By Tim Charlesworth
As another transfer window wends its way to a close there has been a grumbling feeling amongst fans that we have been here before: disappointed expectations, Arsenal indecisive and penny-pinching in their attempts to buy new players, and then Arsene Wenger reminding us that new is just new, and not necessarily better.
There can be little doubt that Wenger is a ditherer. This is a bit of a prejorative word, so I would like to qualify it with the statement that I too, am a ditherer, and I think there is a lot to be said for dithering. Ditherers can be very frustrating (and the Goonersphere is frustrated by Arsenal’s transfer activities), but they can also be the best decision makers. Ditherers consider the widest possible set of options and worry about mistakes, and whilst this can occasionally paralyse them into inaction, it does have the advantage of helping to avoid the mistakes which are legion in the football world. I dither at work, and this winds my colleagues up no end, but I do tend to make very good decisions in the end (in my opinion anyway).
It’s difficult as ever to know what is going on behind the scenes at Arsenal. Transfers always include elements of bluff and negotiation, so they are necessarily conducted behind a veil of secrecy, and Arsenal are a secretive club at the best of times. Above all, it’s silly to form a judgement on how well Arsenal have done in the transfer window before it closes – the one thing you mustn’t do with a ditherer is judge their performance before the end.
During Arsene’s golden years, David Dein brought boldness and decisiveness to the club, counteracting Wenger’s natural reticence, and in that sense they were the perfect partnership. The club completed transfers like Sol Campbell (a free transfer which Arsene complained about the cost of), Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. Since Dein left in 2007, it has been hard to fill the void. I get the impression that Ivan Gazidis is trying to perform the ‘Dein role’, but perhaps lacks the moral and footballing authority that Dein bought to the problem.
Football fans love a transfer, and even more than the transfer, we love transfer speculation. Us Gooners, perhaps love the speculation a little less than others, as it disappoints us so often, but we still can’t resist it, even when we know that most of it is nonsense. Hope triumphs over experience: however well-educated we are by Tony’s writings, we still can’t resist clicking on the clickbait and believing the claims that so-and-so has been ‘booked in for a medical’.
Untold Arsenal has run many stories demonstrating that, contrary to popular belief, transfers don’t’ win trophies and I don’t intend to repeat the overwhelming evidence supporting this conclusion. So for the sake of this article, let’s take it as read that transfers don’t really win trophies. Instead, I would like to have a look at some other possible benefits that transfers bring:
- The bold are always rewarded
- Transfers give pleasure in their own right
- Transfers often do succeed eventually.
The bold are always rewarded in the transfer market.
Many of the complainants about Arsenal’s transfer policy point out that football generally rewards the bold. Arsenal’s two most expensive acquisitions, Ozil and Sanchez, could almost certainly be sold today for more than they were purchased for, so despite the high, apparently risky, fees that were paid, it is difficult to argue that these weren’t good purchases.
The one which really caught my eye this summer, was the sale of Christian Benteke from Liverpool to Crystal Palace. Although it’s difficult to value transfers today with all the add-ons and secrecy, it seems as if the fee was pretty similar, maybe slightly less than, Liverpool paid Villa for him. This is remarkable, because Liverpool have got out of a disastrous transfer with very little financial damage. They probably paid him about £5m in wages in the year that he was their player, so they haven’t got off totally scott free, but then he did play a role as a squad player, scoring some goals, so he delivered something for that £5m.
Last summer, Liverpool paid a ridiculously high price (around £32m) for Benteke, who had showed some promise in a poor Villa team, but was a decidedly second rate striker, clearly not up to the standard of the much-derided Giroud, for example. The purchase looked reckless (as so many have been from Liverpool in recent years), yet it has done Liverpool no real harm at all. Benteke’s acquisition was basically a complete failure, but they have got almost all of their money back. All this perpetrates the illusion that a transfer, almost any transfer, is a good idea.
Of course, the illusion is created by the fact that all purchases look good in a rising market. Benteke’s failure at Liverpool has reduced his value and knocked him down a peg or two in the hierarchy of world football players. The problem is that the value of all players has risen, so the rise in the general market has masked the fall in Benteke’s relative value. This is the same illusion that tends to make British people believe that it is always a good idea to buy a house – in a rising market it is difficult to make a mistake.
The current bout of inflation in the price of footballers dates back to 1987, when Liverpool broke the transfer record by paying the extraordinary price of £1.9m for Peter Beardsley. This seems like a trivial fee in today’s market, and we should certainly adjust this figure for inflation – in today’s money, Liverpool paid £4.9m. Back in 1987 English clubs were not active in the international market for players, and the world record transfer fee was also broken that summer when AC Milan paid PSV Eindhoven £6m (£15m in today’s money) for Ruud Gullit.
No rising market can rise forever, a lesson which human societies find almost impossible to learn. History is littered with examples of ‘bull markets’, when people believed that prices would rise forever – the South Sea bubble of 1720, the railway mania of the 1840s, the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the late 80s housing crunch, the dot com bust of the early 2000s. People get used to constantly rising prices, and are shocked when the prices stop going up. One day, the value of footballers will level out or even decline. At this point, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. If Arsenal persist with their current cautious strategy, it will eventually pay dividends. This day will come, but unfortunately it could be many years away.
