COMMENT: The Gunners have spent big in recent times but with their rivals possessing so much Belgian talent, has the Frenchman missed a trick?
By Richard Jolly
The Belgians are everywhere. Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois are two of Chelsea’s premier players. Vincent Kompany is Manchester City’s captain. Romelu Lukaku is Everton’s record signing and Kevin Mirallas their most exciting winger. Adnan Januzaj is Manchester United’s greatest teenage talent and Marouane Fellaini one of their most expensive signings. Jan Vertonghen is among Tottenham’s most coveted individuals and Nacer Chadli is their top scorer. Simon Mignolet is Liverpool’s goalkeeper and Divock Origi will become their centre-forward.
So they are everywhere. Except at Arsenal. Thomas Vermaelen’s summer sale to Barcelona made them the exceptions, the only Premier League powerhouse without a sole member of the Belgian golden generation. These are players whose abilities were too abundant for their homeland to contain them. Anderlecht host the Gunners with plenty of homegrown players, but none of the calibre of Kompany and Courtois. They don’t have the hallmarks of Hazard or the price tag of Lukaku. There is only Steven Defour, the national team’s great enigma, the prodigy who never realised his potential.
Which raises the question: why not Arsenal? There is a theory that some of the current crop may be too outspoken and independent-minded for Arsene Wenger’s taste, but he is no stranger to Belgium. He used to park emerging African talents at Beveren, and should still regret his decision not to recruit Yaya Toure to join brother Kolo and his fellow Ivorian Emmanuel Eboue in London.
He is the manager who is consistently ahead of the curve when buying on the continent. His squad contained Frenchmen before they won the 1998 World Cup and a Spanish playmaker, in Cesc Fabregas, long before tiki-taka brought his country European and global titles. He had bought three Germans in the days when they were serial semi-finalists and saw them became world champions as Arsenal players.
Yet it would be wrong to say he has a blind spot when it comes to Belgians. Indeed, they were a rarity at the upper end of the Premier League when Vermaelen joined in 2009. He hoped to bring in Vertonghen, too, only to rather ruin his case by telling a ball-playing defender he may have to operate in midfield. He spotted Hazard’s potential but was outbid by Chelsea who, as European champions, had rather greater pulling power.
He was linked with Fellaini, but it would have been a stylistic mismatch. The midfielder has proved too direct for United, so it is hard to imagine him towering over Arsenal’s diminutive technicians while passing in perfect harmony. Christian Benteke, too, may suit another brand of football.
And this is where Arsenal and Belgium differ most. Arguably the one flaw in the golden generation is the absence of a conductor of the orchestra, a passer in chief. In contrast, Arsenal have too many. Wenger has bought a surfeit of creators.
As ever with Arsenal, money is an issue, too. It is possible to pick a Belgium starting XI that, in their most recent permanent transfers alone, cost over €240 million. That equates to an average in excess of €22m per man.
And, in their history, Arsenal have only paid more than €22m for two players: Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. They have never gone for a goalkeeper who cost as much as Courtois, a midfield ball-winner as expensive as Witsel or a striker who commanded the sort of sum Everton paid for Lukaku. It takes plenty of gold to afford the golden generation and Wenger prefers to spend the funds he saved in his years of frugality on very different players.
It highlights the swift change in Belgian football. In 2007, these particular Red Devils were ranked 71st in the world by Fifa. Now they are fifth. For many a year, few top clubs would touch a Belgian. When Daniel van Buyten played for Manchester City, it was the underachieving mid-table club, not the ambitious champions Kompany now captains. Then Wenger, who has gone Dutch, had his Spanish spell, his German years and his never-ending French phase, was correct to bypass Belgium in favour of its neighbours. Now it is impossible to overlook them.
And one interpretation is that they have accelerated beyond Arsenal. The Gunners remain forever fourth or third, displaying a remarkable consistency. The Belgians have come from obscurity to become big-bucks challengers for the major titles. But not in the colours of Anderlecht or Arsenal.