It has been twelve seasons since Arsenal won the league, a period in which Arsene Wenger has received all sorts of criticism, some fair, some harsh. The intervening years have seen accusations of being a miser, tactical naivety, tactical incapacity, tactical obduracy, being too loyal to players, not being loyal enough, ignoring British talent, having too many inadequate British players, etc.

The allegations vary in their validity. At times his sides have been tactically naive, during the 2013-14 season for example, the team received a series of away drubbings due to an overexcited, indisciplined attacking setup. On the other hand, charging Wenger as cheap or a money hoarder has always struck me as slightly off point. Between 2006 and 2013, the move to the Emirates necessitated frugality, and Wenger’s role in maintaining a competitive side and Champions League football should never be underestimated. Subsequent years have proven that, when funds are available and, crucially, the right target is approachable, the manager will spend.

The criticisms mentioned have all been examined substantially in the media, and there is little point expanding on them all. I have noticed, however, a further claim emerging more frequently, particularly over the past few months. Wenger’s teams continue to frustrate many fans and pundits alike, perhaps even more so considering this squad is the most complete and talented in years. Mesut Ozil, Arsenal’s record signing and creative hub, continues to divide opinion. Last summer, Stan Collymore, attempting controversy as usual, insisted Ozil and Alexis Sanchez were not good enough.

The criticism currently in vogue, often stemming from theories on Ozil’s progress, is that Wenger does not improve players. I encountered this charge most recently in this week’s episode of The Football Ramble, one of England’s most popular football podcasts. As a fairly neutral Arsenal fan, neither Wenger Out nor Arsene Knows Best, I feel a certain duty to correct what I perceive to be a rather scurrilous suggestion. Criticism, after all, is best when it’s true.

For balance, it is necessary to point out that, of course, there are many players who have not made the cut at Arsenal, for a variety of reasons. Evidently, Wenger could have done more with some, and showed too much faith to others. Many young players in recent years, whose careers one can reasonably expect to progress year on year, the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Keiran Gibbs, Theo Walcott and Wojciech Szczesny have all experienced setbacks, despite their undoubted talent. This, however, is natural, and all players go through similar periods.

Additionally, in the late 2000s, Wenger failed to turn a talented group into world-class players. Denilson, Nicklas Bendtner, Johan Djourou, Carlos Vela and Alex Song were all lauded as potential Arsenal legends before their careers veered off target. Other, older arrivals, players reaching or in their peaks and expected to immediately shine, failed to live up to their billing. To this group we can add the likes of Gervinho, Lukas Podolski, Marouane Chamakh, Mathieu Debuchy, André Santos, Andrei Arshavin and Sebastien Squillaci. Again, this is normal. Every Sir Alex has his Djemba-Djemba; Mourinho his Kezman. 

Yet to insist that Wenger doesn’t improve players, excluding youngsters, is somewhat off the mark. Wenger’s two great Arsenal sides, the league winners of 1998 and 2004, the fantastic 2002 was somewhat of a combination of the two, were built primarily on the improvement of established professionals. It is well known that Wenger’s arrival, with the introduction of modern techniques, extended the careers of the famous defence, plus midfielders like Ray Parlour, who credited the Frenchman with improving him as a player. In 2004 Arsenal won the league, undefeated, with a defence consisting of Lauren, Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell, and Ashley Cole, all of whom can thank their manager for their improvement (and some successful position changes).

As the allegations mostly cite Wenger’s modern sides, I would like to point out a number of post-2010 players who have improved since arriving in North London.

Olivier Giroud

Olivier Giroud joined Arsenal in 2012, as a 25-year old of modest professional success. In the previous season, Giroud finished as Ligue 1’s top scorer in Montpellier’s astonishing title-winning season. The victory came before PSG’s dominance of French football, and it was only Giroud’s second season in the French top flight. Essentially, he was the French Jamie Vardy. Furthermore, Giroud had only made a handful of international appearances, scoring one goal.

Four years later, Giroud was France’s starting centre forward in Euro 2016, scoring twice and doing the dirty work to facilitate Antoine Griezmann; he now has 21 goals in 59 appearances, many as a substitute, for the national side.

Evidently, Giroud has grown substantially as a player in the past five years. 2015-16 was his best goalscoring season in an Arsenal shirt, with 24 goals in all competitions at a rate of a goal every 2.2 games, despite a dreadful barren run in early 2016. Giroud has 91 goals in 206 games for Arsenal, a goal every 2.3 games, while his selfless work for the team is often overlooked. Wenger, however, does not underestimate his compatriot. In 2012, the manager spoke of his excitement at the signing of Giroud, a player who could add “an additional dimension to out attacking options”. Overall, Giroud has not let his boss down, and has just signed a new long-term contract with Arsenal.