It is notoriously difficult to predict prices collapses, but perhaps the most obvious sign is when people start to pay more than something is really ‘worth’. Man U will pay about £150m for the services of Paul Pogba by the time they have finished paying his wages for the next five years. However, the financial rewards of success in football are great, and if Pogba can make the difference between success and failure, he may well repay that £150m. If there is a ‘bubble’ in football prices it is far from clear that it is about to burst.,
Transfers just make us feel good
This one is a little difficult to deny. Even arch-sceptics like me are pleased when Arsenal signs a new player. It is always difficult to imagine that a new player will fail to improve the team. Occasionally we are wrong (Squillaci), but most transfers deliver at least something to the squad. There is also something very satisfying about an ‘acquisition’. Buying a player is an aggressive, acquisitive act, which demonstrates dominance over both the selling club, and other clubs who didn’t have enough money to compete. It is a display of macho power, and these are important things to football fans, football supporting being very much a game of one-upmanship.
Manchester United fans have enjoyed the acquisition of Paul Pogba in exactly this sense. They are not silly, they know he will not transform their team overnight into world beaters, but they enjoy what the transfer says about their club – an assertion of their ‘place in the world’, clarifying their place at the top of the pecking order.
This is a peculiarly male trait, and it’s a little bit silly, but football is still a predominately male world, with men forming the majority of fans, commentators, executives and players. A few bright female voices are breaking into this world such as Karen Brady, Kelly Cates and, of course, our own Amy Lawrence, but these women are still notable by their rarity.
Some clubs become fixated on a single player and continue to negotiate relentlessly until they get their man. This can result in very big fees being paid (Pogba), but does satisfy the demand for ‘alpha male’ behaviour. Arsenal seem to conduct their transfer business in a smarter, more passive manner. When faced with a selling club trying to extract a ‘ransom fee’, Arsenal tend to back out and look for an alternative. This leads to Arsenal failing to sign an awful lot of players who they appeared to want, and this particularly frustrates fans who want Arsenal to assert their macho dominance.
So it seems that big transfers fulfil a particular need for some fans, particularly men. Man U fans feel that they have ‘won the transfer window’, and this is an end in itself. It may not lead to silverware for Man U, but it will make their fans happy. Before you reject this as totally silly, think about how you felt when Arsenal ‘won’ the transfer window three summers ago with Mesut Ozil.
It’s strange to me that Arsene Wenger doesn’t appreciate the value of ‘trophy transfers’. He has always taken the view that his teams need to entertain as well as win, so he is well aware that football is not just about winning, but he is reluctant to see the ‘big transfer’ as a legitimate form of entertainment. He is also, of course, the man who invented the imaginary trophy (the fourth place trophy), so you’d think he might recognise the ‘transfer window trophy’. Perhaps his training as an economist only allows him to view the spending of money as a question of ‘managing resources’ and not as a form of entertainment in its own right?
Transfers often succeed after a lag
We know that transfers don’t bring instant success, but they often do bring success a little further down the line. In recent years this has been most clearly demonstrated by Chelsea and Man City. Both clubs indulged in wild spending sprees that included a lot of ‘dud’ purchases and didn’t bring instant success. However, in both cases, success did come a couple of years after the splurge. The reason for this ‘lag effect’ is reasonably obvious. Players take time to settle into a new team, and the English Premier League is a particularly difficult league to settle into – Arsene likes to ‘ease’ his new signings in, and often uses them from the bench initially.
Attacking players seem to take longer to settle than defensive ones, presumably because their movement is more idiosyncratic than the movements of defenders. The job of attackers is essentially to use imaginative and unpredictable ways to break down defences in concert with their teammates. The positioning and movement of centre backs is quite formulaic, and much easier for teammates to familiarise themselves with, so they tend to settle in more quickly.
By contrast, the movement and passing of Mesut Ozil is bewildering even to those of us who have been watching him every week for three years. Playing with him must really take some getting used to. An interesting example of this problem is last summer’s big story, Raheem Sterling. He is a very talented player, but despite being familiar with the Premier League, really didn’t settle at City last year. I’m expecting a lot more from him this season as he and his teammates become more familiar with each other’s styles.
A good example of delayed success is Eric Lamela. We all enjoyed the way that Spurs managed to waste the c£80m that they received for Gareth Bale a few years ago. The worst purchase of all was Eric Lamela, a £26m flop who couldn’t even get into the team. But a few years down the line, this one is looking a little different. Lamela is the kind of transfer that Wenger likes: young, talented, pacy and skilful. As Spurs made a late run for the title last season, Lamela looked frighteningly good, and I expect him to do even more this season. In the current market, he looks like a £50m player at the very least. There is even an argument to be made that Spurs have been successful in the medium-term, swapping a team with Bale in it that finished fifth (again) for one with a group of new players bought with the Bale money, that finished third last season (nearly second – oh so nearly!!!)
So we can certainly make an argument that transfers do bring success, but probably not in the season following the purchases.
So let’s have a little faith in Arsene the ditherer, let’s judge his performance over the course of the season, not now. Let’s remember that big transfer fees are more about egos than football, that new really is just new, and that the outcome of this season will depend more on previous transfer windows than this one.
If you liked this article, you might enjoy Tim’s book “It’s Happened Again”, which is now available on Amazon (print and Kindle versions). Read a sample chapter at www.itshappenedagain.com