Arsene Wenger is a man not afraid to make bold decisions.
Selling Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid in 1999 after the young Frenchman had looked set to become an Arsenal legend was bold. But he replaced him with Thierry Henry, and his decision was vindicated.
Selling club captain Patrick Vieira in 2005 was bold. But he had Cesc Fabregas coming through, and knew he would never get a better fee for a 29 year old.
The same logic applied this summer when he decided to allow Henry to depart for Barcelona. Henry may well have been the figurehead of previous Arsenal sides, but at 29 he was arguably never going to match his frighteningly special exploits of previous seasons, and Wenger had faith that the team could cope without their captain and star player, and that some of his younger players would step up and take over the baton. (and boy have they done that).
There are other examples- converting Lauren & Kolo Toure into a full back and a centre half must be applauded. Replacing Marc Overmars with Robert Pires for a quarter of the fee was a masterstroke. Poaching Sol Campbell from North London rivals Tottenham not only solidified a creaking defence, but also managed to wind up Spurs fans as well. A double whammy. Those are big decisions, and decisions that; quite rightly, Wenger has been widely praised for.
But it is the emergence of Mathieu Flamini & Emmanuel Adebayor this season that has given a reminder, as if it were needed, that as both a coach and a manager, Wenger has few equals in the game.
In Henry’s absence last season, Gilberto Silva was the man who stepped up as the leader of the team. He assumed the captain’s armband and managed to chip in with a pretty impressive ten goals. He was certainly a contender for Arsenal’s player of the season in a difficult campaign. Yet this season he has found himself very much a backup to the superb Flamini, who has performed to such a level that his team-mates have nicknamed him “Gattuso” after the Italian World Cup winner.
Wenger waxed lyrical about his latest French star after last week’s 3-0 win over Newcastle at The Emirates, in which the 23 year old created a goal for Adebayor with a typically energetic right wing burst and cross, before grabbing the second goal himself with a strike that any of Wenger’s other success stories would have been proud of, a 30 yard howitzer that flew past Shay Given. And yet it wasn’t just these match winning contributions that caught the eye. In terms of energy, work rate, stamina and determination, both defensively and going forward, it is hard to find a central midfield player that can compare to the quiet Frenchman at this current time. The fact that most Arsenal fans do not miss a Brazilian World Cup winner and member of their famous unbeaten side of 2004, says it all.
Flamini is not just a superb player, but he has shown a strength of character that is so often lacking with young foreign players at big clubs. Indeed, just this month we saw Lassana Diarra get tired of waiting for a first team chance at Arsenal within his first four months at the club and move on to Portsmouth. The irony is that it is Flamini who was blocking his countryman’s route to the first team.
An impressive performer for Marseille in their run to the UEFA Cup final, Flamini was signed by Wenger in a somewhat controversial deal in 2004, and became something of a utility player in his early days at Highbury, operating all over the midfield and even at left back- with some distinction as well. However, with Gilberto & first Vieira, then Fabregas, ahead of him in the pecking order, his first team opportunities were limited, and more often than not he featured either as a substitute, or when the squad was hit by injuries.
A lesser character might have given up- Diarra, David Bentley, Jose Antonio Reyes all showed a reluctance to accept a bit part role with the Gunners- and decided that their future lay elsewhere. Flamini, with Wenger’s guidance, knuckled down, worked hard, trusted in his own ability and earnt the support of his manager. Support which he has repaid this season by the bucket-load.
Adebayor is a slightly different case, a more established player in Ligue Un with both Metz & AS Monaco, he was seen as a rough diamond for Wenger to shape. His style and appearance drew comparisons with Kanu (Wenger himself described him as “Kanu with pace”), and his early performances for the Gunners suggested that he may, like the Nigerian, have all the tricks in the book, yet lack the consistency to become a really top class Premiership player.
Alongside Henry, he more often than not took a backseat role, allowing the Frenchman to grab the headlines whilst his own performances were rather more low key. But in Henry’s (and Robin Van Persie’s) absence through injury last season, Wenger saw enough in the languid Togolese striker to know that he was capable of filling the void left by Arsenal’s all-time record goalscorer’s departure to Spain.
It was a big ask of Adebayor, but again, “The professor” has been proved right. Adebayor has shrugged off the lazy comparisons to Kanu, and has established himself alongside the likes of Didier Drogba as one of the best out and out centre forwards in England, if not Europe. He has netted 21 times in 30 appearances, and his ability to lead the line and offer a physical presence is something that Arsenal have not had the luxury of under Wenger.
His presence allows Arsenal to add a fresh dimension to their game, something that was relentlessly criticised in previous seasons. The desire to score “The Perfect Goal” seems to have been replaced by a more pragmatic approach, as shown by the headed goals Adebayor has picked up against Fulham & Newcastle in recent games. That isn’t to say that the aesthetic side of Arsenal’s game has suffered, and Adebayor plays a huge part in the flowing football that Wenger’s side dishes up week after week, his first touch is as good as any in the Premier League, he is blessed with fantastic pace and athleticism, and his awareness is something that is improving with every passing game. It was widely expected that Robin Van Persie would be the man to step up and be the main man at the Emirates, but with the Dutchman beset by injury it is Adebayor who has become the focal point of the side. Every side needs one, and in the current market, there are few more valuable assets around in the game.
In Flamini & Adebayor, Wenger just two more cases to add to his CV for getting the best out of players, and for knowing the right time to replace the irreplaceable. Arsenal fans would never have guessed replacing Henry & Gilberto could be done, will the same soon be said of Flamini & Adebayor? With Wenger behind them, the sky is the limit.