Manchester United fans are almost universally delighted with the signing of Paul Pogba for a fee believed to be in the region of £89m. With annual revenues of almost £500m, the transfer fee for the Frenchman, arguably the finest young midfield player in the world today, is actually less as a percentage of turnover than those paid for Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand in 2001 and 2002 respectively. The club have spent their own money to sign a world class player. The acquisition clearly has some rival fans worried, if the the social media race to state how overrated the player is is anything to go by. After three years of irrelevance, United under Jose Mourinho are rattling some cages again.
There have, however, been other objections to Pogba’s signing. A group, almost exclusively containing Arsenal fans, have been falling over each other to argue how obscene the fee is and how it demonstrates the loss of morality in the game today, in contrast to a time in the dim and distance past when money had no place in football and clubs were run on much more noble lines. The fact that Gooners in particular have this objection is no coincidence. For years they have seen their manager, Arsene Wenger, justify failure by stating a need for prudence and good housekeeping. He did the same this very week, opining that he had a responsibility to spend the club’s money as if it were his own. In reality this approach has resulted in over a decade without a league title. Prior to the move to the Emirates the Frenchman had been happy to splash out, but appears never to have overcome the necessary belt-tightening that the stadium costs initially required of him. With that debt now an irrelevance and with Premier League TV revenues spiralling exponentially Arsenal are wallowing in money in a league where even the lesser lights can comfortably pay £30m for a player. When their next set of accounts are presented the club are expected to have over £200m in cash reserves in the bank, an almighty rainy day fund.
Such has been the relentless propaganda from Wenger that money is sacred and taking risks is the road to ruin that many within the club’s fanbase have been indoctrinated into believing that to spend beyond their current levels is reckless and immoral. This is the group stung by the Pogba signing. It should be added that many others do not agree. “Spend some f*cking money” has been sung at the Emirates by groups dissatisfied by their manager’s excuses. However, even some outside of the club have been brainwashed. This writer was perturbed yesterday to hear one journalist on Talksport radio eulogise about the fact that Wenger had been constrained financially and that the fans should be grateful to have a man in charge who had guided them to, “the top four and the quarter finals of the Champions League every year for a decade”. Only for Arsenal, with revenues which are in the top four in the Premier League and the top seven in the world (and the highest ticket prices in Europe) could failure be an acceptable norm. While the rest strive for trophies, Arsenal and its shareholders aim for nobility and prudence. That prudence is not a necessity, but a choice and many Arsenal fans appear to have been worn down by years of propaganda into thinking their club, which takes more from them on a matchday than any other, is somehow pure and distant from the greed of the modern footballing era.
The tragedy for Gunners’ fans who crave their manager to invest the millions sitting idle in the bank is that the excuses and taking of the moral high ground appear to be allowing Arsene Wenger to get away with another inadequate summer which, as things currently stand, will leave his team short once again in areas that desperately needed to be addressed. Crying out for a striker to compete with the erratic Olivier Giroud, Wenger had the ignominy of being rejected by Jamie Vardy early in the summer and has as yet failed to successfully move for an alternative. In came a 21 year old Japanese, but the fans crave a big name. A bid was made for Lyon forward Alexandre Lacazette, but with the French club refusing to sell at a price Wenger deemed acceptable, the move appears to have fallen through. Gonzalo Higuain has been perennially linked to the club, but after a stellar season at Napoli, Juventus stumped up the huge sum required to sign the Argentine and will benefit from his goals. After that the links have been sketchy. In midfield Granit Xhaka was acquired early, Wenger apparently benefiting from the fact that no other elite club was in for the player, but holes in the team elsewhere remain unplugged.
Injuries in pre-season to Per Mertesaker and Gabriel have left Arsenal short at centre back, although it could be argued that that position required an upgrade anyway. Only now does it appear that Wenger has begun a belated search for an alternative, with Valencia’s Shkodran Mustafi in the frame. Arsenal appear to have a free run at the player with none of Europe’s elite interested at this stage and these are the only conditions in which Wenger can actually make a signing. With others involved the fee for a player rises steeply and the Frenchman walks away.
The problem with this approach is that it leaves Arsenal at a significant disadvantage to the club’s who should be its rivals. By refusing to enter into bidding wars Wenger leaves other wealthy club’s to compete over the best players and leaves himself choosing from lesser talents or investing in potential. What’s more, his insistence that he will only buy players better than those he has means that those lesser talents do not largely meet that criteria, the consequence of which is inertia. Unwilling to compete for better players, Arsenal therefore rarely buy and cannot get better unless rough diamonds can be expertly cut. Even then, such an approach rarely leads to titles. From 2010 onwards, with the Glazer debt mountain biting, Sir Alex Ferguson had to turn his back on ready made stars and invest much smaller sums on lesser lights. The likes of Chris Smalling, then an almost unknown at Fulham, Gabriel Obertan, Ashley Young, Javier Hernandez and Bebe arrived for modest fees. The result is the Manchester United of the last three years, shorn of its ageing stars, the inadequacies of many of those purchased in that 2010-2013 period exposed. The vast spending since that time has simply been a case of trying to catch up to where the club would have been if it had had the money to continue spending.
Arsene Wenger, however, has no debt mountain to excuse his parsimony. The money is available, from the club’s vast bank balance and the unfathomably huge TV income, to be investing in two or three players a year of the quality of Mezut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. In doing so he could take Arsenal that extra step, to genuine Premier League and Champions League challengers, but he is simply unwilling to do so. It is conscious failure. Indeed, Wenger seems to be regressing further into his self-righteous morality trap. Last summer only Petr Cech joined the Gunners and this transfer window is in danger of being another washout. The Frenchman is unlikely to change so close to retirement and, if many of the club’s fans on social media are anything to go by, a core of Gooners simply don’t want him to. For them a club investing their profits in one of the world’s best footballers is immoral, a sign of the impending ruination of football. Manchester United are the devil incarnate. And yet the irony is that it is Arsenal who embody all that is wrong with the modern game. Wenger’s club pay their manager a vast salary, £8m a year (which he is happy to bank), and charge their fans more than any other club in world football, whilst also refusing to invest the money they make in improving the spectacle on the pitch. For them the beautiful game is now about profits, money in the bank, shareholders and dividends. The danger is that current stars like Sanchez and Özil will be able to see this and the failure to strengthen and crave an environment where winning is institutional. Over at Manchester United Jose Mourinho has no qualms about shelling out for Pogba because for him not winning is unthinkable. Sadly for Arsenal fans, for Wenger the polar opposite is true.