The fans are in the stands chanting, holding up signs, demanding that the manager go. The press monkeys are howling at Arsenal’s transfer dealings. Former players are asking why players don’t want to join Arsenal and are now openly questioning the boss’ managerial style and transfer history. Arsenal are beset on all sides, walled up in the castle they built for themselves.
I spent the first five years of this blog writing passionate defenses of Arsene Wenger and the Arsenal transfer policy. I was one of the very first of the “positive Gooners”: people who defended Wenger and his record. We can’t buy expensive players because we don’t have the money, I would say, Wenger is building a team instead of buying one, Wenger gives young players like Fabregas a chance, Wenger is keeping Arsenal in the top four, getting kicked out of the top four would be a relegation, the referees are biased against Arsenal, the media are biased against Arsenal, we don’t need a sugar daddy, Wenger has a grand plan, he is building the stadium for us and when it is built we will be swimming in the money.
And I am stunned at the audacity of such a plan. If I went into the offices of John Henry, you know “Mr. Sabermetrics” from Liverpool, and said “John, I’m going to build you a new 60,000 seat arena, while operating the team on a shoestring transfer budget, by mostly building up young players, and I’m going to keep the team in the top four for a decade.” He would have laughed and asked me what I was smoking.
Big clubs just don’t do what Arsenal did. They do what Liverpool has done since 2006: bought and sold hundreds of players, sacked four managers, and changed ownership, all while sitting in their antiquated stadium and talking about their grand plans to renovate or stadium share with Everton. And big clubs like Liverpool have won just one League Cup and played in the Champions League just a handful of times since 2006.
So, where does all of this Arsenal teen angst come from? Why are fans spending their time and money to take signs to the games that say “enough is enough, time to go”? They are doing this because we are not getting what we were promised. In a sense, this is the Arsenal of their own making.
What we were promised was that if we could just all stay calm during the lean years, we would have a stadium that would provide us with the financial firepower to buy the big name players. It was a simple message, something to get behind.
And we did see big name players start to come in: the day Mesut Özil signed for Arsenal was a watershed. Özil was one of the first players I had ever identified with stats as a top class player back when he was playing in the Bundesliga. When he moved to Real Madrid, I was disappointed because we didn’t have the clout and money to sign him. And when he signed for Arsenal, I was so happy that it was like someone had opened the Arc of the Covenant and melted my face off. Except.. I’m not a Nazi. I think that anology sucks but I’m keeping it there because I don’t have an editor.
And then came Alexis and Wenger also started spending bigger on component players like Chambers and Welbeck and Debuchy. Arsenal were spending the money!
But along the way, there were weird blips. The day that I realized Luis Suarez wasn’t going to come to Arsenal was a low point. When Arsenal were rebuffed by Gustavo, so he could move to Wolfsburg, left me scratching my head. And the day that the summer transfer window closed and Arsenal’s only business was to buy Petr Cech was the moment that I realized something was wrong with the promises that were made.
What happened with Arsenal’s wasn’t just one thing, it was a combination of things. The first is that the League changed radically when Man City came in. Having one sugar-daddy club plus Man U to battle is one thing, but to suddenly face two sugar-daddy clubs and Man U meant grave changes in the transfer market and in terms of player salaries.
Meanwhile, Arsenal didn’t really make it to the transfer promised land on their own. We haven’t paid off the stadium. Our new found wealth is pretty much the same new found wealth that every team in England enjoys, albeit Arsenal are richer than most and still one of the top 10 richest clubs in Europe.
But the huge revenue increases from the television contracts both domestic and foreign didn’t actually make Arsenal richer, it just seems to have further inflated transfer prices and salaries. As if to illustrate that crazy inflation Arsenal are facing, as of today Valencia are quoting £50m to Arsenal for a center back. Arsenal spent £40m three years ago on buying the best playmaker in Europe. I shudder to think what Özil would cost Arsenal now or what a striker would cost Arsenal these days.
But even to that inflation there is a catch: Arsenal have £200m in the bank. That cash reserve, £100m of which is available to spend on players, is the single largest brickbat which fans use to beat up on Arsene Wenger. It is the promised land, the mana from heaven. Even if he spends all £100m, Arsenal are in no danger of not being able to “pay our 600 employees” which was the weird excuse that Arsene himself put out there for not buying players.
So, why isn’t Arsene spending? The answer is three-fold.
The first is that Wenger is picky about players. He has a certain personality profile that he likes working with. He demands that his players give 100% on the traning ground and he demands technical excellence. He also likes his men to be clean-cut off the pitch.
Wenger is also notorious for having his own valuations of players. He put up with Bendtner when Arsenal were poor but he’s not going to pay £30m to get some party guy in the door. It’s one thing to buy Denilson for £100k and try to develop him into a defensive midfielder and a totally different thing to spend £75m on Lukaku and try to develop his touch.
Fans wonder why Walcott is still at the club but Walcott ticks all of Wenger’s boxes. He is a good guy, he works his socks off in training, he wants to improve himself, and he is probably one of the cheapest forwards Wenger could possibly buy, owning to the fact that his transfer fee was paid off a decade ago. His movement is intelligent, but his touch is frustrating and he’s never going to be a ruthless striker but in every other way he’s perfect for Arsene.
When Wenger is out looking for players, when he says that he is having a hard time finding players as he has said this week, when he says give me a list of names, this is really what he means: give me a list of names of players with exellent technical qualities, who work hard in training, keep their noses clean off the field, and who either aren’t going to cost me all of my transfer money or who are complete on the pitch. As I have said before the reason Wenger is so cautious in the market is because he is like Goldilocks and if he pays huge they have to be just perfect, like Özil and Alexis.
The third thing, however, is a little hard for Wenger and I think for the fans to swallow. Players are starting to reject Arsenal. The Gustavo rejection was the shot across the bow. A decent defensive midfielder, with an edge but who can passs the ball and is technically proficient, rejected the chance to move to Arsenal and chose instead to stay in Germany. That move can be excused by some Arsenal supporters who can say “are you 100% sure that Arsenal were in for him?”
Gustavo wasn’t alone in rejecting Arsenal. Schneiderlin turned Arsenal down. Iheanacho turned Arsenal down. And there have been a number of players whose managers or whose agents have blocked from moving to Arsenal. Of course, people will say that we can’t be 100% sure that all of that isn’t just agent talk.
Fine, then what about Vardy? There is no denying that Vardy* rejected Arsenal. Arsenal activated Vardy’s release clause and then Vardy dicked around and drew out the transfer for a few weeks and then signed a new deal with Leicester City. Leicester may be the title holders but they are a tiny club who will be back in a relegation fight before the end of Vardy’s contract, that I guarantee. This fact that Vardy rejected Arsenal prompted an apoplectic response from Thierry Henry “when Vardy turned down Arsenal, I was like… REALLY?”
We don’t know how often these rejections are happening but even one of them, and one so public, signals problems with the perception of Arsenal as a destination. Arsenal are having trouble attracting top talent. We are not seen as a club with a real chance to win the Champions League and in the absence of that type of glory the only thing that remains is paying massive salaries and fees to land the world’s best players. Arsenal are never going to be that club. So, we are not getting in the top talent unless, like Özil and Sanchez, their clubs no longer want them.
And thus, Arsenal have trouble building the squad and the fans are frustrated because we see that we have the money and yet we are not seeing the players come in. They promised us top quality players in the lean times and instead we are getting rejected by Vardy. Wenger got us to the promised land, but like Moses, I think he can take us no further.
*I will add more about Vardy in the comments.