The transfer window snapped shut yesterday leaving Arsenal fans stunned that their club made just one purchase this year, £10m for Petr Cech. And even by Arsene Wenger’s odd standards, it’s been a pretty incredible window.
To prod the Arsenal fans even more, The Daily Mail ran with the headline “Arsenal only team in human history to not buy an outfield player” and then included a poll asking “How angry are you at the club?” with answers that went: “meh, beside myself, suicidal, HULK SMAAAASH, burning like the heat of a 1000 suns, and angrier than the day I found out Santa isn’t real.” I’m only half joking about the poll and headline. They were very close to what I wrote there.
You’ll pardon the rather odd transition here but you’ll get it in a second. Arsenal are and always have been an unusual club. In his book Rebels for the Cause, Jon Spurling lays out short story after story about how Arsenal have always done things our own way.
Our greatest ever manager, Herbert Chapman, invented a system of football (the WM) so popular that the formation became the default formation for football clubs around the world, for decades. We invented squad numbers! We bought the first player (George Eastham) to sue his employers for the right to leave, thus opening up free agency in football. Before that, players were treated like slaves¹ at worst and indentured servants at best. The players even called their contracts “slavery contracts”. It was an Arsenal player who broke that system.
In terms of Arsenal’s history, we are the rebels of the football world: fighting the Galactic empire, blowing up their Death Star, and riding around on Tauntauns. Come to think of it, maybe we should try to get some Tauntauns, think of the “pace” that animal must have. Wait, never mind, the opposition would just sit in the low block and nullify our speedy Tauntauns. Drat, foiled again.
And Wenger fits right in to that history of rebellion and non-conformity. Wenger is the first foreign manager to win the League; he brought in a team of French players and won the League with them — which was unheard of; he went an entire season unbeaten — a feat not seen since the inaugural season of English football; he built a team of youth players around a 16 year old he spirited away from the Barcelona academy; he stuck with the club while they struggled financially against clubs who have more resources than God in order to build a brand new stadium; and he’s come out the other end of that trying period and won back-to-back FA Cups.
Wenger is the perfect Arsenal manager, an iconoclast, a maverick, a winner, a builder, who deeply loves the club which has been, as he put it, “the club of my life”. This is a man who could have gone after the Invincibles season and managed a rich club like Real Madrid but who took the decision to stay at Arsenal and guide the club through the hard times. He sacrificed his own glory, his own ego, for the club. People who level the criticism that Wenger is an egomaniac who lacks ambition have clearly forgotten the sacrifices man has made for the betterment of Arsenal.
Wenger cares about the club, about the players, and about winning. More than any of us ever have. So when Wenger takes a decision not to buy any outfield players he’s doing it for a reason. He’s thought through this more than you and I have and he has a good damn reason for not buying anyone.
Frankly? I haven’t a clue what that reason is. It makes no sense to me. But I could sense at the start of summer that Wenger wasn’t going to buy anyone except a ‘keeper. The signs were all there that Wenger wanted, more than anything, to keep his squad together.
He mentioned how this was the first time that Arsenal didn’t need to sell and weren’t going to sell. He talked about how it was more important to keep the squad together than it was to buy new players. And while he did say things like “I’d like to add ten goals” he was very careful to mention that he thought those goals could come from within the squad.
And so, while we have heard the blogosphere bang the “cover for Coquelin” drum all summer and the twittersphere pluck the “need a new striker” strings, Wenger covered his ears to such discordant music and bought a ‘keeper, sending out the hugely popular Szczesny on loan to Rome.
Don’t get me wrong, I would have bought players. If I was the manager/CEO/chief negotiator and there was a striker available, who wanted to join Arsenal, that I could afford, and he was better than Giroud, I would have bought him. And I would have made a big stink about trying to get Schneiderlin, I think he’s a fantastic player and a huge upgrade on Coquelin — and I like Coquelin, he’s one of my favorite players in the team, but I still would have bought Schneiderlin.
