Arsenal transfer soup: one part Mahrez and a dash of Mustafi

This is long and boring and meandering but I needed to write this. If you want to get to the juicy part, skip to the last three paragraphs.

We know that Suarez had a release clause, that Arsenal activated the release clause, that Liverpool didn’t honor the release clause, and that Liverpool then went to work on Suarez through Stevie G and others by promising Suarez a big transfer the next year (to Barcelona) if he just stuck with Liverpool one more season. According to Suarez’ autobiography, it was the back-room dealing that convinced him to stay at Liverpool and Arsenal missed out on a top forward. Liverpool also benefitted mightily as they got £85m for Suarez, rather than the £40m that Arsenal offered.

I don’t dig the Suarez story up in order to rub our noses in it but rather to just make sense of why Arsenal seem to struggle in the transfer market. And specifically, they seem to struggle signing top strikers.

Strikers are the most important part of any team. If you do any type of statistical modeling of football then you know that strikers account for a huge portion of a team’s success. Because they are so important they cost a lot and they are the most difficult players to buy.*

Arsenal have been trying to get a forward in for a number of years. There are a number of reasons why Arsenal can’t seem to get a forward in and I’m just going to list them.

There was never any real interest from the club (made up story by agent or the other club for a number of reasons).
Player doesn’t want to move (Aubameyang).
Player wants to move, team doesn’t want to move (Suarez).
Player wants to move, his agent/friends/wife/manager don’t want him to go to a specific team (Iheanacho).

Let’s first deal with this idea that the player’s people don’t want the player to join Arsenal. Ben Yedder is the latest example of a striker whose team rejected Arsenal. Ben Yedder’s manager said “He could have gone to Arsenal, who are one of the best, but Sevilla are also a big club and I think La Liga is perfect for him, because he is a technical player and very attacking.” In other words, the player didn’t want to join Arsenal, probably because the Premier League is seen as a rough league.

Another example is Kelechi Iheanacho. Arsenal were one of the suitors for his signature in 2014 but his coach says, “Arsenal were interested in Kelechi but I blocked the move, there was a problem with the agent brokering the deal.” He goes on to say that it wasn’t about money but playing time and that Iheanacho would get more playing time at City. We know that’s not true. Wenger plays the players if they are good enough, end of. So this was about the agent. As it turns out Iheanacho has two agents which further confuses the issue and is another possible reason why Arsenal backed out of the deal.

There are clearly some problems with some agents and Arsenal. These aren’t the only examples where the agent rejected a move to Arsenal; we know that Gustavo’s agent convinced the player to go to Wolfsburg and that Schneiderlin’s agents were the same guys who brokered the Gervinho deal to Arsenal and that there were a number of stories suggesting that they blocked that deal.

That said, we clearly can work with agents so, it’s not cut and dried. Arsenal signed four players last season (Cech, Elneny, Rene-Adelaide, and Bennacer) and paid £3m in agents fees. This was fourth most in the League behind Man U (£10m), Liverpool (£6.7m), and Man City (£5.9m). All total, the Premier League spent £46.6m on agents fees last season. This season, I have no doubt, what with the £20m Man U paid just for Pogba, that the agent’s fees will be through the roof. I’d be surprised if Arsenal haven’t already spent £4-5m in agents fees just to buy Xhaka, Asano, and Holding – those three have already cost Arsenal £45m and if we pay just 10% on that it’s over £4.5m in agents fees.

I digress.. But look again at the Pogba deal. There is something seriously wrong when Manchester United pay an agent fee in excess of 20% of the player’s deal. It is also vaguely unethical that the agent and the Man U manager have such a long-standing relationship and have worked out many deals in the past. Mourinho is doing his usual good job of covering up this fact by lashing out at Wenger and Klopp and saying that Arsenal and Liverpool could never get deals like the Pogba one done because they aren’t big enough clubs. But I don’t think it’s the size of the club that is the problem but rather the size of the fee that is being paid to the agent to seal the deal.

George Graham lost his job over a smaller kickback than the one Man U paid to Mineola for the privilege of signing him for millions of pounds a week. Sorry, it’s not a bribe or a kickback, it’s an “agent fee”. Who is the agent working for? Who are they representing? Are they representing the club or the player? How can they get paid by one party to represent another party in a deal between the two parties? This seems ripe for corruption.

And let’s also not pretend that these agent fees are meaningless. Yesterday East Lower retweeted a quote from an article which put the math like this: if Man U instead took the £20m they paid to Mourinho’s friend and gave every fan a price cut on tickets it would drop United’s ticket costs by £20 a match!

Man United aren’t raising ticket prices by £20 so who cares? Right? That’s just the cost of doing business these days. But if clubs are putting that money into an agent’s pocket, they can’t put that money into the team or into schemes that reduce ticket price.

These agents control these player’s lives. As I have shown you above the agents decide where these players will go. And it’s beyond problematic that United paid £20m to one agent for the right to buy one player. This should be setting off alarm bells in the footballing world but no one has seemed to bat an eye.

And… we are back on point.

