Arsenal are preparing to attack the summer’s transfer market with a £70m-£150m warchest, if various reports from this morning are to be believed. While this kind of promise would have fans of most clubs licking their lips in anticipation of some big juicy signings, its effect on Arsenal supporters has been similar to that of poking a dying lion with a pointy stick.
Already driven to near-madness by the home defeat to Blackburn on the weekend – the second humiliating cup exit in one season at the hands of lower league opposition – the suggestion that an uncharacteristic shopping spree is on its way has only managed to aggravate Gooners even more. Why? Because we’ve heard it all before.
“There are sufficient funds available to the manager for transfers,” said Arsenal’s then-CEO Keith Edelman back in September 2005. Four months earlier the Invincibles had seen their Premier League title snatched by Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, who subsequently beat Arsenal twice that August.
Patrick Vieira left the club in the summer, having won the FA Cup with his final kick in red and white. Edu also departed, while Alex Hleb arrived. Transfer deadline day involved reserve goalkeeper Mart Poom joining from Sunderland.
Arsenal thus made a net transfer profit from player trading, that summer – a trend that has, overall, continued for the eight years since. The eight year period during which, infamously, the club has failed to pick up any silverware has coincided with it raking in an estimated £33.5m in profits from selling players and investing less back into the squad.
Arsene Wenger recently put this down to financial restrictions imposed by the move to an expensive new stadium – albeit one that allows the club to earn around £120m a season from its match-going fans.
“We have been restricted financially because of stadium; [now] that is coming to a close,” Arsene said last month. “I am always painted like a guy who refuses to spend money, [but] we had restricted funds and I acted in a responsible way.”
Fair enough, no? But the problem is that this does not tally with the messages that the board has been feeding the fans since 2005.
“Arsene is not one to go and spend huge amounts of money on players,” Edelman said in February 2007. “But if he wanted to do something of that magnitude there’s no reason we couldn’t get that to happen. We can do it. It’s just a matter of what Arsene’s strategy is. There is money available for Arsene in the summer.”
That summer Edelman held a conference with Arsenal fans, that I attended, in which he stressed that the decision not to spend more money on players was the manager’s, not the board’s.
Needless to say there was no big splash that summer; in fact the club made another profit in the transfer market. Then after the close of the window, in September 2007, Edelman came out and said: “We have substantial resources of cash if Arsene wants to spend it. If Arsene came to the board in January and wanted £40m for a player, we would have the money. We said to Arsene in the summer that we have money to spend. He said, ‘Thanks very much, I have done my business in the summer. I will spend it later on’.”
Hammering home the point, Edelman added: “We have got plenty of financial firepower to makes the transfers Arsene wants to make. We had over £70m of cash at the end of the year and if Arsene wants to spend that money we will make it available. I think we are in a very good position. We gave Arsene a budget in the summer and he didn’t even spend all of it on transfers and hopefully we’ll be able to carry that forward into future years.”
Edelman left his position the following year and was replaced by Ivan Gazidis. The new CEO is more cautious with his words, but has nonetheless continued to issue the same sentiments. Within a year of his arrival headlines of “Gazidis gives Gunners boss Wenger the green light for summer spending spree” were hitting the press.
In May 2009 Gazidis admitted that Arsenal “quite possibly” needed new players – but the club yet again made a (huge) profit on transfers during that summer, pulling in a hilarious amount of cash for Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure (thanks, Sheikh), while spending far less.
And two years ago Gazidis told fans to prepare for a summer of feverish transfer activity and insisted that funds were available. “It is very clear we had some shortcomings and in this close season we are going to see some turnover of players,” he said.
“If we found an established world-class player and we thought the economics made sense and he would add to what we could do on the pitch then there’s no philosophical objection to that… Financially we’re in a strong position, we have resources to spend. We’re certainly not sitting there saying ‘let’s hold back on our resources’ for some reason, why would we?”
He added: “The resources are there. We’ve got a substantial amount of money that we can invest.”
Yet we know how this ends. Arsenal made over £60m from the sales of players such as Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy, and spent less on a hurried set of, largely substandard, replacements. In the midst of this chaos came the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United. “Certainly in January and next summer there are significant funds available to bolster the team,” Gazidis said, attempting to reassure the fans by saying that the club had “kept our powder dry” for a near-future explosion of transfer activity.
Since then the same old cycle of spin has continued to emanate from the club. Prior to or immediately after a transfer window, we are told that investment is imminent – but the words are rarely backed up by actions.
“There is money available,” Gazidis said a year ago. Then back in November, prior to the just-passed midseason transfer window, he revealed: “The decision to invest is up to Arsene Wenger, but now more resources are available to him. We’ve got funds to make the right decisions for the club.”
In December the AST’s Tim Payton reported that Gazidis had told him personally, at a meeting with fans, that “there is plenty of money there”.
“That was the message that Ivan and his finance director were giving this evening,” Payton said. Needless to say, Gazidis’s assurances were given the day after the defeat to fourth division Bradford.
It’s all getting a bit tiresome, isn’t it? And the worst element is that the manager is correct about one thing: you cannot solve a team’s problems by simply splashing cash in one transfer window. Even if our cynicism is misplaced, and the club spend big in the coming summer, it cannot magically cure years of decline in the standard of the squad and performance of the team.
Successful teams tend to keep their best players, rather than losing them with the alarming regularity that has plagued our squad. Arsenal’s failure to invest, on a net basis, in the transfer market reflects the constant sales of big players just as much as the reluctance to bring in expensive new talent. And this season’s performances against Norwich, Bradford, Southampton (away), Birmingham, and in many other games, reveal even deeper problems than a gradual slide in player quality.
This summer is not Wenger’s “last chance”, as some have suggested. The same was said before the transfer window just passed. And the one before that, and the one before that. The questions about Arsenal’s condition are more long term and serious.
Why has the board constantly, and seemingly systematically, told us that there is cash available, only for the manager to rake in far more than he spends? Why has it been so tough to keep hold of players? Why does the transfer strategy seem to be reactive – as shown by last minute mad-dash signings such as Nacho Monreal, made only when forced by exceptional circumstances? Why is the squad quality not proactively improved, incrementally, through the transfer market – in the way that happened so successfully, twice, during Arsene’s first eight or nine years at the club?
The frenetic echo-room nature of modern internet-based football chat means that the overall picture can be drowned out by noisy minutiae and tangents. There are lots of ifs and buts involved in analysing the last eight seasons – relatively abysmal commercial revenue, nearly winning the title in 2008, boardroom battles, et cetera – yet the bottom line is that most transfer windows are resulting in a decline in the overall quality of the squad, and most seasons are revealing a decline in the achievements of the team. Repetitive cheap talk of an impending “transfer warchest” does nothing to change that.