The Arsenal gamble that’s paying off in style

When it comes to some of the most exciting players on the market, Edu no longer has to make the phone calls. The Arsenal sporting director is now taking them, as so many of the best talents and agents go to him.

They can see which way the club are headed. Declan Rice is now considering them over Chelsea and Manchester United, to go with a host of other names. Arsenal are very suddenly one of the most attractive prospects in sport.

“Suddenly” is the key word, because it makes a considerable difference from this time last year and a profound difference from Mikel Arteta’s first full season.

Then, in the summer of 2020, Arsenal could barely get some targets to even consider them.

“Nobody wanted to come,” was a common refrain. It was seen as a “negative project”. As recently as last January, Dusan Vlahovic had no real interest and instead went to Juventus.

It’s a wonder what the Serbian thinks now, but then most of the game have had to change their thinking. That is because Arsenal display a genuinely rare insight, that should start to change mindsets in football in a bigger way.

Most targets over those years wanted nothing to do with Arteta’s side because results were inconsistent and the team looked like it was going nowhere. The real twist is not how that has changed, but that it was pretty much part of the plan. Arsenal did what virtually no major club has had the courage to do and allowed a “fallow year”, in order to replenish.

The concept has been a staple of agriculture since the bronze age, but represents an approach that figures within football see as “unprecedented”.

It went beyond a show of faith in the manager, or an endurance of bad results. Arsenal accepted the reality of where they were as a club and were essentially willing to write off a season, in order to give Arteta the space to build.

This is why there was never any real concern at the club around that eighth place in 2020-21.

It did involve harder decisions about recruitment, too. Surveying their difficult place in the market, Arsenal realised they had to go “the Borussia Dortmund route” and look at the next generation. That involved some surprisingly high fees for players like Aaron Ramsdale and Ben White, but was offset by far lower wages across the squad. Arsenal became much leaner.

That was greatly aided by maybe the biggest decision of all. That was the rare call in football to write off a lot of “dead money” by discarding highly paid and highly popular stars in Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The latter move was all the more assertive since the striker had just signed a new contract and been given the captaincy, having scored the goals that delivered Arteta the 2019-20 FA Cup.

Aaron Ramsdale has shone since joining the club (PA Wire)
Aaron Ramsdale has shone since joining the club (PA Wire)

It was pretty drastic decisiveness to go back on such an investment, but illustrative of the new thinking at the club. Some of it admittedly came from precisely the thinking the Kroenke owners showed in NFL at the Los Angeles Rams, but not to this degree, in this way.

There’s even an argument that it represents a bigger backing of Arteta and the long-term plan than any signing.

Many clubs would have been weighed down by the size of the contracts. Arsenal realised the false economy of it.

It should be acknowledged it wasn’t always clear this was the right approach, and there were a few moments conviction wavered - especially in the winter of 2020-21 - but the club ultimately kept faith. They are now seeing the rewards.

There are a number of major clubs who could do with a similar approach, but they don’t because of the immediate financial incentives of the game, and the impatience of it. This is what a sport that is so economically stratified does, creating more and more waste, and fewer arguments to wait. Once in the Champions League, and enjoying all that extra prize money, clubs become primarily concerned with staying in it. That leads to more short-term decisions, for that year-on-year income. It feeds into a general impatience within clubs, the fans and of course the media, where a certain level is then perpetually demanded.

There’s an argument this is exactly what is happening at Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. It is as if both clubs are hanging on to the teams of 2018-22 and 2015-19, respectively, perpetually seeking to bolt shinier parts onto those cores. There have been changes of individual parts, but no overhaul according to any overarching idea. Far from shiny, they look stale, and more in need of an Arsenal-style refresh.

It is like they need that break.

It doesn’t even need to be as drastic as Arsenal’s eighth place either.

The extreme of this is arguably Barcelona, all the more so because they had so much young talent to see them through such a fallow season. Pedri and Gavi would have made the concept so much easier to sell, and they could still have reached the Champions League even in such a campaign.

Instead, they had the complete opposite of a fallow season. Barcelona went on a lavish summer spree most of the game still see as “crazy”. The industry view remains that their financial situation is precarious, and worryingly prone to the swings of bad luck that can happen on a pitch.

Figures at Barcelona and other clubs might respond they can’t afford to think about missing out, that the need for that income is too great. The irony now is that the willingness to miss out has made Arsenal’s financial future looks so much more secure. Their squad has been built on a sustainable base that can be organically evolved and - as the interest of so many top players attests - they look like they will be a Champions League fixture again. That is also on a position of stronger stability.

Liverpool have struggled to regenerate after such great success (PA Wire)
Liverpool have struggled to regenerate after such great success (PA Wire)

From that perspective, Jurgen Klopp’s comments this week on building a new team at Liverpool were all the more pointed. It is possible he may be forced into such a year, as was almost the case with Manchester United under Ralph Rangnick.

“It’s all based on the situation you are in, especially with the things happening around, Chelsea with the new ownership obviously,” Klopp told Michael Calvin’s Football People. “Nobody knows exactly how they do it, how they can spend this much money. Other teams, nobody likes me talking about that because, OK, talk about it, but transition needs time if you don’t have endless money, otherwise you can change overnight pretty much, bringing in 10 players.”

Chelsea may actually be doing something similar to Arsenal, in that they would be willing to accept going without European football next season. Except, given the spending at Stamford Bridge, their season could be described as anything but “fallow”. There’s also a sense of clutter, as Graham Potter figures out what next.

One of the points of Arsenal’s strategy was the opposite, to strip everything back so there is no clutter, and only clarity.

There’s certainly clarity on its effectiveness.