Another forward who recently very publicly rejected Arsenal is Jamie Vardy. Arsenal activated his release clause, offered him a much bigger salary than he could ever get at Leicester, offered him the bigger exposure of playing for the London club (which means lucrative shoe deals and the like, a lot more money that he would ever get at Leicester), and Vardy chose to renew his contract with the Foxes, taking a substantial pay cut in the process.

Vardy was never coming to Arsenal. He loves Leicester and wanted to use the Arsenal interest to get a better deal. Why we got involved in that, I don’t know. I just remember sitting there and thinking that everything I had heard from the Guardian podcasters indicated that Vardy would never leave Leicester. That if there was any player who wasn’t going to leave this summer it would be him. Kante, they said, would be gone. Mahrez, maybe. Vardy? Absolutely not. They were pretty accurate in that assessment. 100% accurate I would say.

What deals like that Vardy one and the Suarez one do is drive Arsenal supporters nuts and push us into speculation. Some fans see failure at every turn and take every link to Arsenal as truth. So, when we don’t sign a player, it’s because we don’t try hard enough, we aren’t organized, we don’t delegate, or we don’t have a plan.

I’m not an apologist for the team but I don’t think that stuff is entirely true. I think we make mistakes, just like any other team (look at Man U over the last 4 years) and I think we have been used a few times (Suarez and Vardy) and that kinda hurts. But we have signed some players in much needed positions.

Arsenal aren’t blameless in the transfer market. We always get our man but it seems to take years. After Cesc left it took an entire year to get his replacement, Cazorla, in and that was after Chelsea scuppered our plan to take Juan Mata and Cazorla initially rejected us to go to Malaga. Wenger did do a good job of getting players in right away to replace van Persie, though the level of replacement wasn’t as good as what was sold. And Wenger has been trying to buy a player like Xhaka (a tough midfielder with gifted passing skills) for at least three years (the Gustavo deal fell through in 2013). Wenger wanted a Suarez-type all action player but also waited a year to get Alexis in to fill the role. And Wenger has now been trying to buy a striker for a number of years and has had some pretty colossal blunders along the way. I think the biggest fail was going after Suarez instead of taking Higuain. Higuain is not as good as Suarez but it was pretty clear that Suarez wasn’t really excited to join Arsenal and that his reasons for picking the Gunners were lame at best**.

Wenger and the Arsenal transfer team clearly identify players and positions that they want to bring in but then have real trouble getting them in the door. Look at the Lacazette deal: we bid, but not enough, now they want £60m and Arsenal would be smart NOT to pay that. We clearly targeted Xhaka and signed him (yay, team!). We clearly targeted Vardy and that was a mistake. We also, I think, are after Mustafi and Mahrez but those two deals are not going smoothly.

So, I’m going to end this on a hopeful note. My French is terrible so I used Google translate on L’Equipe but according to them Arsenal are going to pay €50m for Mahrez and Mahrez is going to force a move to Arsenal. Now, I say this with caution because just yesterday the Guardian reported that Mahrez has admitted defeat and is staying at Leicester. That same Guardian article also said that Leicester is going to buy Gabigol from Brazil. Gabigol (he hates that nickname, I’ve heard) is a young player who isn’t really ready for the Premier League, that’s according to the expert opinion of Tim Stillman, who has seen this kid play a lot. But why they are targeting Gabigol, who plays on the right for Santos and plays a lot like Mahrez, if they aren’t worried about selling Mahrez? They could either be adding depth and be buying the player to loan him back to Santos OR they could be lining up a replacement for Mahrez. When Ranieri was asked if Mahrez is moving (again today) and he was definitive that no bids have come in and the player will stay at Leicester. I’m currently at 30% confidence that Mahrez will be a Gooner.

The Mustafi deal is also vexing. L’Equipe reported that Mustafi’s agent said that Arsenal were in contact and a deal has been worked out. Arseblog reported that this morning. But just a few hours later, L’Equipe reported that the agent said he was misquoted and the agent has been quoted saying “There is much discussion but no agreement between Arsenal and Mustafi or between the two clubs.” Clearly he’s our target. Not so clearly, we are going to land him. Despite the guff over whether the deal is done or not, I’m giving this one a 90% chance of happening.

I have said it before. If Arsenal sign Xhaka, Mahrez, Mustafi, Holding, and Asano — which would cost the club over £100m in total — I have to think that this is the best transfer season I have seen from Arsenal since the Henry days. It’s not going to be easy. Mustafi is on his way but signing the player of the year from Leicester after their president said publicly that they aren’t going to sell, their manager said that they aren’t going to sell, signing a player who was the reason that Leicester won the League, signing a forward, from a “title rival”, is going to cost Arsenal top dollar AND everything else has to line up just right — the player has to want to go and his agents have to be sufficiently “paid” to allow the deal.


If you want to read live French updates on transfers, you can check L’Equipe.

*This is why the damn van Persie transfer was so vexing. Damn Wenger and his “values”. I wish he’d have just let that guy rot.
**Remember how much he wanted to escape England because of the press and how he thought he could “hide” at Arsenal because London is such a big city? That’s one of the dumbest lines of logic I’ve ever read.

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