Last week, Arsenal boss Unai Emery said something surprising: “We cannot sign players where we have to make a payment … we can only make loan signings.” That’s not what you’d expect to hear from a club that is six points away from fourth place and in danger of finishing outside the Champions League spots for the third successive season after 19 consecutive years of playing in the world’s biggest club competition.
Nor is that what you’d expect from a club that ranked sixth in the most recent Deloitte Money League, boasts the second-highest average attendance in the Premier League and has made a profit every year since 2008. (Most recently, they reported profits of £44.6 million in 2017, followed by £25.1 million in the first six months of the following season.)
To some, Emery’s words brought to mind the mid-to-late Arsene Wenger Era, in which the club sat on enormous cash reserves. The manager said they could buy players, but they wouldn’t do it “for the sake of it,” and supporters blamed the owner, Stan Kroenke, for being stingy.
It’s not quite like that now. Emery would happily spend money if he could. Rather, Arsenal offer a case study of how big decisions from newcomers, made in a short time, can have massive knock-on effects. Their situation illustrates how hard it can be to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Cast your mind back 12 months, and consider the 10 days that shook the Emirates. Wenger was still in charge, but his powers were sharply curtailed. Dick Law, the club’s longtime transfer negotiator, had left, as had Steve Rowley, who had spent more than two decades at the club. To replace them, chief executive Ivan Gazidis (who has since departed to AC Milan) brought in Raul Sanllehi, formerly of Barcelona, as a de facto director of football and Sven Mislintat, formerly of Borussia Dortmund, as chief scout. (Mislintat is reportedly leaving the club as well.)
Gazidis, Sanllehi and Mislintat convened to tackle three burning issues that would have a huge impact upon the club’s future. They knew they had to sell Alexis Sanchez or risk losing him for nothing at the end of the season. Sanchez ultimately chose Manchester United over Manchester City — that decision was out of their hands — but what was not out of their hands was the choice to bring aboard Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian ended up with a deal worth $11.5 million a year through 2021. An Arsenal insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, was hugely pleased, saying: “Of course we’re happy … we got a £70 million player in exchange for a guy who didn’t want to be here and who would have left nothing. That’s much better than whatever small fee United would have paid us.”
That was Jan. 22, 2018. In the next few days, the Arsenal triumvirate worked through their two other big decisions.
One was the decision to re-sign Mesut Ozil. Like Sanchez, he was six months away from free agency, and he, too, wanted a big bump in salary: from $9.6 million to $20 million-plus. Arsenal chose to extend his deal through 2021 at something close to his requested wage.
Finally came the signing of forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for a club record £57.6 million. Aubameyang had been on the market the previous summer, but Wenger opted instead for another central striker, Alexandre Lacazette. Adding Lacazette was a sizable investment (£46.5 million rising to £52.6 million with bonuses), though at that stage, he had gone nine consecutive games without a goal, and his return to that point (nine in 27) wasn’t earth-shattering.
Aubameyang, on the other hand, had scored 69 goals in 79 Bundesliga games the previous two years. While there were some reservations about his character — he missed training sessions in Dortmund and tried to engineer a move away the previous summer — they ultimately agreed to both the fee and a wage packet of some $12.8 million a season through 2021, nearly twice what Lacazette had agreed to six months earlier.
Put differently, in the time of a few days, Arsenal’s triumvirate (Gazidis, Sanllehi and Mislintat) committed more than $150 million over the next three-and-a-half years in wages to three players. Annually, these players’ deals represent roughly one-fifth of the club’s total wage bill. What’s more, the three players in question were 28, 29 and 29 years old at the time they signed, which means they would have very little resale value, particularly given their salaries.
What has happened since? With 26 goals in 41 games in all competitions, Aubameyang has undoubtedly pulled his weight. As for the other two, the story is different. Mkhitaryan has started 18 league games the past 12 months. That’s the same number as Ozil, who, on top of everything else, doesn’t seem to be in Emery’s good books. The cash committed to Mkhitaryan and Ozil isn’t quite dead money, but it is still a vast amount of resources to have tied up in players who have been unproductive.
Emery doesn’t appear to view them as key players. Presumably, when he interviewed for the job, he knew that they were there and that the club had made long-term commitments to them. At that point, you’d expect the club to have said something like: “OK, Unai, you’re brilliant and a great coach, and we’re excited to have you. But can you promise us you can make it work with these guys because we think they’re talented and we are giving them shedloads of money?”
All of this, coupled with Kroenke’s enduring conservatism, helps explain both Emery’s words last week and the fact that a contract offer to Aaron Ramsey was made and then withdrawn.
This isn’t about having a go at the triumvirate who made those fateful decisions a year ago. The reality is that Gazidis, Sanllehi and Mislintat had to make three huge calls in a matter of a few days, without knowing who the next manager was going to be and what type of players he would like.
They got one of those decisions right and, it appears for now, two wrong. But the choices made a year ago are making a lasting impact, both in the type of players Arsenal can recruit and in the ones they can retain.