Laurent Koscielny

Another to have recently signed a new deal with the club. Before joining Arsenal in 2010 as a somewhat awkward 24-year old, Koscielny had played a single season in France’s top flight with Lorient. As of January 2017, the Frenchman has captained Arsenal, made at least 30 appearances in all but two seasons, shone for his country at Euro 2016 and won 42 international caps. Koscielny is finally getting the recognition his performances deserve.

It hasn’t been plain sailing, however. In 2010, Koscielny was sent off on his debut at Anfield, while his error in that season’s League Cup final handed the trophy to Birmingham. In August 2011, he was part of the infamous 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, and initially he displayed a worrying tendency to give away penalties (only partially overcome).

Yet Koscielny has emerged into a talisman. A leader on the pitch, albeit a quiet one, who scores crucial goals, twice helping us to secure Champions League qualification, scoring the second in a 2-0 victory at Bayern Munich that tied the match on aggregate, and a League Cup semi-final header against Ipswich in 2011 that sent the Emirates into raptures.

More importantly for a defender, he has become crucial to Arsenal’s fortunes. Both Gabriel and Shkodran Mustafi are far better players with Koscielny to the left of them.

Santi Cazorla

Santi Cazorla was already a regular Spanish international, no mean feat for a central midfielder, when he joined Arsenal from Malaga in 2012. He had never, however, played for a club the size of Arsenal, with a huge fanbase and even bigger expectations. At 27, it was his last chance, and since 2012 the diminutive Spaniard has arguably become Arsenal’s most important player.

In early 2015, Wenger switched Cazorla’s role from a talented, if slightly out of place, winger into a world-class deep-lying playmaker. His goal output declined drastically, yet his centrality to the side increased. Since his position change, Arsenal have won 65.5% of the games in which he’s featured, yet only 38.9% of those he has missed.

Blessed with lightning footwork and an eye for a pass, Cazorla is incredibly efficient at relieving pressure from defence and turning it into an attack. Where other midfielders might clear it, or pass back to defence, Cazorla will turn his marker and quickly release Ozil, Alexis or Walcott ahead of him with a direct pass.

Cazorla makes everyone on the pitch a better player, and Wenger deserves praise for his handling of the player.

Alexis Sanchez

Alexis arrived as an explosive, energetic, big-name signing, a signing to excite the supporters after a successful World Cup in Brazil. He was also a frustrated figure, not appreciated at Barcelona, not given a starring role. Of course, with Neymar and Lionel Messi in the same side, it was always going to be difficult to be top dog.

In the ensuing two-and-a-half seasons at Arsenal, Alexis has already scored more goals than at Barca, at a rate of one every 2.1 games compared with one in three in Spain (and one every 5.3 in Italy). In these years, he has won an FA Cup and led his country to two Copa Americas, now just two goals off Chile’s all-time goalscoring record.

The Chilean is a firm fan favourite, always giving 100% on the pitch and extremely efficient, both in scoring and assisting. Wenger’s tactical shift, opting to use Alexis as a false 9 rather than a winger, has greatly benefitted the forward and the team overall. With 13 goals already this campaign, one every 1.5 games, he is only one behind Diego Costa, a more traditional centre forward. His assist tally has also increased, and he is www.whoscored.com’s second best passer of 2016-17.

Evidently, Alexis has improved as a player since joining Arsenal in 2014.

Mesut Ozil

Unbelievably, Mesut Ozil has received far more criticism than praise during his time at Arsenal, despite proving time and again his quality and importance to the side. Famously, the Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton described him as “nicking a living”, and Michael Owen insisted that Raheem Stirling was the superior of the two.

Ozil was a star before joining Arsenal in 2013. He had played for Real Madrid for three seasons, assisting Cristiano Ronaldo on countless occasions and helping the side win the title in 2012. In 2010-11, Ozil made 23 assists, more than last season’s 20 for Arsenal (although his 19 league assists in 2015-16 eclipsed his 17 league assists in 2010-11).

Since joining Arsenal, as the first superstar signing in over a decade, Ozil has scored at a superior rate than in Madrid, 29 in 140 for Arsenal compared with 27 in 159 for Real Madrid. Playing with an inferior squad in a tougher league, he has won two FA Cups, while internationally he boasts a World Cup and has been named German player of the year twice.

Mesut Ozil is the archetypal modern player, in the sense that reactions to him are extreme, myopic, and often wholly unbalanced. The fickle nature of modern football support is expressed in comment on the German. When he does something good, he is superb, when he does something bad, he is terrible, a waste of money, not world class.

The fact is that Ozil is a supremely gifted player, blessed with unparalleled technique and vision. He is by no means lazy, but he is not the complete player. When Paul Merson scalded Ozil for his poor defending in the defeat to Everton, he missed the more important point, that of why Ozil was marking one of Everton’s best headers in the first place.

Ozil has grown into a crucial member for Arsenal, and long may he continue to bring moments like this.

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