The summer tour has begun, with a star player, a Frenchman, travelling against his wishes. The transfer window has just a month to run and the club has failed to refresh an ageing squad full of players the fans are sick to the back teeth of watching. The manager can do little more than offer platitudes about optimism for the new season. Yes, Manchester United, Down Under in Perth, are entering the new season on as low an ebb as can be recalled at any time in decades. Few clubs can be mired in such pessimism.
Hold my beer, say Arsenal Football Club. Their trip to the United States has begun yet more chaotically, with Laurent Koscielny, the club captain no less, refusing to take his passport out of the drawer, while letting it be known he wants to leave. There has been no Paul Pogba-style chicanery. Koscielny absolutely, positively wants to leave, with Bordeaux his desired destination.
That a 33-year-old defender who has struggled badly with injury in recent seasons wants to go ought not to be an issue, but a glance at the rest of the central defenders available to Unai Emery suggests why Arsenal might want to cling to him. Rob Holding has a cruciate knee ligament injury. Shkodran Mustafi has become a £35m mistake, a player of an almost cultish uselessness. Calum Chambers, who has been loaned to Middlesbrough and Fulham in recent seasons, is for sale, as reportedly is Konstantinos Mavropanos.
Which leaves Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who had a decent enough first season at the Emirates, barring the odd mishap. The truth of Arsenal’s defence has been, and going back to Arsene Wenger’s reign, far more solid when Koscielny plays, even if he himself is no stranger to mishaps.
The transfer window offers little succour for the manager Unai Emery. Arsenal’s business for the summer is a flatline, of no players coming in, and the likes of Petr Cech, Stefan Lichtsteiner, Danny Welbeck and last of all, and most damagingly, Aaron Ramsey all allowed to see out their contracts. A team that is set to miss out on the Champions League for the third season running has been offered little in the way of refreshment by the careful financial controls of Stan Kroenke, the club’s owner.
A defender has been chased in William Saliba, but his proposed £27million move from Saint-Etienne is likely to include a clause to keep him at the Ligue 1 side on loan for another year. At 18, and despite his promise, Saliba was unlikely to be much of a quick fix in any case.
The club’s current chase for Wilfried Zaha suggests the parsimony with which the club is attacking this summer’s transfer window. An initial bid of £40m to Crystal Palace was derisory, just a single pound less than the club’s attempt to break Luis Suarez’s Liverpool contract way back in 2013, and likely to be just as successful.
It will take double that money to make Palace consider a deal, even if Zaha might have indicated he wants to go. The latest twist, that Chambers, Mohamed Elneny and Carl Jenkinson will be offered to make up the rest of the £40m extra suggests an unwillingness to dig deeper into the coffers.
Emery had around £50m spent on his team last season, and on three players in Sokratis, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi who did well enough without being transformative. An outlay commensurate to that amount looks the limit of spending this season, even if some expensive contracts have been removed from the wage bill. Wenger, in his final years, was allowed to spend more and left Emery with the legacy of an imbalanced squad. Mesut Ozil’s £350,000 a week deal is a millstone, particularly since he and Emery do not see eye to eye.
Wenger also signed Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, two of the club’s top talents but the current manager does not like to play two up front. With former player Edu coming in as the new sporting director, an overhaul looks an onerous task, especially so considering the financial constraints the club is in.
Arsenal are in no sense close to going bust, but they are paying the cost of some misguided financial management, going back to the building of the Emirates pulling the rug from under Wenger’s feet at a time when TV revenues overtook matchday revenues. Heavy brakes have been put on the wage bill, as compared to peers, and the money that has been spent on new players has not been spent at all well, as compared to, say, Liverpool, a club of similar size and also with American owners, which has regenerated itself into Europe’s champion club.
Ivan Gazidis, the exec who worked with Wenger and was supposed to manage the change, left for AC Milan in December, while scouting guru Sven Mislintat, brought in to build a team to follow on from Wenger’s, has also already left North London.
And all this while Tottenham, whose failings used to make Arsenal fans feel better about their lot, has become a true force in English football, and on such a meagre budget to give Kroenke wet dreams.
Last season, Spurs got to the Champions League final without having bought a first-team player for 18 months, but now, with their own new stadium having finally opened, are willing to refresh their squad.
Defensive midfielder Tanguy Ndombele has come in for a deal that could equal £55m, while a glut of creative midfielders in Real Betis’ Giovani Lo Celso, Dinamo Zagreb’s Dani Olmo and Real Madrid’s Dani Ceballos are being courted. At last, Mauricio Pochettino is being given a chance to replenish a squad that came so far but needed to be overhauled.
Such a facility is not being extended to Emery. The club’s reluctance to let Koscielny leave is a move to paper over the cracks, rather than one for the future. Short-termism looks the order of the day.