“Yes, I will be busy,” he confirmed. “I don’t feel under pressure to name names because you [the media] find them on your own.
“We have the potential to be in the Champions League with what we have. We are open to strengthening the team, but the difficulty is to find what strengthens us. [You don't always find that with] the players available on the market.
“Yes [we want players who can make an immediate impact], that is why it is so difficult as well. Man United bought Robin van Persie for £24million and he is 29 years old.
“They have scouts all over the world. They looked everywhere. Don’t think that they just came in and bought Van Persie, they looked everywhere else. But to find the quality of striker that would strengthen a top Premier League team at the moment in the world is difficult.”
“I have always said we have two targets – to get our players signed up and to get our injuries back,” Wenger said.
“We now have Rosicky and Diaby available again. If you look at our squad, it’s quite complete but we still work in the transfer market as well.
“We do not want to bring in average players. We only want to bring in an exceptional player. At the moment we have not found him.”
There is an amazing moment in the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub where Arsenal scout Giiles Grimandi reveals that Arsenal scouted Jose Antonio Reyes for two years before signing him. Going to such lengths that they even watched him during practice sessions. And as if to put a fine point on it, Grimandi admits that he also watched Bacary Sagna 30 times before recommending that Arsene make the swoop. And from what I can tell, from the day that the Nicolas Anelka Memorial Training Center at London Colney was built, until about two years ago, this was the modus operandi of Arsenal’s scouting network: don’t scout broadly, scout deeply.
Watching a player for two years is almost ethnographic research and gives us a clue as to why Arsenal are so slow to pull the trigger on players and why Arsene Wenger consistently insists that there are no top quality players available. But it wasn’t always like that with Arsenal and I don’t know if Arsenal’s scouting network is still set up the same way. At least, judging by the purchases that we have made in the last two years I find it hard to believe that Arsenal scouted Park 30 times, recommended the purchase, and then somehow the player didn’t pan out. No, I see a change in approach.
In fact, I think that there have been three distinct periods in Arsenal’s transfer and scouting activities, the Henry era, the Cesc era, and the Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain era.
When Arsene first came to Arsenal he was able to use his knowledge of the “Golden Generation” of French players and mine his connections while exploiting what was essentially a soft market to bring in players on the verge of superstardom at exceptional value. This was the Henry era.
During that Henry era Arsene Wenger didn’t need to scout a player like Thierry Henry 30 times because he’d already scouted him in 1990 when he was 13. Wenger had signed Henry to his first professional contract, knew that he won French Young Footballer of the Year in 1996, knew that he had won Ligue Un in 1997, gotten to the Champions League semi-finals in 1998 (scoring a record 7 goals), and that he had scored three goals for the 1998 World Cup winning French team. That Henry was languishing at Juventus was only down to mismanagement, if ever there was a player ready to make the breakthrough to superstar, it was Thierry Henry in 1999.
And in the same way, what I think he tried to do with his scouting network was replicate his own encyclopedic knowledge of world footballers so that future decisions on players would also be easy. That’s why they have in the past scouted deeply, rather than broadly. Arsene wanted to know everything about the player before the club buys him so that he can maximize value and minimize waste. It worked a treat for Bacary Sagna who has been a tremendous servant for Arsenal.
But there’s also a problem with scouting deeply which is magnified by the money era and the explosion of freely available player information that we have seen in the last five years. That problem is simple, if you spend 2 years scouting just a handful of players like Eden Hazard and he goes to Chelsea then you have lost out on one of just a small number of potential targets. This happened time and again in the “Cesc era.” Arsenal just kept having their targets poached away and the result was that Arsenal were either forced to rely on players that weren’t up to snuff or that Arsenal kept looking at younger and younger players to build for the future.
But since the breakup of the Cesc Arsenal team there has been a markedly different approach to transfers and I suspect to the scouting scheme. Arsenal seem to be taking a two-prong approach and focusing more deeply on young talent from all over the world but especially on British players such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson, and Chris Smalling while simultaneously scouting more broadly for older (27+) ready-made talent like Santi Cazorla, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, and Mark Schwarzer.
It looks a lot like Arsenal are no longer in the market for that 21 to 24 year old who is ready to burst onto the scene. I think they have been burned too many times by either having the transfer scuppered as with Juan Mata or having the player use Arsenal as a stepping stone to a bigger payday as with Nasri and Adebayor. In fact, the last player that Arsenal purchased in the 21-24 year old age group was Gervinho and after a year and a half at the club his career has been widely seen as something of a failure.
The new two-pronged approach makes perfect sense. Take young, local, talent and steep them in the club culture so that they will be more difficult to poach away when the Oilgarchy comes calling. Then surround those players with seasoned professionals who can help guide the young players but who will retire and clear room for growth in just a few years.
If my hypothesis is correct it would explain why Arsenal are quick to do deals for 18 year olds, slow to do deals for 27 year olds, and aren’t really in the market for 24 year olds. The 18 year olds are easier for Wenger, he feels more assured of their potential because he probably has a complete dossier on them. The 27 year olds are harder to find because by that age a player is usually quite settled. That’s why so many of Arsenal’s deals for those types of players have been under unusual circumstances: Cazorla’s club needed money, Podolski’s club was being relegated, Chamakh on a free, etc. But it’s the 21-24 year olds who everyone wants Arsenal to sign, Falcao, Cavani, Capoue, Yanga-Mbiwa because we all remember that Arsenal built champions buying exactly those kinds of players. But those are the exact players Arsenal has the most difficulty buying because those are the players that are most scouted by the competition, most coveted, and most expensive.
Arsenal under Arsene Wenger have never had a production line from academy to first team. As a result, the club’s success or failure has largely been driven by activities in the transfer market. In the early years Arsenal did well exploiting Wenger’s knowledge of world football. When that market dried up, Wenger dug deep and turned to younger players in order to build a team around Cesc Fabregas. With the breakup of that team, all in their prime, just at the point when he might have purchased them in the first era, Wenger changed tack again. This time looking for a core of young (mostly British) players whom he would surround with seasoned professionals. And that’s why the two quotes at the top of the article actually make sense.
Arsenal only seem to be looking for young players like Zaha or older players like Demba Ba. So, of course, when Wenger says that he doesn’t have any targets he means it because I don’t think Arsenal aren’t realistically in the market for middle-age players any more.