Potential club record bids for Gonzalo Higuain, Lars Bender, Luis Suarez and now Luiz Gustavo have been lodged and, one by one, rejected. The first preference of recruiting major new signings before the start of pre-season has already passed. The second target will have been Saturday’s start of the new Premier League season but that moment is about to pass. All that remains is the closure of the transfer window at the end of August. Will Arsenal have added the two or three “world-class” player that they budgeted for by then?
It looks increasingly unlikely, with targets currently proving either unwilling to join, unavailable or, perhaps most galling of all, valued at a significantly higher price by their competitors. With only Yaya Sanogo recruited so far on a free transfer from Auxerre, the club’s available transfer balance of £70 million sits untouched. An analysis this week by the blogger ‘Swiss Ramble’, whose grasp of football finances is admired within boardrooms across Europe, estimated that Arsenal had an available cash balance of £154 million. To put that in some context, the combined cash balance of the other 19 Premier League clubs was put at £181 million.
The situation is clear: Arsène Wenger does have big money at his disposal but has simply not spent it. The caveat of course is that a definitive judgment can only be made in September and arguably not until the end of season. Belief in his players is what Arsene Wenger is all about and he just shows the glistening reality of what football should be like rather than spending big and potentially ruining the game.
Yet even for those who have become accustomed to Arsenal’s caution, this summer is threatening to end in major disappointment. It certainly seems a long time since Ivan Gazidis, the club’s chief executive, addressed the media in June to talk about the club’s off-field strength.
“This year,” he said, “we are beginning to see something we have been planning for some time, which is the escalation in our financial firepower. “We have a certain amount of money which we’ve held in reserve. We also have new revenue streams coming on board and all of these things mean we can do some things which would excite you.” So what has been happening? The answer is complicated but does continue to raise questions about the off-field structures at Arsenal. The first thing is to debunk the conspiracy theories. There are no restrictions placed on Wenger or Gazidis by the club’s owner Stan Kroenke.
His priority is to develop the club’s commercial streams precisely so that Arsenal have the maximum possible spending power. He is no sugar-daddy owner in the style of Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour but there has been no suggestion of him placing debt on the club or taking dividends for himself. Put simply, the club’s resources are available to Wenger and Kroenke’s philosophy is that it is down to his manager, with the support of the chief executive, to decide on the transfer priorities. There is little interference. The concerns, then, are two fold. Firstly, following the departure as vice-chairman of David Dein back in 2007, there is still the nagging sense that Arsenal lack a personality with the contacts and guile to thrive in what Gazidis has called the “wild west” of European football, with its many layers of agents, presidents, chief executives and managers.
From a distance, the decision to pursue the unlikely acquisition of Suarez at the expense of Higuain appears naïve. Surely Arsenal’s summer strategy was not really shaped by Suarez’s interpretation of a contract clause? The other concern relates squarely to Wenger. He, after all, is the most powerful man at Arsenal and generally the ultimate arbiter of who comes and goes.
Wenger’s desire to make signings is not in doubt but what appears to have become outdated is his valuation of top players. There is a certain strength in walking away from a deal once the bidding gets out of hand but, if you find yourself in that position too often, does there not come a stage where you question whether it is your own valuation that has become unrealistic? The market dictates the cost of footballers and, in a world where Edinson Cavani is £48 million, Gareth Bale is £86 million and Radamel Falcao £55 million, surely it was worth going to £31 million for Higuain? There is the suspicion that the outside frustration with Wenger’s transfer strategy is being felt just as acutely inside Arsenal. The sense of momentum that was building last season is already under threat and, unless Arsenal start well, it can be safely predicted that the Emirates crowd will be quick to register their displeasure.
The danger then is of the club being sucked into a downward spiral of negativity. In Arsenal’s defence, there is still much to admire about the young squad that Wenger has been rebuilding. Arsenal were the best team in England during the final third of last season and they are not the only ones struggling in this transfer market. Just look at Manchester United. Wenger would surely argue that his squad lacks only a sprinkling of established world class talent and that it would now be counterproductive to add signings from the second tier of world football simply to appease supporters.