On the weekend, I watched Manchester United outplay Arsenal at Old Trafford, winning 2-1. The close score-line does not reflect the nature of the game, as United put the ball in the net numerous times only to be ruled offside, missed a penalty, and spurned many good goal scoring chances. Rafael and Valencia exposed Podolski and Santos down the right side of the pitch, and van Persie’s movement and finishing was excellent. Podolski and Cazorla struggled to make an impact (despite Cazorla’s wonderful last minute goal), Walcott was ineffectual when he came on, and Giroud worked well but achieved little other than a shot which hit the post. Arsenal failed to record a shot on target until they went 2-0 down, as United won without having to play particularly well.
Such performances from the Gunners, coupled with the excellent form of Robin van Persie for Manchester United, have led many in recent months to continue the criticism of Arsène Wenger’s transfer policy, claiming that he sells at the wrong time, resulting in Arsenal missing out on the best that their players have to offer, and ultimately missing out on silverware – Arsenal have not won a trophy since their F.A. Cup triumph in 2005. However, it is rarely recognised just how well Wenger does his transfer business in an era of big-spending giants such as Chelsea and Manchester City, who distort the transfer market and make it impossible for clubs run as stable financial businesses such as Arsenal to compete for the top signatures in world football. Ultimately, economic and statistical truths support Wenger’s transfer dealings and his policy of prioritising a top four finish in the Premier League over silverware like the F.A. Cup and League Cup.
Tony Adams, speaking to the London Evening Standard in September, is one of Wenger’s critics, and said: “It sends out all the wrong messages for me, being a selling club”. Adams won four league titles, three F.A. Cups, two League Cups, three F.A. Community Shields, and a UEFA Cup Winners Cup with Arsenal, and views the current trophy-less period as damaging to Arsenal’s reputation: “Piece by piece for seven years, it chips away at your credibility. Selling your best players is part of that”.
Adams must accept that Arsenal is a football club run in a financially sensible way; spending within its means, placing great emphasis on youth development, and buying footballers with potential sell-on value. Wenger himself holds that “spending in itself is not a quality. Buying better players than we have – that is a quality.” He defends his transfer policy: “we do spend when we find the right players. You have to give the players who have come in a bit of time” and reminds us that “Thierry Henry arrived and didn’t play before November; Robert Pires wasn’t an automatic starter at first”. Wenger’s ability to spot potential stars, and develop their talent into world class ability, is unrivalled. Nicholas Anelka was purchased for £500,000 in the 96/97 season and sold on for £23,000,000 in 99/00. Kolo Touré was bought for £150,000 in the 01/02 season and sold for £16,000,000 in 09/10. The list goes on, as Wenger made £18,000,000 profit on the sale of Adebayor, £35,000,000 on Fabregas, £14,000,000 on Song, £19,250,000 on van Persie, and surely stands to profit on the inevitable exit of Nicklas Bendtner, who was snapped up for £200,000. This strategy enables Arsenal to remain financially stable, and use the profits to pay for the next generation of stars with equally promising sell-on potential. Diaby, although plagued by injury, could still become a great player, and was bought for a mere £2,000,000. Current youngsters such as Wilshire, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Vermaelen, and Podolski may well be sold on in future years for more than they were bought for; none in this list cost Wenger more than £12,000,000.
Wenger, as a graduate of economics from the University of Strasbourg, trusts statistics rather than perceived knowledge on individual players, and recognises the financial importance of selling good players at their peak. As one of the first managers to use statistics, he could spot the first signs of decline in a player before potential buyers could, and recognised that other clubs tend to value a player based on past performance, rather than future potential. Thierry Henry (sold for £16,100,000), Patrick Vieira (£13,700,000), and Petit (£5,000,000) were all sold aged 29 for a combined profit of £19,800,000, and none went on to do better than they had done at Arsenal. Marc Overmars was sold aged 27 at a profit of £18,000,000, and he too never achieved quite what he had at Highbury. It remains to be seen whether Robin van Persie will go on to greater things at Manchester United, but even if he does, £19,250,000 profit on an injury-prone 29 year old with one prolific season behind him and only one year left on his contract seems like shrewd business.
However, most critics of Wenger point towards the recent sale of young players who probably had much more to give. Ashley Cole, a graduate of the academy, was sold to Chelsea for £5,000,000 in 06/07 and went on to win one Premier League title, four F.A. Cups, one League Cup, one Community Shield, and one Champions League with Chelsea. Gäel Clichy was sold to Manchester City for £7,000,000 (a profit of £6,750,000) and has won a Premier League and Community Shield. Samir Nasri was also sold to City for £22,000,000 (£6,200,000 profit), and both Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song were sold to Barcelona for a combined £49,000,000 profit. None of these players – other than Cole – is older than 27, and may well go on to achieve more than they did at Arsenal.
