How Arsenal get back into the Champions League (and why they won’t)

08/07/2019 Planet FPL

The transfer window is open. A time for furious speculation, dodgy translation of Turkish news reports, and angry twitter debates over the age of Colombian strikers. For most, the speculation brings anticipation for the new season. Arsenal fans, however, are ripe for fake rumours, agent pomposity, and players being whisked away at Heathrow airport to go and sign for Napoli on deadline day. Every rumour is taken with 5 times your recommended daily intake of sodium, even more so with reliable outlets reporting the Gunners have a meagre £45 million to ‘splash’. It’s not so much a ‘war chest’, as it is a plastic Tupperware with a stale cheese sandwich inside. Frustratingly this comes at a time when the squad needs its biggest overhaul in my time as an Arsenal fan. Obviously this task would have been easier had the entire squad not collectively wet the bed from March onwards, meaning what seemed like a great chance of Top Four and a European trophy, resulted in one of the most lacklustre ends to a season you are likely to see from a top tier club. So, what do Arsenal now do to get back into the Champions League? How do you recover from such a low?

Step 1 – Promote the Youth

Arsenal’s Hale End Academy has been producing some elite level young talent, particularly in the attacking departments for some time. Despite a well-earned reputation for giving kids a chance, Wenger was reluctant to rely on the prodigious prospects towards the end of his tenure. This had two detrimental effects. Firstly, a lot of promising players left. Ismael Bennacer, Jeff-Reine Adelaide, and Serge Gnabry are just three highly-touted players who all departed in the past two seasons, but are now plying their trade amongst some of Europe’s best clubs. Secondly, the growth of Nketiah, Bielik, Maitland-Niles, and Willock (those who have been given opportunities) is difficult to gauge. Bielik, who impressed on loan at Charlton, hasn’t been tested in the Arsenal environment; how good would he be? The other three have all either had sporadic game time in makeshift line-ups, or played out of position. The idea that they would be able to progress aspects of their tactical understanding under such circumstances doesn’t add up.

To ensure Arsenal retain this talented bunch, Emery has to make an effort to integrate them. It could be one advantage of the limited budget. Put Bielik in over Mustafi; we know everything we need to about how many different ways the German can bring me to tears. Give Willock chances to show he could be the heir-apparent to Ramsey. Short on wide players? Integrate Reiss Nelson into the side, give 17 year-old Bukayo Saka a spot on the bench, and start allowing these players to physically adapt to playing against fully-grown men.

Those who follow me on twitter might have seen me advocate a ‘burn it to the ground’ approach in the aftermath of the Europa League final. Whilst I don’t usually advocate vandalism, I think there needs to be a substantial shift in age profile. Less ‘Arse’-nal, more ‘Arson-al’.

Step 2 – Shift out the deadwood

For too long Arsenal allowed sub-par players (and banter behemoth Carl Jenkinson) to take big wages and contribute very little. Much was lauded about the smart wage structure Arsenal used to operate in, but it contained a fundamental flaw; one that Spurs will need to be careful to avoid. By putting a cap on the highest earner, spreading the wages evenly, you prevent astronomical weekly packages from hampering your entire infrastructure. The downside is that you end up with a lot of squad players on wages that their ability can’t justify. This worsens over time, as squad players don’t tend to improve, meaning when you come to sell them the only clubs interested are a tier below who can’t afford to pay Kieran Gibbs £50,000 per week (unless you’re West Brom; Cheers Pardew). When Arsenal did end up breaking that wage structure, most notably with the signing of Mesut Ozil, you then raise the bar for everyone else. This is how you end up paying Mkhitaryan £200k p/w, Elneny £50k p/w, Jenkinson £45k p/w, and Mustafi £90k p/w.

Not only are you overpaying underperformers, you’re underpaying those whom you might want to keep (cough Aaron Ramsey cough). So, Arsenal have to ditch some of these high earners. Aside those I’ve mentioned, players who you might consider more integral may well need to be sacrificed. Xhaka, Koscielny, and Kolasinac all figured heavily for the Gunners last campaign, but are all earning a pretty penny. The hierarchy would be wise to utilise these ‘saleable assets’ whilst there could still be a market for them. Sell before people notice Xhaka has the turning circle of a forklift carrying a pregnant rhino, Koscielny’s ankles are weaker than Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan (#topical), and Kolasinac’s delivery is as accurate as a blind archer in a hurricane. This then gives crucial funds, in transfer budget and wages, for the next step, which could be the most important of all …

Step 3 – Buy ‘smart’

Nobody goes into the transfer market intending to buy ‘stupid’, although it can sometimes feel like that at the Emirates. Retrospectively, Ivan Gazidis announcing how financially flush Arsenal were before blowing £70 million on Xhaka and Mustafi seems a little naïve (to put it charitably to the human thumb). So Arsenal fog-horning their limited budget, albeit terrifying from a fan’s perspective, is accidentally smart. Even though the market has inflated fees beyond that pauper’s purse, there are still opportunities to pick up players at a decent price.

