Lessons from Le Professeur

by André Vale

The arrival of Ndombele and the potential arrivals of Sessegnon and Lo Celso mean that the club means business.

Over the past season or so, I have come across a decent amount of articles comparing our current situation with where Arsenal stood in 2006. The parallels are many: this will be our first full season in a new, shiny stadium, and on the back of the club’s first ever Champions League final; we have an exciting manager, that can attract world class talent; we have a fantastic academy, providing young talented players to the first team. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the similarities are significant enough that I believe Levy & co should pour into their history and understand how their decline came about precisely when all the pieces seemed to have fallen into place.

For me, there is one key element that slowly but steadily brought Arsenal down: Lack of investment in the first team. Now, I know what you are thinking. All fans think that if their club is not splashing some cash in players, then it will spell doom for them, so all I am doing is reproducing those fears. But I do have reason to believe that a fundamental problem of perspective and tunnel vision hampered Arsenal’s strategy in the transfer market and caused them to move backwards over the last decade.

Hear me out.

Wenger is, to his credit, a very intelligent man. (Bear with me here, ye Tottenham faithful). You don’t get to garner the trophies and respect he amassed over his career if you are not. He built Arsenal on the back of a quality defence he inherited and a collection of young, sometimes undervalued (mostly) foreign players that most in England had never even heard of when they landed in Heathrow. The strategy for his first decade in charge was perfect and perfectly executed.

But once the Emirates Stadium was completed they were faced with a massive dilemma. Not only was the cost of the stadium limiting their potential investment in the transfer market, they were also faced with what Wenger perceived as an inflated market. The arrival of Abramovich at Chelsea three years earlier had made transfer fees balloon and the increase of TV and commercial deals for the top clubs had ensured that Manchester United, Liverpool and others could stay in that particular dog fight.

Wenger’s perspective on this was also influenced by the fact that he had studied economics. From an economist’s point of view, it seemed clear that the market was hyper inflated. Wenger therefore thought there was no value in the market and didn’t make sense to invest large sums of cash, because once prices came back down to more normal levels, his club would be in a position of strength with their cash reserves. To the owners, this was music to their ears and with no director of football to warn of the dangers of this approach, Wenger could decide freely how much to (not) spend.

But the market never came down. The purchases of Manchester City and PSG, alongside the continuous increase in revenue from TV and commercial deals meant that this was the new normal in transfer fees. The decision to not try to compete with the big guns but instead find value (Wenger’s favourite word) in the market meant that year after year the squad’s quality was diminishing. Some shrewd business here and there allowed them to continue to qualify for the Champions League, but the decline was becoming so obvious that even Wenger had to admit defeat when he eventually decided to go all in and almost tripled the club’s transfer record when he brought Mesut Ozil. A year later, he spent big again on Alexis Sanchez.

It was too little, too late.

Spending big on a couple of highly talented attackers may have soothed the fans and guaranteed a number of good results over the next couple of years, but the squad’s lack of quality in other areas was painfully obvious. Wenger never dealt with that and Emery will have to continue cleaning up for a few more years (if he is given the time to do so). Wenger’s legacy was left in tatters because of his stubbornness and refusal to admit his economic view of the transfer market meant he would leave them in worse shape than what he had found it in.

Looking at the summer’s transfer news so far, I feel mildly optimistic that lessons have been learned. Pochettino is, of course, not an economist, so he is not biased to see the player market in the same way Wenger did. Levy, on the other hand, must be wary of the enormous challenge that would be to have to pay for the new stadium without Champions League revenue. It is also clear at this point that “normal” transfer fees are a thing of the past. When a (admittedly highly talented) 19-year-old with half a season of Portuguese top flight costs over £100M, you know that value, in the sense Wenger sought, is very rare.

The arrival of Ndombele and the potential arrivals of Sessegnon and Lo Celso mean that the club means business. There doesn’t seem to be a fear of spending money like the one that almost paralysed Wenger, and left Arsenal’s squad in the state of disarray we see today. In football, standing still is moving backwards, and after over 500 days of drought, Levy & Poch seem intent in not allowing Arsenal’s mistakes to be repeated at White Hart Lane.

Which would make it all the sweeter: To know that from similar positions of strength, we were the ones to take advantage, while they moved in the opposite direction. Thanks for the lessons, Professeur.

Author

André Vale

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