Does Arsenal’s interest in Jamie Vardy suggest a change of approach by Arsene Wenger? It’s a signing that has echoes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to sign Robin van Persie ahead of his final season as Manchester United manager.
Sat in the Old Trafford dressing room in the week after seeing his side beat Swansea with a customary late winner, Sir Alex Ferguson had an announcement for his Manchester United players. With a 13th Premier League title secured, he would be bowing out as a winner.
Robin van Persie was among those dismayed. The player described by Ferguson as his “final major transfer buy” and the “leading light” of his last campaign at the helm had previously been told by the Scot that he had no plans to quit. But Van Persie’s very arrival was the clue.
A fee of £24m was a significant sum for a 29-year-old. The Dutchman duly delivered one more top-class season but it was enough to win Ferguson and United the title. Perhaps Arsene Wenger, the man who sold the striker, recalls the lesson.
Jamie Vardy is 29 too and not the sort of signing Wenger has favoured. Indeed, the Arsenal manager has never paid more than £10m for someone of that age. So his decision to opt for Vardy could be evidence of a change in approach; an acknowledgement that the time is now.
Wenger is in the final year of his contract with Arsenal. He is the longest-serving coach in Europe, having been in his job more than twice as long as any other professional manager in England. But at 66 there can be no guarantees of an extension.
The pressure valve was released somewhat as Arsenal edged above Tottenham on the final day of the Premier League season, securing their first second-place finish in over a decade. However, the unease among sections of the club’s support remains.
Wenger, despite his reputation for stubbornness, is not immune to the criticism. His stoicism should not be confused with indifference. Although the motivations, by his own admission, have changed over the years, he still wants to win. Perhaps now, he also needs to win.
The challenge will be tough in 2016/17. Chelsea will surely be stronger and both Manchester clubs are likely to be galvanised by high-profile new managers. Arsenal must improve and have already addressed concerns over the makeup of their midfield by signing Granit Xhaka.
But the team’s mentality remains a concern. There’s an irony in that given that Wenger is so quick to praise this quality in his own players. But in truth, he cannot fail to have recognised a winning mentality in Leicester’s team more than his own. It is likely to have troubled him.
“The only problem I’ve got with Arsene is he’s bought players of a similar mentality,” former Arsenal striker Ian Wright told CNN in April. “What you want from great players is the commitment and desire that Leicester have.
“That’s what I’d take from them. I’d take the team spirit and the desire to win.” In signing Vardy, Wenger has taken that advice literally. The forward has a habit of winning. Even before the 2015/16 heroics, he’d already won league titles with the Foxes, Fleetwood and Halifax.
Wenger will be hoping Vardy can ignite something in his squad. So much so that he’s even willing to overlook concerns that the player is ill-suited to Arsenal’s style of play. For instance, deep defences denying him space in behind are likely to be the norm.
But perhaps there too, Vardy could prompt change. That was certainly a factor in Ferguson signing Van Persie. “If we had a bad habit going into the 2012/13 season,” he explained, “it was overpassing in the middle of the pitch. Players circulating the ball to acquire a feel of it.
“With Van Persie, we learned in time, you needed to look for that early pass to split the opposition defence. Until we grasped those possibilities, we could not make the most of Robin’s marvellous mobility and killer instinct.”
A change of mentality and a change of style? That may be too much to expect from one acquisition. But in signing the top scorer of a rival, the only team to finish above Arsenal no less, Wenger is making a statement. It’s one that has echoes of Ferguson four years ago.
“I detected a few signs through the season,” said Wenger when asked about Ferguson’s retirement. “There was already one of them before the season started, that it could be his final year.” Has Wenger given such a sign too? One suspects he’d settle for the same result.