By Husmukh Kerai
In February 2005 Arsene Wenger created a bit of unwanted English football history when he picked a 16-man Arsenal squad to take on Crystal Palace in the Premier League without a single Englishman involved.
The Frenchman was roundly castigated for his unprecedented selection. The demise of the England national team suddenly became the Gunners manager’s fault entirely.
“I don’t look at the passport of people but at the quality and attitude,” Wenger told reporters after his English-less side overcame the Eagles that night, but he did make a promise that day. The 63-year-old insisted the Gunners had contributed heavily to the national side over the years and would do so again when his talented crop of youngsters graduated from Arsenal’s academy.
Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs were two members of that promising group and they were joined by Theo Walcott the following year, who had represented the Three Lions prematurely after making the switch from Southampton in 2006.
All three of those Englishmen, all now full internationals, came off the bench against Brighton in the FA Cup on Saturday to inspire a late push for victory. Wenger’s prophecy was correct; the trio, still in their formative years as footballers, can arguably be regarded as the Gunners’ most reliable performers this season.
The future looks bright for Arsenal and indeed England after they, alongside Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, all committed their long-term futures to the club.
Their collective contract signing was presented at a time when many Gunners’ fans were clamouring for new blood at the Emirates. Frustratingly for most, it may well turn out to be Wenger’s only January business but, after the gross mishandling of player contracts at the club over the past couple of years, is that really such a bad thing?
In the end, it was the young English cavalry that got Arsenal through to the fifth round of the FA Cup, proving just how important that nucleus of locally produced talent can be over the coming years.
Wilshere, Walcott and Gibbs deserve to perform alongside players good enough – and not simply fortunate enough – to be their team-mates, but too often this season that hasn’t been the case. Their colleagues, in the main part, don’t show the same desire to win football matches, with the very unreliable defence the standout culprits.
Wenger could do with one more English Marshall at the heart of his back line to give the Gunners a solid core. They lack a vocal leader from the back; if Jack Wilshere is to captain the side in the manner of Cesc Fabregas – leading by example on the pitch – then Wenger must do his damndest to find another player cut from the same cloth as Tony Adams.
What Per Mertesacker lacks in pace and mobility he makes up for in anticipation and organisation but, while he may be Wenger’s most reliable central defender, the German doesn’t have the fiery personality to lead this Gunners side. Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny have gone backwards, if anything, seemingly trying to one-up each other this season with a series of increasingly mad decisions and rash challenges.
Wenger has only ever gone after two English centre-backs in his sixteen-plus years in north London: Matthew Upson and, rather more significantly, Sol Campbell. Campbell’s arrival at the club was a landmark deal, the like of which today would transform the mood at the Emirates, and possibly put an end to the worrying trend of lacklustre defensive performances.
Campbell famously left White Hart Lane to join Wenger’s side because he wanted to challenge for trophies. The Gunners can’t offer that anymore. This is why someone like Gary Cahill, who Wenger had tracked, eventually chose to move to Chelsea ahead of the Gunners – a decision he probably didn’t regret last May in Munich.
Elsewhere, Sir Alex Ferguson pipped Wenger to the signings of promising young centre-backs Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. While the Gunners were never favourites to sign any of the three players mentioned, you get the feeling that they could have perhaps landed one of them had they pushed the boat out a little.
Steve Bould, Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Sol Campbell. Tying Wilshere and Walcott in for the long term is a good start, but Wenger must add to that illustrious list of gritty yet classy English centre-backs if he wants to unlock the brimming potential of his English cavalry.