If it remains so confusing why Arsene Wenger did not sign a proper goalscorer this summer, there’s one story that indicates he still really knows what actually produces a proper goalscorer. It makes Arsenal’s struggles in the position all the more confounding.
Early on in Olivier Giroud’s time at the club, the French manager noticed something about the forward. Rather than place his finishes, the former Montpellier striker tended to power them.
So, at London Colney one day, Wenger called Giroud over and gave him a little instruction. He pointed out that, when you watch all the great goalscorers like Thierry Henry, they very rarely blast their efforts. They place them, Wenger enthused, with a composure that comes after hours of honing.
It should barely need to be pointed out this is exactly the type of finish Anthony Martial already seems to have mastered at a mere 19 years of age. Three of his four goals for Manchester United have displayed this dead-eyed ruthlessness, and it is what Arsenal must stop today at the Emirates. The bigger question is why they’re not starting Martial, or at least someone like him.
The young French striker’s sensational early United form has been another cudgel with which to beat Wenger, especially given everything Martial represents and the past players he resembles, but there are a few very relevant issues it throws up beyond the obvious.
For one, the 19-year-old used to be exactly the kind of young forward signing that Wenger once made one of his unique selling points. Two, Martial shows there is more in the general market than the genuine thoroughbreds like Karim Benzema that Wenger was apparently insistent on exclusively signing. Three, it’s quite a while since the Arsenal manager either developed or bought a big-game big goalscorer.
The manager whose teams used to be defined by sleek strikers has struck out.
It is over three years since any Arsenal player hit more than 16 goals in the league and that in a period when every champion has had at least one player reaching 20. In 35 matches in that time against England’s other Champions League qualifiers or elite Champions League teams, meanwhile, their top scorer is Giroud with eight but four of those goals were meaningless efforts after a tie or match was already lost. Only one of those strikes from the 29-year-old was a proper key goal at a crucial stage of a game, and that was Arenal’s second in the 2-2 draw away to Liverpool last December. There’s no more training that can move Giroud onto the level that the side need.
That isn’t what Arsenal had grown accustomed to. In that regard, a distinctive line ended with the 2012 sale of Van Persie to today’s opponents United, and it goes right back to Wenger’s first months at the club. The Arsenal manager signed Nicolas Anelka as a mere 17-year-old in February 1997, recognising the raw talent that saw Real Madrid buy the youngster for big money in the summer of 1999. Wenger responded to that by immediately bringing in a 21-year-old Henry, then a misfiring winger. By the time he had left for Barcelona in 2007 as Arsenal’s record goalscorer, 2004 signing Van Persie was almost ready to take his place as the focal forward.
There’s a common strand to these players beyond the fact Wenger bought them before the age of 22 and that they were Premier League golden-boot winners by 31. None necessarily started their careers as prolific scorers and all could roam all over the front line. It is why Wenger’s comments about Martial being “more of a winger than a striker” are so eyebrow-raising.
This is the talent he used to be able to identify and then transform, and makes the recent lack of an elite scorer all the more pronounced. Somewhat ironically, if someway justifiably, Wenger has put the lack of strikers down to the midfield-oriented modern European youth coaching. His comments on how only South America produces battle-ready number-nines have been well repeated, but there are a few other points worth bearing there.
Wenger was asked on Friday whether he has ever done a deal with agent Jorge Mendes.
“Nearly,” the Arsenal manager said. “It was [Cristiano] Ronaldo. Since then, never. He goes to different directions, you know, special clubs.”
This is key because Mendes has such a dominance over the South American market, and is also adept at spotting those young forwards from there. Sources who know the Arsenal boss also state he has suffered from the decline of French domestic football, which was always the market he knew best. He’s lost a distinctive advantage there, although there are still questions why he didn’t act earlier in some cases there. He has admitted to being “surprised” that a cash-strapped Lyon sold their youth jewel Martial to Monaco for just £5m in 2013.
Now, Wenger argues they can compensate with goals coming from other areas, and how mature wide players like Theo Walcott and the otherwise brilliant Alexis Sanchez can fill in up front. It used to be so different. Those wide players didn’t fill in. They grew in to the position.
It is one big reason why this Arsenal have not yet grown as a team.