This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
It is a cold January night in London and the two sides are tied at 0-0. Some twenty-five yards out and slightly to the right of centre, the ball reaches Shaun Wright-Phillips. The winger, seeing his chance, advances onto it and arrows a splendidly struck effort across the keeper and into the far corner of the net. Pandemonium erupts in one section of the stadium as the ecstatic travelling supporters celebrate their side’s unlikely lead. The home fans, by contrast, sit in stunned silence. Deep down, each of them knows that it just had to be Shaun Wright-Phillips.
The ground is not Stamford Bridge in 2013, but Highbury in 2005: Wright-Phillips wears the sky blue of Manchester City and his scorcher has put his side ahead at the home of Arsenal, the Premier League champions. The goal serves not as a reminder that he does in fact exist, but instead as the latest proof that he is certain for things greater than the mid-table mediocrity on offer at Eastlands. The reason so many home fans felt so sure he was destined to open the scoring was not that he had failed so miserably with their club, but rather that he was soon to succeed so spectacularly with it.
Fast forward eight years and Wright-Phillips’ dream move to Arsenal is a long-forgotten pipe dream. He is in and out of the Queens Park Rangers first team, challenging not for honours domestic and continental but instead embroiled in a chaotic and often farcical relegation battle. The Hoops’ winner at Stamford Bridge is his first league goal in two and a half years.
Looking back, the former England winger never came close to hitting the heights of his first spell with Manchester City. Like many of his contemporaries, he prioritised a lucrative contract at a big club over his professional development and, in doing so, sabotaged his own career.
Wright-Phillips was undoubtedly the star of City’s 2004-05 season. His record of eleven goals in thirty-seven games for a middling side made him a favourite among supporters and saw him become the number one transfer target for clubs closer to the top of the table.
In particular, Arsenal fans were desperate to see him sign for their club: as the adopted son of Highbury legend Ian Wright, signing him was important not only because he was the league’s in-form player but because in doing so he could add to his father’s legacy.
Of course, Wright-Phillips rejected the advances of the North London side and accepted the colossal sums of money on offer at Chelsea, where it all seemed to go south very quickly. There are several reasons why the move to Stamford Bridge was the wrong one; chief among them is the ideology of the Blues’ then manager, José Mourinho.
Due to his intense focus on the here-and-now, the Special One has never been a manager given to developing talent. With emphatically positive results demanded immediately, he selects players who can do a job on the day rather than those who need time to learn the ropes. Presented with an undoubtedly talented but nonetheless raw winger, the unimpressed Portuguese more often than not named Wright-Phillips on the bench and focused on getting the best out of established stars.
When Mourinho departed, his successors continued to marginalise the Englishman. As time passed, the fans’ agitation with the basic flaws in his game began to grow: he had been forgiven the occasional aberration as a youngster learning his trade at City, but as a £21m marquee signing he was afforded no margin for error. With post-Mourinho Chelsea in turmoil, it seemed that no manager had either the time or the willingness to take Wright-Phillips aside on the training ground and teach him how to improve. After three unhappy seasons in West London, the winger returned to Eastlands.
His homecoming was supposed to re-invigorate his career, but as City’s aspirations grew ever loftier, he soon found himself again deemed surplus to requirements and quietly phased out. Had he signed for Arsenal instead of Chelsea, things would surely have been different.
For a start, Arsène Wenger’s record developing talent suggests that he would have made a better fist of improving Wright-Phillips than a succession of managers at Chelsea did. Arsenal were still a force in 2005 and he would have moved to an environment equally full of high-quality players but one with a greater emphasis on education.
While Mourinho’s training sessions tend to be based on match-specific situations or upcoming opponents, Wenger prefers to work on making his players fundamentally better at football. This does, on occasion, leave the Gunners looking tactically naïve but generally accounts for the technical quality of their play.
This is relevant because Wright-Phillips’ flaws are mostly technical. While his awareness and decision-making have always been the most obviously flawed aspects of his play, he is a surprisingly poor dribbler for a player who has spent his entire career as a winger. Aside from his talent for long-range shooting, his technique when striking a ball has always been below average, leading him to shank many a cross into Row Z over the years. At Arsenal, Wright-Phillips would surely have corrected these defects – or, at least, have learned to compensate for them.
He would certainly have arrived at the right time, with Highbury legends Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pirès coming to the end of their Arsenal careers. Both would have aided Wright-Phillips in his development while their foreseeable departures would have freed up a regular starting spot in the first team. Additionally, due to his father’s history with the club, Wright-Phillips would have had a great deal more support from the fans than he had at Chelsea.
Tactically, he would have been a welcome addition to Arsenal’s sides from 2005 onwards, providing an excellent outlet for their famously possession-hogging midfield. He would have helped particularly when Wenger’s preferred trio was Mathieu Flamini, Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fàbregas, adding a directness and change of gear that the team of that era typically lacked.
The knock-on effects of Wright-Phillips signing for Arsenal would have been wide-ranging. While it is going too far to suggest that he would single-handedly have prevented the Gunners’ fall from grace, he would certainly have become a superior player to the one that we see today. Theo Walcott would almost certainly never have signed for the Gunners, the wide-right position in which he began his Premier League career being filled. With greater variation in their tactics, Arsenal would likely have won a trophy in the seasons following the move and the mass exodus of quality players would never have happened.
As it is, Shaun Wright-Phillips will probably spend the first half of 2013 being relegated and the second half playing with no great distinction for another new club. Had he made the right choice in 2005, it could all have been so different.