Arsenal throw money at past problems but focus on future could harm present ambitions
Arsenal are top of the table. Arsenal are also bottom of the table. They prop up the Premier League, pointless and goalless after a historically bad start. They were also the division’s biggest spenders in the summer window, committing £156.8 million ($216.9m) in transfer fees.
It made 2021 a contrast with 2015, when Arsenal were the only club in Europe’s top five leagues not to sign an outfield player. Now they have five, plus goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale.
If Arsene Wenger’s austerity-era Arsenal, with its annual top-four finishes, forms the antithesis to a club in an existential crisis, Mikel Arteta’s expensive overhaul shows how times have changed. Arsenal’s owners, the Kroenke family, were long too frugal and too unambitious. Now they seem to be chasing their tail, throwing money at a problem in a bid to solve it.
Arsenal’s expenditure stands out in part because their net spend is so large. Joe Willock left for Newcastle for £25m but their other departures – Lucas Torreira, Reiss Nelson, Matteo Guendouzi, William Saliba, Hector Bellerin, Dinos Mavropanos and Alex Runarsson – are all on loan. Burdened by past mistakes, trapped by high contracts, backing a manager who wants to exile some players, they are struggling to sell.
The arrivals tell a tale of a shift in policy. In 2020, Arsenal gambled on short-termism, giving huge contracts to the ageing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, David Luiz and Willian, and duly underachieved. They can count themselves fortunate that the midfielder made an honourable exit, cancelling his contract after a disastrous season, saving the Gunners around £20m in wages.
Now there has been a swing to youth. Of the newcomers, Ben White and Ramsdale are 23, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Martin Odegaard 22 and Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares both 21. There is an attempt to construct a team for a generation. Factor in Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Magalhaes, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli and Arsenal could field an entire, if imbalanced, side aged 24 or under.
That White came from Brighton and Ramsdale from Sheffield United means the headline investments of £50m and £30m in transfer fees are offset by lesser wages than Willian, the least free of free transfers, commanded. Yet it was nevertheless notable that Odegaard was alone among the newcomers in starting the 5-0 thrashing by Manchester City.
Tomiyasu had not yet joined. Lokonga had been dropped in a reshuffle, despite an encouraging display against Chelsea. Ramsdale may be both back-up and rival to Bernd Leno, though his decidedly mixed fortunes with Bournemouth and Sheffield United raise the question if he really is a future first choice.
Tavares has looked bright but is Tierney’s deputy. White had a disastrous debut at Brentford and then contracted coronavirus. If the fees raise questions if Arsenal overpaid when there were few other buyers and if they have purchased three pricey understudies, some of the precedents carry a warning.
Their future-proofing has backfired before. Guendouzi and Saliba are unwanted, not cornerstones of Arteta’s team. That Bellerin, voted the division’s best right-back in 2015-16, regressed highlights how their best-laid plans often go awry.
For now, Arsenal’s spending spree may be buying Arteta time. Everything that could have gone wrong has, but perhaps it is not fair to judge the manager when Tomiyasu has not debuted, when Odegaard, the most gifted and auspicious of the arrivals, and White have made a solitary league appearance apiece and when the latter has yet to begin a partnership with Gabriel.
Arsenal may be looking long term, but their plight requires results soon. Even if Arsenal prove the best as well as the biggest spenders, the possibility is that Arteta is building a side for his eventual successor.