By Chris Jenkins (@ByChrisJenkins)
During my seven years as a sportswriter covering the Green Bay Packers, one of the most frustrating – and, in an odd way, most entertaining — days of the year was the news conference that Packers general manager Ted Thompson held a few days before the NFL’s college draft.
Thompson, a former linebacker for the Houston Oilers who made talent evaluation his passion after his playing career was over, is one of the brightest minds in his profession. But you wouldn’t necessarily think that if you based your opinion mainly on what he says in public. Or, rather, what he doesn’t say.
Thompson seems somewhat shy to begin with, a man who doesn’t really feel at home in front of cameras and microphones. Add in the staggering level of paranoia that exists across the NFL, making coaches and executives terrified to give up the slightest detail that could tip their hand and give a rival team an advantage, and you’re left with a recipe for less-than-productive news conferences.
So ask Thompson what he thinks about a particular college player who’s available in the draft, and he’s likely to mutter something along the lines of, “Well, we like ‘em all.” Next question?
Frustrating at first, it actually became a little more entertaining every year, as Thompson started to make self-deprecating jokes about just how little information he was willing to share.
Which brings us to another top sports talent evaluator who shouldn’t always be judged by his head-scratching public comments: Arsene Wenger.
Instead of clamming up like Thompson, the Arsenal boss has a tendency to make confusing and occasionally contradictory statements to the media. And his comments on Arsenal’s potential activity in the January transfer window has featured some of his best head-scratching material yet.
One day, he says he expects to bring in several players before the end of the month. The next, he’s saying that this year’s squad is the most complete he ever has had, seemingly implying that he doesn’t need any signings at all.
Then there was his extensive interview with Al-Jazeera last week, where he says Arsenal is in position to “spend big” now that its has gotten through some of the financial pain it took to build its new stadium.
So, which is it?
Nobody knows. And, presumably, that’s exactly the point.
Wenger’s mixed messages might frustrate fans – especially now, after a generally miserable week that included losses to City and Chelsea. When Wenger uses public interviews as a chance to rebut suggestions that his team is in trouble and desperately needs a talent infusion, he might come off as stubborn and out of touch.
But here’s guessing that Arsenal supporters are not the main audience he’s trying to reach with his statements. Instead, it seems more likely that he’s subtly trying to get the attention of agents and other teams, in an attempt to drive down the price – both transfer fees and wages — on any of the players he is interested in signing.
It might be cathartic for fans to hear Wenger say what he really thinks, taking players to task for a clueless and lifeless first-half performances against City and Chelsea. He could rant and rave, demanding better performances from his players and threatening that new players will be brought in if they don’t improve.
It also would be bad for business. If Wenger suddenly sounded desperate, he’d lose leverage in whatever negotiations are going on behind the scenes. Emboldened rival clubs would increase their transfer fee demands, and the same thing would happen with agents and player wage demands.
So be angry or frustrated with Wenger if you must; absorbing that criticism without rebuttal actually seems to be part of his negotiating strategy. If he really is fretting that he just doesn’t have enough good players, he probably won’t say so – but he might show you through his actions.
If Arsenal brings in a few new players by the end of next week, that will be a stronger statement than anything Wenger might say in front of a microphone.