There was once a time when Arsene Wenger was treated like a footballing pariah, public enemy No.1, for composing a team of unbeatable world-class footballers that contained, unsurprisingly, just a handful of Englishmen.
Indeed, amid the legendary ‘Invincibles’ 2003/4 campaign that saw Arsenal undefeated for a record 49 Premier League games, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole were the only home-grown representatives to hold down regular places in the starting Xi. In 2005, Wenger became the first ever Premier League manager to name an entirely foreign match-day squad.
Accordingly, the Arsenal manager was accused of harming the national game. Some took it a step further, even claiming the Frenchman was an Anglophobic racist – the footballing equivialent of a Nazi eugenics professor.
But that was then and this is now. In 2005 the Gunners gaffer quipped; “I don’t look at the passport of people, I look at their quality and their attitude,” a mantra he surely still believes in. Yet, there has been a significant change in Arsenal’s policy towards home-grown players in recent years, and at this moment in time, no top flight manager is actively doing more to revive the health of the English game.
Not least because, from an institutional perspective, of all the clubs in England, Arsenal is one of a rare few that insists upon a technically-demanding brand of football. It hasn’t always lead to success – that Invincibles campaign proved to be the north London club’s last league title. But regardless of results or silverware, Wenger has continually championed a continental style that we now accuse our England stars of being unable to play, as if imaginative football has been drilled out of them.
Whilst the rest of the Premier League and the divisions below have become obsessed with physical prowess, Le Professeur remains a rare philosopher of aesthetic football. If England ever create a Lionel Messi, Xavi or Andres Iniesta, it will surely come from the London Colney academy, our only justifiable comparative to Barcelona’s La Masia, most likely bi-passing through the Southampton youth system.
You can argue that’s a simply a coincidental by-product – they may be based in England’s capital, but Arsenal’s technical attacking philosophy will have little impact on home-grown players if their senior and youth ranks are filled with talent from abroad.
In recent years however, Wenger has taken significant, proactive and intentional strides to assure his mission reaches young English players. First came a £10million investment in then-16 year-old Theo Walcott back in 2005. Two years later he was followed by, albeit a Welshman, Aaron Ramsey. 2010 saw the arrival of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton and Carl Jenkinson from Charlton, whilst somewhere in between, academy duo Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs forced they way into the Arsenal first team. The current window has seen Wenger’s biggest gamble on a home-grown player to date – a £16million spend on another Saints product, Calum Chambers.
The Gunners now have more Englishmen in their senior squad than Chelsea and just one less than Manchester City. But whilst the Citizens’ home-grown core is continually scraped together to comply with Champions League registration, Richard Wright, Scott Sinclair and loan signing of Frank Lampard being typical examples, and the Blues’ is persistently ageing with few replacements in sight, Arsenal’s batch of English talents are all young, still developing and expected to remain in the north London outfit’s starting XI for the best part of the next decade. In some cases even longer.
Of course, Wenger isn’t doing this out of the kindness of his own heart; what the Arsenal manager desires most is synergy between his club and the England national team, following the models of the World Cup-winning Spain and Germany sides. “I hope we have a core of English national players in the future. Spain won [the World Cup] with six from Barcelona, Germany with six from Munich. I hope England can win it with six from Arsenal,” the Frenchman told reporters last week.
But that in itself is a powerful statement of intent. Whilst Greg Dyke’s England commission take a gamble on the ‘B League’ that will completely destroy the integrity of the lower divisions, and other top flight managers blame the endless millions poured into the Premier League, as if, despite spending this money bi-annually, they are helpless to prevent in English football’s ills, Wenger is actively following a template that’s produced the world’s best footballers of the last two generations.
Not that Wenger is alone in this mission. For better or worse, following the resignation of Rafa Benitez in 2010, Liverpool have sought to readdress the home-grown balance on Merseyside. Southampton have created by far the most impressive and consistent youth set-up in the country. Manchester United have a long history of breeding and promoting England internationals and the arrival of Roberto Martinez – a manager who shares Wenger’s aesthetic ethos – can only be good news for the likes of Ross Barkley and John Stones at Everton.
Yet, there’s something more intentional about Wenger’s designs. He’s planning Arsenal’s future around six English players, in the hope that it will bring the national team a paralleled level of success to the north London club. The positive effects, in theory, will come full circle.
Far from the Francophile accused of racism less than a decade ago, Arsene Wenger’s contribution to the English game is now far exceeding that of any Premier League counterpart.