When Arsene Wenger was appointed as Arsenal manager in September 1996, his extensive knowledge of European football and its players placed him ahead of the curve. During the Premier League’s formative years, over 65 percent of those who started regularly in the division were English (incredible when you don’t consider those of a Scottish, Welsh or Irish origin), which left a virtually untouched market of footballers across the continent just waiting for a club or manager to come in for them. But despite the glamour of La Liga and the dominance of Serie A, it was little Ligue 1 that influenced most of his early success in the top flight.
Even before his tenure at Arsenal officially began, Patrick Vieira and Remi Garde, both of whom were recommended by Wenger, had joined the club. Since then he has signed over 30 players of either French nationality or directly from the teams themselves. Names including Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Robert Pires all packed their bags for Highbury during his first five years in charge, and their success made Arsenal the envy of England. Even though Wenger is widely known for his ability to turn relative unknowns into top level sportsmen, those he developed earlier on were hardly plucked from obscurity.
Petit, 26 when he arrived, had just led a dominant Monaco side to the French title. Henry and Pires arrived as World Cup and European Championship winners, while Wiltord arrived on the back of his heroic late goal in the Euro 2000 Final to guide his country to victory. Nicolas Anelka, at just 17, was probably the biggest risk when Wenger brought him to north London from Paris Saint-Germain, but despite things ending on a sour note just two-and-a-half years later, his faith in the teenager was justified after notching up nearly 30 goals and a Young Player of the Year award.
While not on a similar level to those before them, the trend of players joining from France continued with Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Alex Song, Abou Diaby, Bacary Sagna and Samir Nasri. Even though the club were not able to reap the rewards of Wenger’s sharp eye for talent, all were signed for low transfer fees in a highly competitive market and contributed to Arsenal’s difficult post-Highbury years. Since the turn of the decade however, Wenger has found it hard to replicate his impressive track record. Laurent Koscielny in 2010 and Olivier Giroud in 2012 have been the only real successes thus far, and even they took plenty of time to settle.
The likes of Sebastien Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh, Gervinho, Park Chu-young and Yaya Sanogo were all brought in over a four year period, but clearly below the standard required and left the club making very little impact. For me personally, the issue is not about who Wenger has signed, but who he hasn’t. In the past two years alone, N’Golo Kante, Ousmane Dembele, Raphael Guerreiro, Anthony Martial, Dimitri Payet and Yannick Carrasco have all left the French top flight for pastures new and succeeded elsewhere. Has the 67-year-old lost his grip on French football?
It’s not a simple yes or no answer. With scouting and analytics becoming more and more prominent in the game, every club worth their salt now knows about every player. Score a great goal in the Coupe de France? It’ll be on Twitter in seconds, agents will be on the phone and you’ll have a multi-million pound deal before you know it. That inside track, that monopoly Wenger once had is gone, and it’s no surprise that the quality of recruitment dropped significantly throughout Arsenal’s period of financial frugality. This meant losing out on Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema, and instead settling for the likes of Gervinho and Chamakh who were light years away from that level.
What is clear, however, is the resurgence of Ligue 1 after losing itself in the shadow of PSG for half a decade. Talent can be found across the division whether you’re in first place or last, and this could be the summer for Wenger to discover his magic touch once again. Thomas Lemar of Monaco, an elegant yet penetrative midfielder with a wand of a left foot, would fit in perfectly alongside Mesut Ozil and Alexis in advanced areas. Jean Michael Seri of Nice, the embodiment of perpetual motion, could offer a balance of technical quality and tenacity in midfield with Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere both absent through injury. Alexandre Lacazette has even proven again that he can be relied upon, scoring regularly for Lyon in both domestic and European competitions.
Every now and again, the Gunners boss will speak in pure adoration of a footballer. A footballer that puts a smile on his face. A footballer that will break his professional character and turn him into a fan again. That footballer is Kylian Mbappe. Desperately close to signing him last summer, it seems as if Wenger is going all out to try and get his man with talk of £100m bids being already rejected by Monaco. In truth, it’s extremely unlikely he’ll end up at the Emirates next season with most of Europe’s top clubs courting his signature, but it’s easy to forget just how much of a lure he can be for players – particularly French ones as they’ve grown up with him.
Tough times have seen him veer away from his instincts, but hopefully missing out on the Champions League will guide him back to what he knows best. His own backyard is littered with gems, and jewellery takes people’s eyes off your wrinkles.