The transfer window has slammed shut. Although that might not be the correct way to describe it because “slamming” implies a loud and dramatic action. For Arsenals fans, the transfer window ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Rather than droning on about the entire summer and wondering aloud about the season ahead and the future of the club, I’d rather just provide a reflection on what I consider the few big issues left unresolved as we enter September.
It seems to me that when Arsenal have a plan for the transfer window, we tend to execute rather effectively. We were tipped off pretty early in the summer that Robin Van Persie would not be staying at the club. And we appeared prepared for that inevitability. We grabbed Podolski at the outset of the summer to show our intent, and added Giroud shortly after to soften the blow of losing our captain and primary goal-scorer. Regardless of whether you think we should have kept van Persie, and regardless of whether you think he was properly replaced, and regardless of whether you think he should’ve been sold elsewhere, we should be able to agree that Arsenal seemed to have a plan for dealing with his departure. They knew their targets, they got them early, and they sold van Persie. Case closed.
Similarly, it seems clear that Arsene had a plan for the playmaker role vacated by Cesc the summer before. We lacked dynamism in midfield last season. Wenger wanted to address that this summer and he did it in style. Santi Cazorla was the signing of the summer in my opinion and proves, yet again, that when Arsene and Arsenal have a clear plan, they are capable of executing it with aplomb.
That’s the good news from this summer. The bad news is that Arsenal don’t seem to know how to react when things don’t go the way they expect. We saw last summer just how panicked and disorganized the club can be when players make unexpected decisions. Our trolley dash during the last deadline day worked out in the long-run, arguably rescuing a top four place. But the start to last season was a direct result of the summer’s
hilariously discouragingly bungled business.
This summer we saw evidence of the same problems. Wenger knew RVP was off and he had a plan. He knew he needed to replace Cesc after a season without a midfield maestro and he did it brilliantly. But when Alex Song suddenly made his role at Arsenal untenable, familiar refrains from last summer could be heard once again.
Song started 64 Premier League games the last two seasons. Say what you like about him, he was one of the first names on the team sheet. As such, you cannot afford to lose him without a proper replacement. Wenger seemed to acknowledge as much when he said, “We are looking to bring one more midfielder in of course, and maybe one defender as well because we still feel we are short in some positions.”
I realize that Arsene can never be taken at his word when discussing transfer plans, but I think this was a genuine statement by the manager. Use of the words “of course” suggests it was obvious to Arsene that you must buy a midfielder when you sell a midfielder who started almost every game the previous season and for whom you have no natural replacement in the squad.
Say what you like about Diaby, Jack, Coquelin and Frimpong, but expecting any of them to fill the void left by Song is a bit of a leap of faith. Three of the four have serious injury concerns and the fourth (Coquelin) also has suffered terrible injuries during his young career. Moreover, none of them has extensive first team experience. Jack is the most talented player at the club, but it could still be quite some time before we see him firing on all cylinders again. Song, for all his failings, has extensive experience, a decent fitness record, and did happen to provide the most assists in the team last season.
But the more remarkable thing about Song’s departure and the fact that he wasn’t replaced is that Alex Song, just 24 years of age, still had 3 years left on his deal with Arsenal. He didn’t have to be sold. Training ground tantrums and dodgy agents aside, Alex Song was a regular starter for Arsenal, healthy, at a good age, was on a very reasonable wage, and had 3 years left on his deal.
You cannot sell such a player unless you have a clear plan for replacing him. Links to a loan move for Michael Essien on deadline day suggest that we had no such plan. Perhaps the plan was to bring in Sahin on loan from Real Madrid, but our decision not to match Liverpool’s offer (rightly or wrongly), eliminated that option.
Had Arsenal bought a player like M’Villa or Capoue, you could argue that Song was sold for a healthy profit because he was a problem character and we had a clear plan for replacing him. But that’s not the case. We bought no one. We sold our most dependable midfielder over the past two seasons, for a healthy profit, and did not replace him with anyone except existing players who are untested or beset by injuries or both. And we did that despite the manager saying that we would “of course add one more midfielder.” It seems to me that selling Alex Song was not part of this summer’s plan and that is borne out by the club’s failure to replace him.
That brings me to the other hugely unexpected development of the summer: Theo Walcott’s contract situation. The transfer window is now closed and Theo Walcott is 10 months away from leaving Arsenal for nothing. Bought at a young age for a healthy fee, Walcott was earmarked for stardom at Arsenal. We put time and energy and resources into developing him and put up with quite a few injury riddled seasons and frustrating performances along the way.
