mouth was.
Lacazette cost Arsenal £52m in what was, by modern market standards, a bargain price for such a high-quality striker and he wasn’t even the most expensive player we bought that season.
Before Lacazette arrived, Arsenal bid £87m for teenage sensation, Kylian Mbappe. At the very end of that window, £92m was bid in a last-ditch effort to sign Thomas Lemar.
As much as these figures reflect the state of the transfer market, they also tell us that the days of foraging around Europe for value attacking midfielders were over under Wenger. Arsenal were no longer looking for bargain players that nobody else would take a chance on.
What type of players Mikel Arteta opts for and what traits he values are still a mystery to us all. Signing the “right” player will still be a priority for the club.
But after 22 years, we can no longer say what sort of player that will be.
The only thing we can say for sure about any potential new arrivals is that they will be smart and adaptable players. Whether they’re small midfield players, pacey wingers, ruthless forwards or midfield destroyers, we just don’t know…
Isn’t that a little exciting?