Given their size and heritage, Arsenal are generally a cautious club when it comes to big money transfers, which is why the team rarely dominates eras, but also rarely endures catastrophe. The Gunners have not been relegated for over 100 years now, a season in mid-table- much like the current one- is about as disastrous as it gets.
However, every now and then Arsenal will decide to flex their fiscal muscle. Often this has emanated from a sense of panic or poor planning. Bryn Jones’ £14,000 transfer from Wolves in 1938 was debated in Parliament due to the size of the fee [it remained a British record fee for 20 years]. The outbreak of war prevented him from fully grasping the mantle as Alex James’ replacement.
Other big money signings like Charlie Nicholas, Malcolm MacDonald, Sylvain Wiltord, Jose Reyes and Andrey Arshavin have proved to be debatable investments, even if all of them made valuable contributions. However, in the 1930s, Herbert Chapman regularly spent big money on players to excellent effect. He broke the transfer record to bring striker David Jack to the club in 1928 [the first footballer ever to cost a five-figure sum]. Alex James and Cliff Bastin were not cheaply procured either.
This was an era where Chapman insisted on large scale upgrades to the East and West stands at Highbury, wishes granted at significant cost. However, one of Herbert’s first signings would prove to be one of his most important. In 1925, Arsenal signed Charlie Buchan from Sunderland. This was an eye-catching transfer for a number of reasons. The Gunners were yet to win a major trophy at this point and Buchan, though now aged 34, was arguably the best striker in England.
Buchan is still Sunderland’s all-time record goal scorer with 209 goals- no mean feat considering his spell at Roker Park was interrupted by the First World War. The structure of the deal remains a pub quiz staple. Sunderland initially demanded a £4,000 fee, but Chapman argued them down to £2,000 plus another £100 for every goal scored during his debut season. Buchan scored 21 times in his first season with the club, meaning he eventually cost £4,100.
The curiosities don’t end there with Buchan and Arsenal. He actually began his career with Woolwich Arsenal. He was born in Plumstead and even as a teenager, Buchan was a fiercely confident young man and very assertive with it. Despite his obvious promise, the club baulked at some of his expenses claims and in 1910, Buchan quit the club to join nearby Leyton, for whom he played one season, before moving to the Northeast and winning the First Division title with Sunderland in 1913.
Buchan was training to be a teacher at the time and did not feel the need to be held to ransom by cash strapped Woolwich Arsenal. Refusing that expense claim cost the club the services of a top-class striker and they ended up forking out a record fee for his signature some 14 years later. However, even at 34, Buchan was well worth the outlay. In fact, I would argue that he is the single most important transfer Arsenal has ever made.
He scored roughly a goal every other game [though records from this era are not as fastidious as they are now] during his three seasons with Arsenal, but his contribution off the pitch would be his most telling. Buchan was a teacher and his intelligence gave him a forthrightness that ran contrary to British player culture between the two World Wars. Despite his immaculate scoring record, Sunderland offloaded him to Arsenal partially because he was considered high maintenance.
Chapman recognised an opportunity to make a marquee transfer and immediately lay his ambitions for Arsenal on the table. Chapman also liked Buchan’s cantankerousness. What set the Arsenal manager apart in this era, was his refusal to treat players like subordinates or ignorant proles. He wanted their input, he wanted them to own their own progress and analyse their contributions, he wanted them to contribute to team meetings.
In one of his Sunday Express columns, Chapman wrote, “It is no use for a manager in a meeting to do all the talking, with the players mutely listening, and perhaps deciding that all that may be said is a lot of bunkum. Every man should be encouraged to talk and express his views without a fear that he will hurt anyone’s feelings.”
Buchan fit the bill emphatically as an experienced player, a teacher and a laconic personality. He was purchased as both a mannequin for the new Arsenal and as a role-model for Chapman’s squad. Buchan eventually moved into journalism and commentary post career, a sign of his articulateness and intellect.
More important than any Arsenal goal he scored, Buchan’s contribution to an impromptu team meeting would help to steer the course of the club’s history in a different direction. In October 1925, the Gunners were thumped 7-0 by Newcastle at St. James’ Park. The team held an inquest on the train journey back to London.
The story goes that Buchan had pleaded with Chapman to drop one of the half-backs into the defensive line in response to the new offside law introduced for that season [A player was considered offside unless two players of the opposing team are in front of him, including the goalkeeper].
Buchan suggested that Arsenal use an extra defender, but with a difference. This centre half would mark zonally on the edge of the area, rather than directly marking the opposition’s centre forward. The centre half would only engage the centre forward in the final yards of the pitch. Winning the ball back and distributing quickly would be key elements of the role.
“He should not be content to just get the ball anywhere, but to send it with head or feet to the inside forward,” Buchan wrote in his memoir ‘A Lifetime in Football.’ One of the inside forwards would drop back into the midfield line when the team was defending but be on hand to quickly receive the ball from the centre-half and spark a transition. Buchan’s suggestion was the first brick in the WM formation [3-2-2-3] that Chapman and Arsenal would adopt so successfully, as they dominated the English domestic game throughout the 1930s.
It took time to bed in, Chapman needed to buy key cogs like James, Bastin, David Jack and Herbie Roberts to perfect this unstoppable counter-attacking tactic. The system was, wrongly, seen as defensive and negative. Critics maintained they were simply adding an extra defender, but while that was true, they were effectively just moving their passing midfield player back 20 yards so play could be started from slightly deeper.
The WM allowed for better passing lanes with a greater array of angles connecting the team as the front three was left high up the pitch to avail of swift transitions. Chapman’s adoption of the WM is now considered one of football’s most revolutionary tactical innovations and Buchan’s suggestion proved to be the germ of the idea.
One has to be careful to treat this anecdotal information with the right measure of scepticism. Most of this account is derived from Buchan’s self-penned 1955 memoir, ‘A Life in Football.’ That said, Buchan did not have a reputation for embellishment as a journalist. He wrote the book himself, presumably, without a publisher or ghost writer urging him to sex up the details.
Buchan also freely admits that the idea of playing an additional centre-half was not an entirely original one and had been experimented with by other clubs. Chapman’s idea to make a signing that would both emphasise the ambition of the Arsenal project and provide leadership in a novice dressing room hit pay-dirt in ways beyond the great man’s expectations.