Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Why Arsenal are not Barcelona

In the world of punditry Arsenal are the English Barcelona - both teams play football 'the right way' and spurn big money signings, instead building their team on home-grown talent. But look a little closer and you find that's not the case. In fact, there are three clear differences between the way the two clubs have built their teams, which might explain why the current Barcelona side are widely regarded as one of the greatest teams ever and Arsenal aren't even the best team in London.

Barca develop their own youngsters, Arsenal don't
The biggest myth of all is that both teams produce home-grown players. It's true for Barcelona.  Their recent astonishing run of recent success (and to a certain extent Spain's) has been built on a crop of players who have graduated from the club's famous La Masia youth accademy.

Seven of the starting XI which tore Real a new one in El Classico back in November graduated from the facility. Arsene Wenger is keen to re-enforce his reputation for having the same approach, especially in the face of, criticism. Earlier this season he defended his policy to the Guardian thus:

Asked if he believes his record is better than any other manager, Wenger said: "Of course. There is nobody else in the world. Take the list of the players who started here. Johan Djourou, where has he started? Here. [Philippe] Senderos, where has he started? [Gaël] Clichy, where has he started? [Kieran] Gibbs? Where has he started? [Cesc] Fábregas? Where has he started? [Alexandre] Song? Where has he started? [Abou] Diaby has basically never played before at the top level. Ashley Cole. If you go back, it is unbelievable the number of players who started at this club."
At best this was disingeneous of Wenger. Apart from Kieran Gibbs, all these players started their youth careers with other clubs before being plucked away by Wenger. Indeed Alex Song had played 32 games for Bastia in France's La Liga before he signed for Arsenal for about £1m. Likewise Abou Diaby played several times for Auxerre before he chose to chose to move to Arsenal instead of Chelsea for around £2m. Now, I have a lot of time for Wenger and his methods, but surely even he has to recognise these guys had had 'a start' elsewhere.

The £3.5m youth product

The same is true of the star youngsters Wenger signed in his early days at Arsenal. Patrick Viera played for Cannes and AC Milan before moving to Arsenal for £3.5m and Nichola Anelka was bought from Paris St Germain for £500,000. While Barcelona produce their own players from scratch, Arsenal import nearly-finished articles at a small cost and finish them off.

Barca splash the cash on stars, Arsenal don't
It's clear Wenger has an eye for a bargain, but as any fashionista will tell you, you shouldn't buy all your clothes from Primark - you need a few more pricey 'label' items to give your wardrobe real sparkle. This is something Barcelona clearly recognise. Unlike Arsenal, the Catalan club is not backwards in coming fowards with a big wedge of cash to supplement their youth products with the world's best available players.

Of the ten most expensive players of all time, Barcelona have bought two. In 2009 they bought Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan for the princely sum of 60.7m (about 40m cash plus Samuel Eto'o who himself had cost about £24m a few years previously). Things didn't quite work out the Swede, so last summer Barca sent him packing to AC Milan and replaced him with Spain's World Cup hero David Villa for 40m.  They also prised Javier Mascherano away from Liverpool for the not inconsiderable fee of £22m.

By contrast, Arsenal don't have even one of the twenty most expensive English players and have never spent more than the £13.5m they splashed out on Andrei Arshavin in 2009. In part this is due to the financial constraints imposed on the club when they moved to The Emirates Stadium, but their most recent financial results suggest that burden has been lifted and any unwillingness to spend is now down to Wenger's evangelical belief in shopping for bargains (or his stubborness).

Barca maintain a balanced squad, Arse... oh, you get the idea
Way back in the mists of time, before he started talking to himself as he wandered aimlessly around Morrisons, Alan Hansen famously said, 'you don't win anything with kids'. Astonishingly he was right, although he probably didn't realise why. The Manchester United team he was talking about on the first day of the 1995 season contained four players aged 20 or younger but significantly also four aged 30 or older. Of the other three players, two were aged 24 and one 29. In short it was an almost perfect blend of youth and experience proving that indeed, you don't win anything with kids.

Again this is something Barcelona understand. Their current side is not based on a crop of youngsters which graduated together, but players who have broken in to the first team at different times and are different ages. Carles Puyol, who is 32 years old, played his first game for the club in 1999; Xavi Hernandez (aged 31) a year earlier. Andres Inisesta although only 26 made his debut in 2002. In short, the Barcelona team has a strong bond from one generation of winners to the next.

By contrast, the current Arsenal squad has lost the vital link with the last team of winners.  Only one player who has tasted League success with the club - Clichy, who was a bit-part player for The Invincibles in the 2003/04 season - is still around today. Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were part of the FA Cup winning team in 2005 but beyond them, that's it. In fact Fabregas is the most experienced current Arsenal player with 205 appearances (while Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta all have more than that). 

Ironically, Wenger was the arch-exponent of what Barcelona have done when he first arrived at Arsenal. His initial success was built on marrying experienced winners, in particular The Gunners' notoriously parsimonious defence (the likes of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, etc) all in their early thirties with keen, talented youngsters like Anelka and  Viera.

£10m worth of nothing

He also wasn't afraid to hand out bags of cash when needed. Thierry Henry cost £10m back in 1999 when £10m bought you more than Andy Carroll's legs. A year later Wenger spent £13m on Slylvian Wiltord and a year after that another £10m left Highbury for Francis 'Fox in the Box' Jeffers (remember him? No, I thought not.) This brought Arsenal two Doubles and when Adams et al retired the likes of Viera and Henry were the experinced men leading a new set of youngsters to a third title.

As Michael Jackson might say (if he were still alive and had any interest in football) maybe Wenger needs to have a word with the man in the mirror.


Neil said...

In Arsenals defense (as this article is posted as a 2 way straight fight) Barca's kingpin and key forward Lionel Messi was 'plucked away' by Barcelona, bringing him to the city from 4000 miles away when he had only just turned 15. They did this by offering to pay for his hormone therapy (height) which was not even available in Argentina at the time, let alone affordable.

Yes Arsenal have form in spotting young talent, but I would guess any other team in Europe probably looks at their scouting system with envy (£500K for Anelka sold for £21M). Indeed NOT spending big money also means there are never any big mistakes, unlike EVERY big spending club has done in the past. Chelsea used to be the specialists here and Torres seems to be doing well keeping that reputation intact.

Roger Domeneghetti said...

You make a fair point regarding Messi, but I think there is a difference between a player, like Messi who made his debut for Barca aged 16 (having had no first-team experience elsewhere) and Alex Song who had played most of a season for Bastia.
And while Arsenal's scouting network is superb Wenger is not immune to mistakes - Jeffers being a £10m case in point.
I just think he has to spend at some point to complete the jigsaw - would signing David Villa before this season, even at £40m, have been a risk for Arsenal (or even Darren Bent for £24m)?