Arsenal’s transfer window consisted of two main stanzas, perhaps slightly fractured by the injury to Jurrien Timber which leaves the squad light a defender. In the first half of the summer, Arsenal acquired Timber (didn’t we all?), Havertz and Rice. With an outlay of around £200m, the second half of the window then became a job of selling unwanted goods.
It didn’t go as well as expected. I think Arteta more or less admitted that in the closing days of the transfer window. ‘It’s not sometimes that you want to do everything that is needed, sometimes it’s not possible.’ I would be lying if I told you that on, say, May 31st, I was expecting such a meagre return for players like Rob Holding, Kieran Tierney and Sambi Lokonga, all of whom I expected to be reasonably easy to sell for decent sized fees.
However, I do think it is at least partially explicable. When I look across Premier League squad lists today, I see a lot of simialr issues around moving unwanted players. Hugo Lloris, Bryan Gil, Giovani Lo Celso and Eric Dier all still play for Spurs, while Tanguy Ndombele, Djed Spence, Sergio Reguillon and Japhet Tanganga could only be moved on loan.
Chelsea have loaned out Romelu Lukaka, Hakim Ziyech and Kepa, which is over £200m worth of investment on its own. They tried unsuccessfully to move Conor Gallagher and Malang Sarr. Manchester United were unable to move Harry Maguire, a current England international, as well as Scott McTominay and Donny van de Beek.
Liverpool are grateful to the Saudi Pro League for showing up on their doorstep to fund their midfield rebuild. Manchester City are probably the best example of a lean squad with little fat in the ‘big six’, but I found their sale of Cole Palmer to Chelsea really interesting. This was clearly a young player they rate highly, he had over 40 appearances for the club and was heavily involved in pre-season.
While Financial Fair Play regulations were never going to rid the game of clubs like City, Newcastle and PSG entirely, they were always going to change how clubs operated. The hyper focus on sales among Arsenal fans this summer, an area we once didn’t see to care much about, suggests as much.
City is a squad built to win, not to sell. This summer they shed 32-year-old Riyad Mahrez and 33-year-old Ilkay Gundogan. They appeared open to selling 33-year-old Kyle Walker. Unless you sell to the Saudi Pro League- as in the case of Mahrez- those are not players that attract much of a fee.
But City is the prime club in world football at the moment, this is what they want, to have prime players and then move them on just as they exit their prime. That’s their winning strategy but it’s not a great ‘selling’ strategy. I think they sold Cole Palmer because they looked around their squad and didn’t see the prospect of much income in the next few windows because they don’t want to sell their most saleable players until they are milked dry.
City don’t have a financial need to have a selling model but they do have an FFP need and this summer we have seen many clubs moving on Academy players more willingly because they show up as pure profit on the books. Swinging back to Arsenal, the two ‘acceptable’ sales they did make this summer were Granit Xhaka and Folarin Balogun.
Balogun made one Premier League appearance for Arsenal but buyers are far more interested in young players with potential, so Monaco paid a fee far in excess with what you would expect from a Ligue 1 club not called PSG. Arsenal’s biggest sales in recent years have been players who have graduated from the Arsenal academy, played enough to show potential but not so much they have clearly lost value. Willock, Balogun, Martinez and Iwobi.
Xhaka went to Bayer Leverkusen for good money because he was a starting player for Arsenal. If we look at the sales Chelsea managed this summer there is a similar pattern. Havertz and Mount went to immediate rivals for good prices because they were starting eleven players just before they were sold. Kepa and Lukaku had to be loaned out and Hudson Odoi went for a pittance because they were on the outskirts of Chelsea’s plans for some time.
This is the most striking aspect to me, the buying habits of clubs outside the Premier League’s top six has changed. I thought Rob Holding would attract a decent fee because he is a good ‘deep block’ defender. But then I look across the league and I don’t see teams in the bottom half who regularly play in a deep defensive block.
They might do so at the Emirates and the Etihad but they don’t do it every week anymore. Clubs in that area of the table are inspired by the successes of Brighton and Brentford and have adopted a scouting approach that involves looking for under prized players in their pre prime years before potentially selling them on for good money elsewhere if they perform well.
You can’t do that with 26-year-old Kieran Tierney or 27-year-old Rob Holding, who are already commanding an Arsenal level salary as it is. Even the concept of low risk investments for the big six clubs suddenly don’t yield the returns you would expect. Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares have gone on loan to Premier League relegation candidates and a lot of that will be because Luton and Nottingham Forest have to treat the risk of relegation and all its financial consequences seriously.
Increasingly, I look at this type of ‘wastage’ as just part of the cost of running a top six club. Arsenal don’t want more Ozil or Aubameyang situations but can probably, reluctantly, write off a loss of value in a player like Sambi Lokonga. However, that is not to say that Arsenal are blameless and cannot improve in this area.
I think people miss the point when they say Arsenal are bad at ‘selling.’ The actual act of selling a player is not, in my view, a particularly big skill. It’s not like Edu and co don’t know how to bank a cheque or log into PayPal. It’s that selling is the final act of a process and the skill is knowing when to do it.
It’s a fine line, the player needs to have some value but you need to trust your judgement and assess that a player is in the sweet spot where you don’t think he can make the grade at your team but it’s not so blindingly obvious that everyone can see it. In that respect, good sales always have to be, at least, a little bit contentious among fans.
Tierney would have, I am certain, gone for a fee had Arsenal made the assessment that he could not do what Arteta wanted last summer. It would have been contentious but, ultimately, it would have been the right decision and the club would have swelled its coffers. The same assessment could, honestly, have been made of Rob Holding well before that.
There may well have been solid reasons to continue with the players in both cases as Arsenal were busy in other, more urgent areas of their squad build, but those two players lost value because it became too apparent that they were not valuable (Ainsley Maitland Niles also says hi). When I look at the current squad, I worry about the same future wastage with Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe.
If it is true that there was any level of interest in Partey this summer the club should have been in the business of biting hands off. They have Rice and Jorginho, Partey is not physically reliable and they could have got money for a player who has again suffered a muscular injury and seen his value diminish to nearly nothing in the event we try to move him on next summer.
I am not sure I understand on the insistence on keeping Smith Rowe around when I can’t see a position that he’s even second choice for in the current setup. I think if Arsenal had pushed the button and sold him this summer, it may have rankled with a lot of fans but I think the more reasonable judgement would be that he is unlikely to be an important player at this point.
Another season in a tracksuit will crater his value further and I have to say I very much see a world where, on August 31 2024, Edu is reluctantly accepting a cut price loan deal for the player. That is where Arsenal are culpable but, ultimately, given the revenue a Premier League heavyweight makes nowadays, it’s small beer in comparison to being able to go out and woo a player like Declan Rice to your club.
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