But these players were sold to clubs notorious for their over-spending ability. Two of these, Chelsea and Manchester City, live off the wealth of their private owners rather than the money produced by the club itself. Before Abramovich’s takeover, Chelsea could spend around £10,000,000 on transfers. The season spending of 99/00 that totalled £45,100,000 only came after a lean season of spending the year before, which totalled only £330,000. After being taken over in 03/04, player expenses soared. In 03/04 Chelsea’s spending totalled £153,450,000. Other big spending seasons include 04/05, when the total was £59,850,000 and 05/06, when £111,900,000 was splurged. After a brief period of moderate spending, Chelsea went on to acquire £99,300,000 worth of talent in 10/11, £82,800,000 in 11/12, and £79,500,000 in 12/13. Such spending is neither sensible nor sustainable. £50,000,000 was spent on Torres (10/11), and £30,000,000 on Shevchenko in 05/06, who flopped and then left for free in 09/10. Mutu was signed for £15,800,000 (03/04) and also left for free (04/05). Duff was bought for £17,000,000 (03/04) and left for £5,000,000 (06/07). Wright-Phillips arrived for £21,000,000 (05/06) and left for £9,000,000 (08/09). Del Horno was signed for £8,000,000 (05/06) and sold for £4,800,000 the very next season (06/07).
Between 92/93 and 06/07 Manchester City had spent more than £10,000,000 on transfers only three times. These records were smashed in 08/09, when City spent £127,700,000, and the lavish acquisitions continued in 09/10 when costs were £125,000,000. In 10/11 spending totalled £154,750,000, 11/12 this figure was £76,000,000, and in 12/13 it was £54,000,000. In three out of the last five seasons, City’s net spending has been £99,000,000 or more, and was over £30,000,000 in the other two seasons (12/13 and 11/12). City are able to spend big on individual players like Sergio Agüero, who cost £38,000,000 (11/12), the flop Robinho who cost £32,500,000 (08/09) and left for £22,000,000 (10/11), and substitute Dzeko who set City back £27,000,000 (10/11). Other transfers include Adebayor who was bought for £25,000,000 (09/10) and sold for £5,000,000 (12/13), and Bellamy, who was bought for £14,000,000 (08/09) left for free (11/12). These clubs, with their ability to tap into apparently unlimited private sources of wealth, do not provide sustainable business models, and would find themselves in real trouble if their financial backers pulled out. Wenger has exploited their over-valuation of players, particularly in selling to Manchester City. A full realisation of the difference between these clubs and Wenger’s Arsenal should silence his critics and emphasise the extent of his achievements in keeping his club in the Champions League over a period of sixteen seasons.
Fans naturally want their club to win a trophy – any trophy – but faced with the spending power outlined above, Champions League football is much more important than winning the F.A. Cup or League Cup. Wenger, in this era of spending giants, is correct to value fourth place over such minor trophies. Winning the F.A. Cup is worth £1,800,000 and winning the League Cup is worth a mere £100,000. Getting to the group stages of the Champions League alone is worth €3,900,000, and each match in the group stage (a total of 6) is worth €550,000. A group match victory is worth €800,000, and a draw is worth €400,000. The round of 16 wins €3,000,000, quarter finals €3,300,000, semi finalists win €4,200,000, losing finalists gain €5,600,000, and the winners get €9,000,000. The revenue from the UEFA Champions League distributed according to the ‘market pool’, which is determined by the value of the television market in each country – making Champions League qualification especially lucrative for English teams and their large national television deals. For example, in the 10/11 season, Manchester United (who lost in the final) won near to €53,200,000, of which €27,300,000 was prize money. Barcelona (who won the tournament) received €51,000,000 in total, of which €30,700,000 prize money. The potential earnings of the Champions League are already far greater than winning the two domestic cup trophies each season, and UEFA claims that revenue will rise 22% over the next three years. Finishing fourth in the league is considerably more beneficial financially than finishing the season with two domestic cups in the trophy room, allowing Arsenal to continue to invest and remain competitive in the Premier League. Wenger has made sure that, despite the growth of Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal has remained a Champions League team, never finishing outside the top four under his management, despite consistent pressure from teams such as Tottenham and Liverpool.
In general, much of what is written here is common knowledge, and perhaps that is why it is easy to forget the extent of Wenger’s success. In light of recent journalism, as well as the general lack of praise given to Wenger, I felt the need to emphasise his true skill as a manager not just of a first team squad of footballers, but of a football club in a fuller sense. As efficient, disappointing, and passionless as it sounds, football is business, and Arsenal run their business particularly well. I certainly don’t believe football is better off when glory on the pitch is sacrificed for a financially rewarding fourth place finish, but Wenger definitely deserves more credit for his buying of players with sell-on value, his development of talent, and his sale of players past their best, as well as the results he has achieved despite the financial clout of teams like Manchester City and Chelsea, all the while producing exciting teams that play fantastic football.
– – Transfer spending statistics: transferleague.co.uk
– – Champions League prize money: theoriginalwinger.com
– – Champions League revenue: guardian.co.uk
– – F.A. Cup prize money: thefa.com
– – League Cup prize money: leaguecupodds.co.uk
– – Wenger quotations: Sky Sports News website, September 2012
– – Tony Adams quotations: London Evening Standard, September 2012
– – Wenger’s selling ability: Kuper, S. And Szymanski, S. Why England Lose London (2009) p. 65