As we saw in Part 1 of Transfer Myths and Targets, Arsenal have the money to buy nearly any player in the world. With some of the healthiest balance sheets in world football, Arsenal Football Club is not going to “do a Rangers” or “pull a Pompey” and go bankrupt any time soon because of a transfer. Nor do any fans want the club to break the bank signing Messi.
Arsenal also have less competition for players than people like to imagine. The idea that as soon as Arsenal make a bid for a known player it will start off a “bidding war” that Arsenal can’t win is largely overstated. It has happened that Arsenal has been beaten to some high-profile signings such as Cahill, Mata, and Hazard but Arsenal has also purchased Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski without a single shot being fired in any kind of bidding war. Moreover, one could argue that any top player at any team has basically slipped through the Chelsea/Man City/PSG/Mackachacolata’s noose: Falcao, Capoue, Cavani, are all examples of players who have been performing at a consistently high level for years and who are only now being touted (by the press) as a top, top talent.
Falcao has scored nearly 30+ goals every season since 2009, Capoue has put in two consecutive seasons of outstanding play and Cavani has scored 30+ goals for the last three seasons. No scouting required, these are top players.
There are top players out there right now, waiting to be brought into a club like Arsenal. The problem is finding them. But first, we need to deal with this myth that Arsenal “make players”.
Arsenal don’t make players, they buy them
The Arsenal team that went 49 games unbeaten had just one academy player counted among the starting XI, and he was only there because of luck. That academy player in question was Ashley Cole.
Ashley Cole was thrust into the left back spot on a lark. He was just about to be sold by Arsenal to Crystal Palace for £200,000 when it was discovered that Arsenal’s Brazilian LB, Sylvinho, had, erm, problems with his passport. Cole took Sylvinho’s spot and the rest is, as they say, one glorious hole.
The remainder of the Invincibles starting XI was made up from nearly a decade of working the transfer market. Lehmann, Lauren, Kolo, Campbell, Cole, Pires, Vieira, Gilberto, Ljungberg, Bergkamp, and Henry were Arsenal’s starting XI that season and all but Cole had been acquired in the transfer market.
It may be overstating the case a bit, but I believe that in many ways Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles team proved to English football that the transfer market, and especially the foreign market, was a viable way to build a team. Chelsea were the first team to field an all foreign starting XI, back in 1999. But they weren’t a successful team so it was easy to dismiss them. When Arsenal did the same thing in 2005, there was a big stink because this was The Invincibles not some small club from Fulham. And by the time Man U repeated the feat in 2009, there was hardly a whimper from the press because it had become normalized that top teams buy talent, they don’t make it.
I have to wonder if it weren’t for that Invincibles side whether the Premier League wouldn’t have owners like Abramovich and Mansour. In many ways, Arsenal were proof of concept that Blackburn weren’t just a one off: transfers, it seems, and especially foreign transfers, mattered greatly. Transfers could win multiple trophies, but only if your pockets were deep enough.
Transfers have mattered at Arsenal because in the last 15 years Arsenal’s academy has only produced four first team starters: Cole (2000), Gibbs and Szczesny (2009), and Wilshere (2010). That’s using Wenger’s own definition of development in which players are developed before the age of 16 and can only receive polish and experience after.
The average person, however, expands that definition of development to include players like Theo Walcott who at age 23 is finally on the verge of realizing his potential. Under this looser definition of development, Arsenal produced players like Cesc, Song, and Clichy, none of which are still with the club. And two of which, have been replaced with ready-made transfers (Cesc/Cazorla, Song/Arteta) while the third is replaced by an academy player (Gibbs/Clichy).
Some folks expand the definition of development to include Arsene Wenger’s ability to uncover “hidden gems” like Henry, Vieira, and Anelka. But when you look at the contributions those players made in their very first season at the club it’s hard for me to agree that Arsenal “made” that player. Yes Thierry Henry only scored 3 goals for Juventus, but he then went on the next season to score 26 for Arsenal. Did Wenger “develop” this player over the summer of 1999? Did a simple change in position “develop” Henry? No. Those players from the Invincibles came to Arsenal fully made and only needing an opportunity to show what they were made of.
If you’re paying close attention, you might note that I am creating four categories of players: academy (Wilshere), youth transfers (Cesc), unknown ready-made players (Henry), and known ready-mades (Cazorla). These are the types of players that Arsenal recruit.
But, this idea that there is a production line from Arsenal’s academy to the Arsenal first team is patently false. Under Wenger’s own strictest of definitions, Arsenal have produced three players that could start a Premier League game. Under the less restrictive definitions Arsenal have produced a good number of players, but only Theo Walcott remains at the team. And last I checked, you can’t field a team with just four players.
Also, this idea that “Arsenal don’t buy great players, they make them” is nothing more than a marketing slogan — something to put on a tee shirt and sell to people who believe in the myth. The reality is that the vast majority of players that Arsenal have purchased under Arsene Wenger were players who were made somewhere else.
So, the question then, is why haven’t Arsenal uncovered the next Thierry Henry? Or have they uncovered him and he’s just not with us any more? And why does it seem like Arsenal have difficulty in the transfer market getting deals done?
We’ll cover that in part 3: scout me a skipper, I’ll be back for breakfast.