But lately there have been glimpses of the player he can become. Last season he played big in big games and he was second on the team in goals and assists. So when we lost van Persie this summer and subsequently lost Song, it became increasingly important that we re-sign Theo Walcott. For a club to succeed it needs some degree of continuity and losing Theo would’ve been one-too-many key departures in one summer, especially after suffering a few the summer before.
As important as it was to sign Theo, there was also the realization that if he didn’t sign, he might need to be sold. Unlike Alex Song, there are players in the squad who can do many of the things Theo already does, and some would argue that the other options are even more appealing. Regardless of your opinion on the latter point, it would be unthinkable to allow Theo to leave the club for free next summer. An English international with huge marketability, in his early 20s, and who Lionel Messi once described as a “one of the most dangerous players in the world,” would surely command a sizable fee that could be effectively re-invested in the squad. If Theo wouldn’t re-sign, he would have to be sold.
Except Theo wasn’t sold. And he didn’t re-sign. Once again the club seemed to panic in the face of an unexpected and challenging decision and allowed the window to close without resolving Theo’s contract situation conclusively. Again, this was at odds with Arsene’s statement that Theo’s situation would be sorted out “one way or the other” before the window closed. Just a few days later, the lack of resolution had Arsene declaring Theo’s love for the club and his disregard for money. I’d guess that even the manager himself doesn’t believe that line of reasoning.
We’ve seen what players value time and again. Regardless of who they supported as a child, or how much Mr. Wenger did for their career, or how patient the club was with their development, we’ve seen player after player choose money over loyalty. And now Theo Walcott is in a position to make a huge financial gain next summer at the expense of our great club. He can leave on a lucrative Bosman and leave Arsenal holding nothing but the bill for his time on the treatment table and the balls that had to be purchased when his wayward training-ground crosses left London Colney.
Now the real fun begins. Because Theo will likely spend the rest of this season playing out the last year of his deal. Every press conference will feature questions about his contract status and whether he’s leaving in the summer. Every time he pulls out of a 50/50 challenge there’ll be questions about his motivation. Every time he’s on the bench there’ll be stories that he’s become a problem in the dressing room. And even though it might all be rubbish, it will still be a very unwanted distraction.
Furthermore, considering the board’s clear intention to make a profit off transfers every summer, losing Theo for free next summer just means that we’ll be roughly 20 million Pounds worse off in next summer’s market. Something to consider when you ask whether it was worth keeping him this season regardless of his contract status.
It’s a lousy situation and one that I don’t think the club was prepared for. I’m guessing that Arsenal genuinely believed Theo would re-sign before the window shut. Perhaps they also expected to have plenty of offers for the winger in case the contract talks broke down. But neither seemed to happen and there was no contingency. Ultimately, letting Theo start the season unsigned just gives him all the power and seems to further prove that the club does not fare well when faced with an unexpected circumstance.
In final adjudication I think you’d have to say that Arsenal get a passing grade for this transfer window, but just barely. Maybe.
The club once again made a profit on transfers and we now have a clear indication that profiting from transfers is an annual requirement. So we have to accept that even though none of us will like it. Arsene signed three very good players, one of whom was the buy of the summer. We do have some players returning from longterm injuries and that will bolster the squad. We also managed to move out some of the so-called “deadwood,” even if most of the moves were merely loans.
But we also lost two of our biggest contributors from one season ago. Again. We sold our captain and talisman to one of our most hated rivals and have already had to suffer through seeing him score a goal of top quality while we have failed to tally in two matches. And we allowed a valuable asset to start the season in the final year of his contract. All of which is enough to make you sick to your stomach.
Wenger is a genius. He’s a master of making the most out of limited resources. But some of the “resources” he’s working with are “limited” because of his decisions. Last season we were cut adrift from the title contenders and were relatively fortunate to finish in the Champions League places. We were out of the Champions League after the first knockout round. And we were eliminated from the FA Cup by an unimpressive Sunderland.
This season we all hope to improve on those results. So the important question is whether the squad is stronger. But not just stronger. Significantly stronger. Because last season’s team was significantly short of winning anything and will need more than marginal improvement if we expect to lift a trophy or two or three. Is a team that lost van Persie and Song, Signed Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla, and saw Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby return from season-long injuries stronger? I actually believe that it is. Is it “significantly stronger?” That’s where I’m not so sure.
As always, we’ll keep hope alive. I believe this can be a special year, but I also believe that it would’ve been much easier for it to be a special year had Arsenal coped with this summer’s business a bit better.
Now that the window is closed, we can hopefully stop talking about who isn’t at the club and get behind the players wearing the Arsenal shirt this season. That starts on Sunday at Anfield.
Come on You Gunners!