Arsenal’s Unsustainable Transfer Policy

Once revered for their financial acumen and shrewd deadlines, Arsenal have lost direction in the transfer market. Raph Boyd takes a look at the biggest problems that have caused the club to struggle in the modern market.

The Arsenal hierarchy have failed to strike the right balance in the transfer market. (Photo Credit – Phil Noble/Reuters)

Arsenal Football Club have a problem. Well, as anyone who watches Arsenal will attest, they actually have quite a few problems, mainly on the pitch. But off the pitch they have a problem which has been an issue for quite a few years now, stretching back to Arsène Wenger’s time at the helm; their transfer dealings are costing them a lot of money.

Now, Arsenal’s transfer history is certainly not all bad – in the last three seasons alone, the club has recruited the likes of goalkeeper Bernd Leno, defenders Gabriel, Kieran Tierney and Cedric Soares and forward Gabriel Martinelli, all five of whom have improved Arsenal and who were cumulatively brought in for a total of less than £80 million. Arsenal’s problem comes less from the amount they are spending, and more with the amount they are making.

In their past five seasons, Arsenal have spent somewhere in the region of £500 million or, on average, about £100 million a season. Now that’s a lot of money, but it’s not necessarily as crazy as it appears. It is obviously more than most clubs in the Premier League spend, but it is also less than four of their “Big Six” rivals in Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. So, by comparison, the amount that Arsenal spend is not a huge issue. The issue is the net gross.

Since the 2016/17 season, Arsenal raked in less than £250 million in player sales and loan fees, an average of just over £40 million each year – not even half of what they spent. Simply put, that’s not good. It would be unhealthy if perennial winners such as Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain did it, but for a club who has not won a league title in the best part of two decades, it is beyond ridiculous.

So, now that whether or not the club have been haemorrhaging money in the transfer market can be answered with an emphatic yes, the other question that remains is how? Arsenal are a club that gained an almost comical reputation of financial frugality. Under Wenger, they rarely spent big money, preferring instead to make shrewd investments in young talent. Acquisitions such as Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robin Van Persie, Kolo Toure and Samir Nasri are all examples of this. Even after Wenger departed in 2018, his successors Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta didn’t seem overly keen on spending large amounts either.

Sometimes criticised for their lack of ambition under Arsène Wenger, the Frenchman picked up numerous astute buys.
(Photo Credit – Getty)

To this day, Arsenal have only ever signed five players; Mesut Özil, Alexandre Lacazette; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang; Nicolas Pépé and Thomas Partey for fees in excess of £40 million. For context of how few that is, Liverpool have signed six such players, Chelsea have signed nine, Manchester United have signed eleven and Manchester City have signed fifteen. This seems fine but once again the spending is not the problem.

Swap the record arrivals for departures and Arsenal have never sold a player for more than £40,000,000, with two of their all time most profitable sales, Marc Overmars to Barcelona and Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid, each happening over twenty years ago. Wojciech Szczesny is another example of a poor sale. Sold to Juventus aged 27, the goalkeeper has won three consecutive Serie A titles in Turin and displaced legendary keeper Gianluigi Buffon as their number one. The fee Arsenal received for him? Around £12 million.

During the 2020/21 season, Arsenal released Mesut Özil, Sokratis Papastathopolous, Shkodran Mustafi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Whilst none of the players were contributing anything meaningful to the campaign, and their newly freed wages were a useful addition to Arsenal’s budget, the quartet were still purchased for a sum total of over £90 million and left for nothing. The quality of their careers at Arsenal can be debated long into the night, but one has to wonder how it was that within five years of the player either being signed or being given a lucrative contract extension, they were able to depart in exchange for nought.

If the exits of established players are confusing, the treatment of promising young players is even stranger. As mentioned, Arsenal is a club renowned for their scouting of teenagers, with Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas Wojciech Szczesny, Jack Wilshere Aaron Ramsey, Hector Bellerin, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli joining the club in their teens and going on to be viewed as some of the best young, and even senior, players in Europe. Again however, this reputation for developing talented youngsters does not extend to how the club handles moving them on.

Serge Gnabry is one of the many Arsenal prospects who have gone on to shine outside of North London. (Photo Credit – UEFA)

Looking at another departing quartet, the sales of Donyell Malen, Ismaël Bennacer, Jeff Reine-Adélaïde and Serge Gnabry serve as greater proof than anything else mentioned previously that Arsenal need to change their ways. Aged 18, 19, 20 and 21 respectively when they left the club, all four have gone on to prove that they were worthy of a proper chance in North London. Currently, Malen is a highly sought-after forward at PSV Eindhoven in his native Holland, Bennacer is a crucial midfield presence in a rejuvenated AC Milan side, Reine-Adélaïde is currently on loan at title-chasing Lyon and captains the France under-21 squad and, most painfully of all, Gnabry is one of the world’s best players at Bayern Munich, where he has been a key component of a team which recently completed a historic six-trophy haul in 2020.

They could have all contributed something at the Emirates, especially as they play in positions that Arsenal have recently spent money in order to improve. Outside of their footballing abilities, however, their sales make Arsenal look even worse. Between 2016 and 2018, the four players were sold for a total of about £7 million. Today, they are collectively worth around £150 million. Fiscally, that is an absolute disaster.

Therein in lies the nucleus of the problem – Arsenal are terrible at selling players. They either bring players in for more than they are worth and move them on for little to, or sometimes absolutely, nothing. Alternatively, they undervalue young talents, possibly focusing on their current ability rather than their potential and miss out on either having a great player or a substantial amount of money.

Whilst football should not be seen strictly as a business, selling a growing commodity for below its potential value, or purchasing a floundering commodity then trying to make a profit from it once its value nosedives, is not how a club should operate. Arsenal should be wary of this; all it takes is a few years of particularly bad transactions and limited success for a club to face trouble. And, if they were to go through such a period, Arsenal could be in very big trouble indeed.

Player values, transfer figures and net spend all courtesy of Transfermarkt, accurate as of March 24th, 2021.

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