Julian Weigl broke onto the scene at Dortmund a few years ago, but struggled to establish himself in midfield last year. The record signing of Mats Hummels could force the Germans to sell, and further takes a place the youngster had impressed in; he filled in well in defence during an injury crisis. The ability to cover two positions of need would greatly bolster Arsenal’s squad, and Weigl is certainly of the quality to displace Xhaka as the deepest midfielder in Emery’s system. A fee of around £23 million is thought to be enough to prise the 23 year-old away from the Bundesliga club. Adept on the ball with a good control of the game, these abilities would be welcomed at the heart of midfield or defence especially in the high-pressure nature of the Premier League.

Kieran Tierney has been one of the strongest links to the Gunners this Summer. Indeed, by the time you are reading this, the Scottish international may well be wearing the red and white. Good enough to be Scotland’s starting left back, his injury record could put some off. Celtic fans attest to his willingness to play through anything, which has caused his game time to be poorly managed, worsening his injuries. He’s young, determined, passionate, and hard-working. Most importantly, he is actually a defender. For some clubs, this may seem like a given. For Arsenal, not so. Kolasinac is more of wing-back/Tasmanian Devil, and Monreal aged last year more than a President does in their 1st term. With Emery’s desire to play 4 at the back, signing someone actually capable of attacking AND defending would be a huge step forward. What a depressing statement that is …

William Saliba is a player I hadn’t heard of prior to about 2 weeks ago. Seeing that Arsenal are willing to spend £25 million and loan the 18 year old back to St Etienne for the season has me divided. Firstly, there are a lot of French football experts who say that in a couple of years’ time he could be worth double that fee. Clearly he is a very impressive talent, and being able to acquire him now would be a great investment for the future in a position where the academy isn’t producing. However, is it wise to outlay such a large portion of the budget on a player who won’t be available now? Considering the need for a new central defender/not Mustafi, would it be more advisable to fax that cash to someone ready to play this season? It’s the exact dilemma Arsenal find themselves in across the board: the need to promote youth and change the age-profile, with the clear necessity of reversing this worrying slide.

Is the answer, therefore, Dan-Axel Zagadou? If the question is ‘Who has the best name in modern football?’, perhaps. Another youngster from Dortmund who appears to have been displaced by the re-signing of Mats Hummels, the 19 year-old Frenchman is another in the profile of a typical ‘Arsenal’ signing. A very clearly talented defender who is still a little bit raw, he would add aerial dominance and would be a vast improvement passing-wise on ‘He-who-must-not-be-played’. He recovered from a knee-injury having broken into the side, and was good enough to reclaim his position after his 2 month absence. Likened to Umtiti, he is a player for now and the future, making him the most appealing of the centre-backs linked so far.

Lifelong Arsenal fan Wilfred Zaha has ‘let it be known’ he would like to join the Gunners (God knows why) this Summer, and his agent/brother has publicly stated the same thing. After a derisory opening bid of £40 million, Crystal Palace are asking for double that figure to sign the Ivorian winger. Quite simply, they aren’t going to get that. Having recently sold Wan-Bissaka to Man United, they aren’t in a financial need to sell either. Add to that the sell-on % United have in Zaha’s contract, meaning they would take 15-25% (depending on reports) of any fee, and the Eagles have every incentive to flip Arsenal the bird. It seems a flight of fancy then. Yet, Arsenal rarely go public with a bid if they are not confident it will succeed. Laugh all you like at the infamous 40 million and a pound bid for Suarez, but Arsenal had been informed by the player’s agents he had a £40 million clause. By going over it, albeit in the most Ebenezer way possible, they believed that Liverpool would be forced to open negotiations. Obviously that didn’t work out, but it is probably the last example of Arsenal actually failing in a transfer bid. In my mind, this is designed to get the ball rolling, and lower Palace’s expectations. I could easily see any of Chambers, Elneny, Jenkinson, or even Mkhitaryan being added to sweeten the deal.

