Arsene Wenger has his faults. No manager divides opinion amongst his own club’s fans quite like the Frenchman does.
Some argue that he hasn’t moved with the times, that he has too much faith in players that constantly let him down. A regular accusation is that he doesn’t react to obvious weaknesses in his team. For a long time, it was felt that they were short defensively. Then a holding midfield player was needed, somebody who could add some devilment. This season, there was a very real need for a proven goalscorer. In each predicament, Wenger put his trust in those already at the club.
The counter-argument is that he has steered the club through some choppy waters; keeping the club in the top four year after year despite losing a number of top players to pay for a new stadium.
Whatever his faults, and whichever side of the divide you stand, you can’t say that he doesn’t have a great relationship with his players.
A number of big names have demanded a move over the years, but always in the name of progress or trophies. Never because their relationship with the manager was at breaking point.
Even in their darkest moments, the players rally behind their manager. Nobody has ever felt that Wenger has ‘lost the dressing room’. Not when they lost in the final moments of the 2011 Carling Cup Final. Nor when they threw numerous title challenges away over the 12 years since their last win.
Wenger cultivates a great working environment. An atmosphere of appreciation and understanding. A bubble. Somewhere you can express yourself, make mistakes and not get an earful.
It is under this bubble, this comfort blanket, that some of England’s best young talents (or in some cases, formerly young talents) reside.
Theo Walcott has spent more than a decade in Wenger’s warm embrace. Two World Cups have been and gone since he was offered, at just 17, a place in Sven Goran Eriksson’s squad for the 2006 tournament. Merely a spectator that year, not picked in 2010 and injured in 2014, he is still to play a single minute of World Cup football. His European Championship record isn’t much better. In Euro 2012, he would make an appearance as a second half sub in all four of England’s games.
Having not being picked – and never really being in contention – for this year’s squad, there is a good chance that Walcott will finish his career without ever starting a game for England at a major tournament. A far cry from the prodigy who was deemed the future of the English game just ten years ago.
Kieran Gibbs is another Englishman that has been at Arsenal for over a decade, making his first team debut back in 2007. In the intervening years, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Calum Chambers have been added to the ranks of English players at Arsenal. And they are all, along with Walcott, in the ‘comfy club’.
At no point in their time at Arsenal, have any of the four really held down a first team place. Certainly not on a consistent basis. Injuries have been an issue for all of them, but far too often they have just been happy to sit on the bench and do their bit when called upon.
I don’t remember any of them ever issuing a ‘play me or sell me’ ultimatum. Could you imagine Alexis Sanchez happily warming the bench each week?
In terms of fulfilment, all four may be happy to draw their salary and play a reduced part. They’re at a big club, playing under a manager they like.
But for a team that always falls apart when the pressure intensifies, this attitude should come into stark focus.
Where is the ambition for these players? Where is the need to achieve goals, as part of a team and personally?
As full-back Gibbs was coming through at Arsenal, Ryan Bertrand was emerging in the same position at Chelsea. Having seen his opportunities remain limited at Stamford Bridge, last year Bertrand – following a loan spell the previous season – joined Southampton. He played 44 times for the Saints in this campaign (a third of Gibbs’ total career appearances) and joins up with Roy Hodgson’s Euro’s squad next week. Gibbs was probably behind even Leighton Baines in Hodgson’s thinking.
Theo Walcott should be at his peak right now, yet he was closer to being a first choice player five, six, seven years ago than he is at this moment.
Injuries to Daniel Sturridge, Marcus Rashford AND Jermain Defoe were probably the only way Walcott would have been on his way to France.
Walcott, Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain have stagnated at Arsenal. Chambers could allow himself to go the same way.
For Walcott and Gibbs, it is reaching terminal hour. The point where their careers are no longer salvageable.
There are rumours that this summer may finally be the one where Walcott cuts the cord and tries to make it elsewhere, even if it is at a club of a lower stature.
But does he dare come out from under the comfort blanket?
If he does make the move to a West Ham or a Leicester, or even back to Southampton, the other three would do well to follow his lead.
For Arsenal’s sake as much as their own.