A Time To Sell

There was a time when Arsenal were derided as ‘a selling club.’ As Arsene Wenger began to replace the squad bequeathed to him by George Graham with little known players from France and down on their luck talents in need of some TLC, Europe’s elite began to sit up and take notice. Suddenly, Arsene Wenger found that his charges were in demand at the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

This was surely not an ideal situation for him. I am certain he did not want to lose Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid, nor Marc Overmars to Barcelona or to have to deal with Patrick Vieira’s suitors every summer. But Arsenal were not unduly weakened by the sale of some of their best talents. If anything, quite the opposite.

At this time, Wenger had a Midas touch in the market and, with David Dein at his back, he found transfers easier to conduct. So when Marc Overmars toddled off to Barcelona, Wenger replaced him with Robert Pires. When Nicolas Anelka took a flight of fancy to Real Madrid, he signed Thierry Henry and, famously, threw a new training ground into the mix too.

Arsene decided to cash in on Patrick Vieira because he was convinced by the precocious talents of Cesc Fabregas. 2007-08 saw Arsenal finish 4 points off the top of the table, having led the Premier League for most of the season. It was the closest the Gunners have come to England’s top prize since 2004 and it came off the back of selling Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg in the summer of 2007.

The point is, player sales did not have a deleterious effect on Arsenal, if anything, it helped them to refresh and renew the squad with new talent. Obviously, things are a little different nowadays. There are no hidden gems in Ligue 1, Kylian Mbappe cost €180m at the age of 18, Monaco have had their squad repeatedly raided over the last 4 transfer windows.

Arsenal don’t quite have the monopoly on untapped talent as they once did. I also think that Arsene Wenger became incredibly weary about dealing with the modern demands of the transfer market, which led to him clinging onto players well past their use by dates. He didn’t want to sell, in my view, because he found the act of buying such a pain in the knackers.

But horse trading is just the reality for clubs in Arsenal’s position, suspended just below the elite. Football’s hierarchy is totally embedded. The top tier are ensconced in their mezzanine bunker, a glass floor beneath acting as a ceiling for the teams peering up at them. Which is not to say the teams below them are living a gritty life on the never never, more a case of well-heeled city stockbrokers looking up at oligarchs and billionaires.

But the fact is, clubs like Arsenal are just below the super clubs in the food chain and, until recently, it was where a lot of them went to do their shopping. Buy low, sell high is the best course of action for clubs in Arsenal’s bracket (though arguably the club has slipped one bracket below where they were in the hierarchy in recent years). Dortmund, Atletico Madrid and clubs like Roma have made the best of their lot in this respect and, recently, so too have Liverpool.

It took Liverpool a while to accept that they have slipped from their 1980s perch at the tip of the mountain, but they have begun to make the best of life as a second tier club. When they lose some of their stars, such as Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho, they tie them to lucrative contracts with ample clauses. In short, they make sure they get paid.

So when they lost Suarez, they did so on their terms and used the money to buy Mane and Firmino. When they lost Coutinho, they used the cash to fix their defence with the purchases of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson. Liverpool reluctantly sold Coutinho nine months ago and they are currently looking more like a potential title challenger than they were when they had him in their roster.

The point is, they have proved, as Arsenal did in the late 1990s, that the world does not end when you sell a big player, because you can soon reinvest. Liverpool have allied this by extracting big fees for players they’ve no use for. While Arsene Wenger was telling us that Arsenal “must” keep a faded Jack Wilshere and a stale Kieran Gibbs, Liverpool were busy taking north of £50m from Crystal Palace for Christian Benteke and Mamadou Sakho.

At the beginning of the summer, I wrote that Arsenal should sell Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey has been, unashamedly, one of my favourite Arsenal players from the last decade. But with 1 year left on his contract and an (over)abundance of players in attacking positions, the time was right to cash in and reallocate the money to other areas of need in the squad.

10 weeks into the season we are still struggling to accommodate Ramsey amidst the news that the club has taken his contract offer off the table. My article from May was not, much as I would like to believe, an insightful piece of soothsayery. It was an absolutely routine observation about a totally foreseeable situation.

Arsenal have invested a lot of time and money in augmenting their recruitment and scouting, which is laudable work. StatDNA and Sven Mislintat have been acquired to help the club get their edge back in the market. Now, they must trust the knowhow they have acquired and become a good selling club again. The world would not have ended had Aaron Ramsey left this summer, just as it did not when Henry left, or Overmars or Petit departed or when Coutinho left Liverpool.

The money from a Ramsey or Welbeck sale might have saved us the indignity of scrabbling for a cut price centre half in the last hours of the summer window. The £40m Arsenal (eventually, reluctantly, under much duress) mined from the sale of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain paid for 80% of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s transfer fee five months later. There is always new talent if you have money.

The recent reports around the withdrawal of Ramsey’s contract seem a little iffy to me, like there is information missing. I simply do not believe that Unai Emery has made a decision on his worth based on a handful of games played out of position. Ramsey has absolutely no history of success in the number 10 position and Emery was apparently appointed, in part, due to his intimate knowledge of Arsenal’s players.

It does not ring true to me at all that the Head Coach has taken this sort of decision on this level of evidence. It may well be true that, with a spiralling salary bill, Arsenal have decided they cannot afford Ramsey’s demands, which would simply make it even more baffling that they did not sell him this summer. Turning one’s nose up at a sizeable transfer fee probably isn’t a sensible thing to do if you have cash flow issues. There is no scenario where losing him for free is better than selling him for cash money.

This process might well already be in train with Raul Sanllehi’s name above the door, but Arsenal have to cease this paralysis that seems to grip them when it comes to selling a marketable player. New talent always comes to light. Arsenal signed Santi Cazorla a year after losing Fabregas and Nasri. Mesut Özil joined 12 months after the admittedly chastening experience of selling Robin van Persie to Manchester United. (Not all sales are good, of course).

The moves to award young talent like Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Calum Chambers new deals strikes me as a move in the right direction. I don’t take any of those deals as an absolute affirmation of the club’s faith in those players, it’s just simple asset protection while they make a firm decision (I would include Granit Xhaka’s contract in that bracket too).

The club have put a lot of effort into recruiting the likes of Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat to flex their muscles in the market place. But a big part of their success will be determined by the capital the club can generate. Foregoing tens of millions of pounds on the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck and trying to replace them with wallet moths makes that job unnecessarily difficult. Arsenal cannot afford to be afraid of selling to buy, their medium term future depends on it.

Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews and myself will be doing some promotional events in London for our book ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ in the run-up to Christmas, with book signing events featuring the likes of Liam Brady, Bob Wilson and Brian Talbot. You can find out more about those events here and you can buy a copy of the book here.