But here’s the deal: we don’t actually know what Wenger/Arsenal/Kroenke did or did not try to do — just like with Cesc last year. We don’t know if he offered Schneiderlin a huge contract and the Frenchman turned it down. Wenger could just have easily never been interested in Schneiderlin and that link could all have been planted by his agents to increase their leverage against Man U. We don’t know. We do know that Schneiderlin has been angling for a move to Man U for a year and a half, he said so himself:
We were asking ourselves if this was actually going to happen. Since January, we had been talking about this transfer (to United), so we had time to prepare ourselves… To be at Manchester United, it is a dream, something crazy, there are no words to define it.
Benzema was another player I would take at Arsenal in a heartbeat. But was he even on the market? Who knows. Not me that’s for sure, and not that woman on Twitter, either. We don’t know.
In the absence of knowledge we turn to faith and transfers are treated like religion, with all of the fervor of religious zealots. We “believe” that Kroenke lacks ambition or that Arsene has prices in his head that he’s willing to pay for players and those prices are from 1997². We “feel” like Arsenal “could have” gotten Schneiderlin or Benzema, Cavani, or Ibrahimovich, if only Arsene/Arsenal/Kroenke tried harder. Or the “players were available” fallacy that if a player moves to another team that means your team “could have” had him if only they had “tried”. And of course we “believe Arsenal could have won the League, if we had only upgraded in a few positions” — the ultimate faith-based statement because it supposes so many factors (players available, players want to come to Arsenal, Arsenal can persuade them, they are an upgrade on the players we have, etc) and sets up a straw man (winning the League) which “could” have happened if only certain conditions were met.
The absence of facts leaves a void into which we inject our hopes and fears. And in that void our ITKs become faith healers, our managers are gods, the players are deities, reporters are our oracles, prophets and preachers, agents are the devils, and our bloggers are the religious zealots standing on a street corner screaming about salvation from hell fire.
But when it comes to transfers, we don’t know why. We don’t know how. We don’t know how much, when, or where. We don’t even know who.
What do we know?
We know that Arsenal chose to buy just one player. That Arsenal chose not to even buy filler. Not even a backup to Coquelin. Every season before this, Arsenal have at least bought filler, brought in youth players, or taken a gamble on a player like
Ji Sung Park Ki Sung-yueng. So, to see the club buy just one player was unusual, even by Arsenal’s unusual standard.
If I think about it, there is some logic to the whole thing but also some illogic.
The illogic is that Arsenal have a lot of ageing players who aren’t going to be with the club long term: Arteta, Flamini, Rosicky are all on their last legs. Even Mertesacker, Monreal, and Debuchy are getting old. For a manager like Arsene Wenger, who is famous for his long-term planning, to not buy replacements for three or four of those players, strikes me as odd. Again, even by Wenger’s own odd standards, this is odd!
But logically speaking, for this one last season, Arsenal do have two full teams of top quality players:
Alexis Ozil Ramsey
Monreal Koz Mert Bellerin
Welbeck Wilshere Ox
Gibbs Gabriel Chambers
And while most wanted a new striker (myself included) and cover for Coquelin (myself not included, because I wanted an upgrade and an upgrade only) Arsenal can field two very good squads without any mixing of players from one squad to another.
I know the criticisms: Arteta’s legs are on the back of a milk carton, the second team might not work as well, the first team plays Ramsey out of position, Walcott can’t lead the line, Chambers is shaky at the back, Ospina isn’t a good backup, players are injured all the time (especially the English players for some reason), Giroud’s not good enough for Arsenal, and Mertesacker is slow³. But Arsenal are deep, and so there wasn’t any reason to buy filler. And if you don’t need to buy filler and for whatever reason you couldn’t/didn’t buy top quality then I can see why Arsenal only bought one player.
Still, even with that logic, this has to be the strangest summer I’ve ever seen.
And we Gooners have had some real doozies.
¹Ironically, I think some fans still think this way when they say things like “let him rot in the reserves” which was actually a popular thing to do to footballers who agitated for a move before the Eastham ruling.
²Wenger doesn’t actually negotiate for players any more. That’s Dick Law’s job. But don’t let that stop you from thinking Wenger’s to blame for the Suarez deal or whatever else “low valuation” that people blame on Arsene.
³I’m sure I missed something, please tell me in the comments.