Sunday, December 4, 2022

Stone Cold Dead in the Market

Arsenal and the transfer market is a thorny, but absorbing subject. The manager has a reputation not so much for pinching pennies as clutching them lovingly to his bosom. It is proving difficult to shake off. Arsenal’s spending has spiked dramatically since commercial deals were renegotiated in 2013, but Wenger’s reputation for reluctance remains. Logically speaking, every single player in Arsenal’s squad was brought in by Wenger at some point, whether via a big money transfer or via the academy. He has a reputation for steadfast loyalty to players, which supposedly causes him to reject the artless void of the transfer market out of principle.

Every single player in Arsenal’s squad is there because they have either upgraded or replaced what was there before. Wenger was not loyal to Lukas Podolski when he bought Alexis Sanchez or to Yaya Sanogo when he purchased Danny Welbeck. Wojciech Szczesny has been dealt with ruthlessly. But reputations are difficult to shed when narratives are thrust in front of us so constantly, like a male stripper’s cod piece. Predictably, the mood is slowly turning tetchy with no new arrivals since Petr Cech in June.

Transfer lust has become a kind of biannual festival of insanity and it’s exacerbated by business being conducted by other clubs, Chelsea have signed 4 but crucially, sold 4 of their first team squad this summer. When you’re emotionally invested in the dealings of your club, the business everybody else is doing always looks plentiful, emphatic and precise in comparison. Your club is guilty of ‘dithering’ or ‘neglect’ whilst others are varnishing and garnishing their squads with exceptional talent. A closer look often reveals another truth, United missed out on Pedro whilst Chelsea’s pursuit of John Stones would, by now, be considered a torturous affair in Arsenal parlance.

Last summer, Arsenal added five players to the squad via the transfer market and a further player in Gabriel in January. In addition to this, Héctor Bellerin and Francis Coquelin have emerged from the ether to become first team players. Throw in Petr Cech and that’s quite a lot of change to your team in a 12 month period and suggests that the manager is happy to try to upgrade his options. There is of course an argument as to how decisively he does it, which I think @7amkickoff grapples with pretty well here. We all know the two positions where Arsenal could most use an upgrade and I think the manager does too, availability is the key, no matter how pressing that need.

The watch word for those keen to downplay Arsenal’s lack of additions thus far has been ‘cohesion.’ I sense that this word will become akin to “handbrake” or “super quality” in that it will become part of the lexicon of the detractors, its meaning dressed in a new cloak. But how much does cohesion actually count for? Many have cited past transfer windows for evidence, such as the summer of 2003. Jens Lehmann and Gael Clichy were the only significant additions to a squad that subsequently went unbeaten in the Premier League.

“Arsenal finished 12 points behind Chelsea last season, is Petr Cech enough to bridge that gap?” is a very reasonable question that has been posited. In 2002-03 Arsenal finished 5 points behind Manchester United. In the summer of 2003, they added Lehmann and Clichy and finished 15 points above United the next season, achieving a 20 point swing. Obviously, it is ridiculous to suggest that Lehmann and Clichy’s contributions alone were responsible for that deviation. There were lots of other factors involved. This is the inherent problem with evaluating progress solely through the transfer market.

The most valuable business Arsenal managed in 2003 was to convince Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira to sign new contracts. In 2002, Arsenal only really added Gilberto Silva to the starting line-up. Cohesion counted for a lot, a talented team stayed together and the level of understanding between them increased, with spectacular results. Of course, you could argue that Arsenal don’t have Thierry Henry upfront nowadays, which is quite true. If a player of that quality becomes available to Arsenal, recent evidence suggests that they will pursue him. Even leaving aside the Özil, Cech and Alexis transfers, Wenger did spend a summer (forlornly as it turned out) chasing Luis Suarez not long ago because he (mistakenly) believed him to be available.

Looking further back to 2001 and the summer that immediately preceded the next most recent title win. Arsenal chipped away at the transfer coalface. However, of the 5 signings Wenger made that summer, 4 had left by 2003 having made little impact on the starting line up. Van Bronckhorst, Wright, Inamoto and Jeffers turned out to be little more than window dressing. Sol Campbell was the only significant change to the starting line up. It’s fair to say that his signing went a long way to contributing to the subsequent league title win. Arsenal needed to replace Tony Adams and a player of equivalent stature was available. Arsenal finished 10 points behind Manchester United in 2000-01 and finished ten points above them in 2001-02. Was Sol Campbell alone responsible for a 20 point swing?

Other factors galvanised the club. Pires settling into the first team, Ashley Cole’s emergence, Lauren’s successful switch to right back, Dennis Bergkamp’s renaissance after a pair of indifferent seasons, the excitement generated by official approval for a new stadium. This is not of course to say that, because ‘stable’ summers have begotten Arsenal league title wins before that it will definitely happen this year. Ordinarily, of the contenders, the team that suffers the least disruption to the starting line-up prospers. As wonderful as Arsenal’s 1997-98 title win was, without the retirement of Eric Cantona and a cruciate ligament injury to Roy Keane, it would probably never have happened.

That said, Arsenal replaced Merson with Overmars, bought Emmanuel Petit and replaced Wright with Anelka during that season, but that ‘disruption’ was more favourable than that suffered by United. That team took time to gel, with Arsenal trailing the top of the table by 12 points in December. There is circumstantial evidence that a lack of action in the transfer market has cost Arsenal in the past. In the summer of 1998, with Wright sold and Bergkamp in a post World Cup funk, Arsenal desperately needed a striker. On this occasion, options were available, but Arsenal refused the salary demands of Patrick Kluivert so as not to break their wage structure.

The Gunners were held to 6 goalless draws during that season (4 of them occurring in the first 6 games) and missed the title by a single point. Despite conceding 20 fewer goals than Manchester United, they scored 21 fewer. Football is an inexact science, but you can assert with some confidence that parsimony cost them the championship in 1998-99. If a 1998 model Patrick Kluivert type becomes available again, Arsenal would not make the same error you would hope. Financially, it’s a different era and since the great cash injection of 2013, there have been few stories of the Gunners baulking at fees or wages during negotiation.

Linearity is important too in terms of how we absorb the transfer market’s rolling soap opera. In the summer of 2013, I don’t think Arsenal conducted all of the business they required. Yaya Sanogo was the back up striker for 2013-14, two years later; he is out on loan and no closer to the first team. But signing Özil on deadline day glossed over that for many. I suppose much in the same way that a draw doesn’t feel like such a bad result when you equalise in the dying seconds. The swiftness with which the Cech deal was concluded has contributed to some of the tetchiness we see now.

In 2012, Arsenal signed 3 players before the season started (Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla) but sold two thereafter (van Persie and Song) which forged a more negative impression of the window. Had that chronology been reversed, the feeling would have been a tad more positive (it’s never a great window when you lose your top scorer to Manchester United), even though that would have been more unsettling for the squad. Arsenal were decisive, but one could argue that they were wrestled into decisiveness by van Persie’s desire to leave and the club were also spurred by their acute mismanagement of 2011’s summer horriblis.

There are lots of factors that govern perceptions of transfer activity nowadays, most of which serve only to muddy the picture. It’s increasingly difficult to keep a clear head in the echo chamber. The famed ‘cohesion’ does count, but only in the correct circumstances. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the club will try to act when able to do so, the players they currently have did not just jump into the net. (Maybe Welbeck did in fairness). Write this off as an apologia if you will, but Arsenal do not behave as they do specifically to annoy us, tempting as that might be to believe. There are reasons and it always pays to try and work out what they are. Whether you ultimately agree with them or not, is up to you.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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