I don’t really need to explain to you what Zaha would bring to Arsenal on the pitch. Pace, width, trickery, determination – all things our current crop of wingers aren’t strong in. As a fan, he would be the most exciting of the players linked. It may seem trite, but he is the type of player people turn up to the stadium for. His passion for the club would add a connection this current squad severely lacks; you can see this in the reaction from the Palace fans to his possible departure. What I am less comfortable with is the idea Arsenal are willing to sell one of their current stars in order to buy him. Would I sacrifice Lacazette? Absolutely not. Bellerin? No thanks! Aubameyang? … Maybe … It’s a sign of the times that these are genuine debates Arsenal fans, and probably the club’s hierarchy, are forced to have.

Why it won’t happen

Now, to bring you back down to earth or, if you’re a schadenfreude fan, lift your spirits. The financial situation at Arsenal has been widely reported, but the true extent of the issues run much deeper. The surface level numbers look good. Reporting profits for 16 years in a row, with an average of £25 million per annum, the 2017/18 profit increased by £25 million (£70 million from £45 million in 16/17). However, that 2017/18 profit was dwarfed by Spurs and Liverpool, both of whom comfortably surpassed the £100 million mark.

This looks worse accounting for player sales that totalled £120 million, meaning the club was operating at a loss of £42 million … that’s a lot. This is where the wage issue I mentioned earlier has had its biggest impact. Combine that with missing out on Champions League football again, and Arsenal recorded their worst operating profit/loss of the last decade.

Another season out of Europe’s elite competition will be worsened by the fact that player sales prior to 18/19 were sparse. The coming financial year is predicted to see Arsenal report the biggest loss in nearly 20 years. Arsenal were the only ‘big six’ side not to see an increase in revenue in 2018, and of the top 20 in Deloitte’s Money League, Arsenal had the lowest growth. That figure of a £30 million fall is lower than West Ham, Schalke, and Everton. Even the Europa League campaign wasn’t enough to help the situation, with Arsenal receiving £50 million less than Manchester United did for their UCL participation.

Clearly, the on-pitch failures have translated into a decrease in growth and revenue. Off-pitch failures are equally as costly. In the last 5 years, Arsenal have received less profit from player sales than Southampton, Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs; a whopping £100 million than their North London rivals. Contrast this to the preceding 5 years, where Arsenal actually boasted the most profit of the Top Six, and you get a much better sense of the financial free-fall Ivan Gazidis allowed the club to fall into.

The ‘spend some fucking money’ chant was listened too in such an incompetent way, it’s quite staggering. Of the nearly £500 million spent over the last 5 years, I’d count maybe 6 transfers as certifiable successes. That’s 19 signings that have been ‘ok’ at best. Want to hear the cherry on top of the ‘I Scream’ sundae? Over the 10 years I’ve been looking at, Gazidis trousered a tidy £22 million. So whilst Arsenal are still paying roughly the same figure per year over the stadium (due to existing debt and loan repayments taken out in order to finance the move), the head honcho saw his own salary increase. Every. Single. Year.

When you look at a declining financial situation, it is increasingly hard to imagine an owner as disinterested in sporting success as Kroenke will substantially invest any of his own money to see fortunes change. Even if he were, I’m not sure I have any faith the mismanaging amongst the club’s hierarchy will see this hypothetical windfall used wisely.

The gap on the pitch between Arsenal and the likes of Liverpool and City has been clear for a couple of years. The way Arsenal in the modern era have distinguished themselves has thought to be the financial management. What is clear, now more than ever, is Arsenal are probably further behind their rivals off the pitch. Maybe promoting Mustafi to CEO might fix things? Although given his reputation for making fans turn red, I don’t know if he’d do anything different for the bank balance. The recent kit launch, for all the enthusiasm it generated, shows the place the Gunners find themselves in. Harking back to the era of Tony Adams, Ian Wright, and David Rocastle, when the connection from pitch to punters was strong. The love of the retro kit is emblematic of how Arsenal fans are dying for something they can feel proud of, and for a time when the strength of the club couldn’t be questioned. After everything I have outlined above, the gap between what Arsenal need to do to and what they can do is arguably the greatest in the modern era. Thankfully, turmoil at United and uncertainty at Chelsea might just give Arsenal the opportunity to squeeze back into the Top Four. Then again, I thought the same in February, and that finished with me staring into an empty pint glass, ranting about Ozil, wondering how exactly we had ended up in the Europa League again. Saying that, so did most Wednesday nights …

(Credit to the excellent reporting of @SwissRamble on twitter, who’s reporting and infographics showed this financial information in a clear way).