Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Arsene Wenger can’t spend money… he literally, physically can’t spend money… Arsenal have the money but Wenger won’t spend it… And if Wenger does spend the money he will never buy big name players because they have egos and he can’t handle big egos. I know you’ve heard it before because up until this summer that was the party line for the Wenger-out crowd.¹
But this summer everything changed. Arsenal went and did the unthinkable, they won the FA Cup and spent a boatload of money on Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers, and Matty Debuchy. And because of those facts Wenger can no longer be accused of not winning trophies, accused of not taking the FA Cup seriously, and can no longer be accused of being afraid to spend money on established international superstars. In fact, Arsenal top the Transfer League Table™ having spent a whopping £64.4m net.²
And Arsene can’t be accused of spending wrong, not in my book anyway. Last winter, when Arsenal were sort of challenging for the League title and lost three of our established star players at the same time many prominent voices were there telling Arsene to spend on a striker. Shane Long’s name even came up. Shane Long, the beer goggles of footballers. Begging Wenger to buy Shane Long as the winter transfer window closed was the equivalent of waiting until last call to find a hookup. Imagine waking up next to Shane Long all summer.
But Wenger is not the kind of manager who would just buy candy in order to satisfy sore teeth. Instead of Shane Long, he waited until this summer and bought Alexis Sanchez — a player with strength, vision, and deadly finishing, who will lead Arsenal’s attack for years to come. In defense, Wenger replaced an ageing Bacary Sagna with his younger international contemporary in Debuchy. And then brought in Calum Chambers in order to play what looks like one of three positions: right back, center back, and defensive midfield. It has been a lesson in astute spending so far as I can tell, though we should probably wait until the end of the season before we level judgement.
Incredibly, Wenger even paid “over the odds” to get Calum Chambers in³. £11m up front and a further £6m in performance bonuses is a huge chunk of money to spend on a 19 year old center back. But Chambers has impressed everyone at Arsenal this pre-season. Slotting in a center back he has been positionally perfect in defense, tough in the tackle, and even showed off his excellent dribbling technique in midfield a few times. With Wenger’s words about Chambers’ education (as a DM), technique (dribbling), and endurance I suspect Wenger sees Chambers as his holding midfielder of the future.
And while Arsene Wenger has been on this rather garish spending spree, the other traditionally spendthrift teams in the Premier League have been forced to sell players to finance their spending. For example, Liverpool spent nearly £100m bringing in Lallana, Lambert, Lovren, and Lazar, essentially buying all of Southampton, and financed most of that with the sale of Luis Suarez for £71m. Chelsea also spent £80m bringing in Costa, Fabregas, and Filipe which they financed by getting PSG to pay nearly £50m for David Luiz.4 And even Man City have “only” spent £25m resorting instead to getting players in on a free (Sagna) or getting them on loan (Lampard) from their sister club NYCFC.
On the surface it looks like financial fair play is working, then. Arsenal are spending the money they earn and clubs like Chelsea and City are having to cut back on their spending after being fined or warned by UEFA. Except that it does look a bit like these teams are trying to do an end run around FFP by buying up other teams or stashing players in leagues all over the world. Wenger put it thus:
It looks like all these “City” clubs will feed the main club. I heard that they want to buy five clubs all over the world. Look I don’t know well enough the rules but they (Man City) bought a franchise for $100m in the States to play next season. At the moment the players they signed cannot play until next year. So, they register in the clubs where they put them and they can get out on loan. Is it a way to get around fair play? I don’t know.
Lampard is needed at Man City simply for his passport — they needed an English player to meet various homegrown rules. He wasn’t going to play for 6 months so it made sense that he would look for a team to go on loan to. And despite the imaginings of Wenger, Man City have come out and said that they will pay all of Lampard’s wages. Still, I do have to pause when I see that City own three other teams in the world, Melbourne, NYCFC, and Yokohama and that they have designs to buy two more teams. It gives me pause because if they did own five teams they could, in theory, do exactly what Wenger fears: they could use those teams to buy up talent and then loan those players back to the mother team.
Chelsea have been doing something similar with the loan system in Europe, stashing players all over world football and especially at Vitesse Arnhem. The Chelsea scheme is a bit different to the City scheme in that Chelsea buy the players, sign them to a long term deal, and then loan them out for experience. But the effect is remarkable. Chelsea just sold Romelu Lukaku to Everton which helped finance the purchase of Cesc Fabregas. Chelsea, in essence, sold a prospect for an established star. It’s a great bit of business from the Chelsea perspective.
But is Financial Fair Play working? Arsenal, for the moment, look to be a beneficiary of the system, spending their money quite freely since it is money that they earned. And if the idea was to get clubs like City and Chelsea to reign in their spending then I guess FFP has worked to some degree. But what we know for a fact that FFP has done is force clubs like Chelsea and City to find alternative and creative ways to finance players. Chelsea is doing so by purchasing all the young players in the world and loaning them out while City is just buying whole clubs.
We have to wait until the end of the transfer window to know for sure if City and Chelsea have curbed their spending and to see where Arsenal finish in the net spend race. But for the moment Arsenal are top of the spending table and quickly destroying myths about Wenger and his management of the club. Arsene could even take us into uncharted myth-busting territory if he buys Carvalho from Sporting for £30m. Imagine that for a second, Wenger paying a huge sum for a young player who is an outright talented, physically imposing defensive mid… the negative naybobs might have to close up shop for the season if he did that.
Pre-season tours of America, spending lavishly on star names, developing young talent into superstars like Ramsey, winning cups… huh.. I guess we got our Arsenal back.
¹The new party line of the Wenger-outists is that Wenger has wasted the money. He should have bought X player instead of Sanchez, Chambers, or Debuchy.
²In case you’re keeping score, Wenger also brought in a new fitness coach and a new head of the youth team, spending money there as well. That is money which doesn’t show up in the Transfermarkt calculations. Both the fitness of the squad and the fact that the academy hasn’t produced any stars aside from Jack Wilshere were also major criticisms of Wenger last season.
³Yet another myth which has been squashed; that Wenger is afraid to buy English because they cost too much and because he’s had some bad experiences with English players like Franny Jeffers. But buying Chambers is part of Arsene’s new approach to re-Anglicizing Arsenal. He’s got Theo, Jack, Kieran, Alex, and now Calum who could all be starters for Arsenal now or soon. Arsene even went so far as to say “I hope England win (the World Cup) with six players from Arsenal!” So, I guess he’s got at least one more Englishman on his radar.
4That deal still leaves me stammering. How Chelsea turned one of the worst center backs I’ve ever seen play the game into Diego Costa and Filipe has to be the transfer deal of the season.