Why have Arsenal’s Asian stars failed to shine under Arsène Wenger?

Between them, Ryo Miyaichi, Park Chu-young and Junichi Inamoto played a total of 24 league minutes in north London despite their manager’s interest in football in the Far East

Goodbye Ryo Miyaichi, we hardly knew you, at least not well enough for television commentators to learn how to pronounce your name correctly. As the young Japanese winger said sayonara to Arsenal on deadline day to join FC Twente on his fourth loan spell since signing in January 2011, it looks increasingly like he will have to put his time in north London down to experience. Too bad it is not going to be of the playing variety but he is not the only Asian player who has gone to Arsenal and virtually disappeared.

Miyaichi makes it three stars from the east who have now failed to shine for the Gunners. That does not sound much but it is a fair proportion of trade with Asia when you consider that in the Premier League, there have been only 10 Koreans, a smattering of Japanese, Chinese and Iranians as well as the odd Omani. Signings from east of London do not always work out and so those from far-east Asia can be tricky indeed. Yet Arsenal should be better than most as they have a manager with solid experience working in the world’s biggest continent. So far, though, Arsène Wenger’s record in signing Asian players is dismal.

Wenger arrived in London in 1996 after 18 successful months with Nagoya Grampus. He had, in the early days at least, a relatively fiery reputation as a coach in Japan and took a struggling team to second in the league. Few doubt that had Arsenal not come calling then he would have led the Aichi club to the Japanese title but come calling they did, and the Frenchman’s goodbye message to the Nagoya fans on the pitch was an emotional one.

He remains on good terms with the club and the Japan FA, an organisation that has asked for his opinion on national team coaches and other topics more than once over the years. It is possible, for example, that Philippe Troussier would never have taken over in 1998 to lead the Samurai Blue to the last 16 four years later without the help of his fellow Frenchman.

There are benefits to keeping in touch with Japanese football. It is, said Wenger in March, the new France in terms of talent. “I find that a new market that is very interesting and very competitive. Look at the number of Japanese players who play now in Germany, for example.” There is no doubt that there is talent out there – Yuto Nagatomo, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Atsuto Uchida, to name just a few to head west for little or no money – it is just that Wenger has not signed any of it.

No sooner had Miyaichi touched down in London in 2011 than he was being loaned to Feyenoord for work-permit purposes. The winger impressed in Rotterdam, earning the nickname “Ryodinho” in his half season by the North Sea. Returning to Arsenal, less eye-catching loans with Wigan and Bolton followed – though injuries did not help. In total, however, he has enjoyed only 17 minutes of league football with the Gunners and the feeling that it was never going to happen, despite the annual encouraging words from the manager, has been growing. A return to the Netherlands, sorted on deadline day, seems like the right move.

While Miyaichi is the latest, Junichi Inamoto was the first back in 2001. “Ina” never played a league game for Arsenal though the midfielder went on to have a reasonably good European career with West Bromwich, Fulham, Eintracht Frankfurt and Galatasaray. While he never made it at Arsenal, it is a little unfair that Inamoto is still seen in some Asian nations as the original example of a player signed for commercial reasons but his nickname at Highbury of “T-shirt” cannot have helped.

There was debate in Seoul, when Park Chu-young signed for Arsenal three years ago, as to whether he would become the South Korean Inamoto. He wishes. While he may have actually made a league appearance, just seven minutes against Manchester United, it was not anything to write home about – though with Park Ji-sung on the pitch at the same time, back in South Korea rarely can so much have been written about so little.

Now 29, the striker with an IQ of more than 150 must wonder what would have happened had he not answered that phone call from Wenger back in August 2011. Set to sign for the then French champions Lille, the Monaco striker dropped everything to Eurostar it to the Emirates and by doing so threw away what should have been the best years of his career.

Now he’s … well, nobody is really sure. After being released by Arsenal this year he has talked to clubs in Europe, Asia and north America and is still without a contract and, for various reasons, has now fallen out of favour with media and fans back home. As a free agent he can go where he wants over the next few months. If he wants, that is, as his spell at Arsenal seems to have taken all desire to play football out of him. It is hard to think of any transfer anywhere that has gone as badly.

It is not easy for any young overseas player to go to England and when the import comes from Asia, fans are quick to talk of shifting shirts and doing deals. There are, however, few commercial benefits to be had in signing but not selecting Asian players.

You can get away with it for a while, especially if they are young, but fans and media (perhaps more so in South Korea and China than Japan), become restless, then impatient and then annoyed. Reports in 2012 that after a season on the bench, Arsenal were thinking of visiting South Korea with Park Chu-young in tow were not received well.

At the time of Park’s signing, even his biggest fans doubted that he was good enough for Arsenal yet millions were spent and millions more went on not insubstantial wages. In tabloid language, Park and Inamoto are doomed to be for ever described as “flops” and despite the loan and the distant possibility of a return, will probably be joined in that club by Miyaichi. For players, it goes with the territory.

Yet little flak goes the way of a club and manager who has signed three Asian players who have contributed a combined 24 minutes of league action. Wenger has talked about how his time in Japan developed him as a coach and a person yet it does not seem to have helped him identify talent from that region capable of making it at the top of the English Premier League.

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