On the Dying Art of Squadbuilding

Mention money and Arsene Wenger mounts his favourite hobby horse. The most famous University of Strasbourg economics alumni in football is never short of an opinion on football finance.

And it always comes back to one theme: corruption.

It’s a much-misunderstood word; the instant reaction is of dark dealings and backhanders but there’s so much more to it than that. Wenger rarely holds shy of hinting at nefarious antics, but he is more at home when you talk of ‘financial doping’.

To 88 of the 92 English clubs, it’s a case of pot, kettle, black; Arsenal are as guilty of the sins Wenger bemoans as anyone else. Wealthy, outspending and outpaying in the transfer market; everything in football is relative.

At his Everton pre-match press conference, Wenger observed that money is destroying European football. He said:

“Unpredictability has gone down. When you look at the five big leagues in Europe, in December we already knew four champions. That means something is not right in our game. The huge financial power of some clubs is basically destroying the competition.”

Once again, there’s a relativity to Wenger’s words. Spanish football, for example, has seen 14 occasions in the last 60 years when neither of Barcelona or Real Madrid were champions. Only once – 1980/81 through 1983/84 – has there been any spell of more than two seasons without one of the pair winning the title.

The Bundesliga is more one-sided. Since 1980, Bayern Munich are regular champions and only on four occasions have they gone more than one season without the title.

England and Italy are the exceptions to some extent. 11 of the last 12 Italian titles were won by two clubs and since Sampdoria’s 1990/91 Scudetto, 23 Serie A titles were shared between Internazionale, Juventus and Milan.

Flashback

Which brings us back to the Premier League. Leicester City’s success in 2015/16 was celebrated because it broke the tedium. Since the inaugural season of the rebranded English top flight in 1992/93, there have been six clubs winning the title.

Only Leicester and Blackburn Rovers managed the feat once while Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City with their ten titles between them trail in the wake of Manchester United’s thirteen Premier League titles.

Competitiveness in European football’s big leagues is an illusion which harks back the 1970s when there were a variety of champions. Money altered the landscape, but it is disingenuous of Wenger to declare it is the real problem.

Football’s real issue is the art of squad-building is dying and Wenger is as culpable as anyone in that sense.

Not since the 1930s have Arsenal been the richest club in England yet despite that, they have challenged for the title more often than other wealthier sides.

In the Premier League era when Manchester United threatened to make the competition their own personal property, Wenger emerged to take Arsenal out of the dark ages by building squads through astute signings at senior and youth levels, to build on the quality of players inherited.

Cash, in football, has always made the king and those less wealthy relied on coaches who could build title-challenging squads on lesser budgets.

While Manchester United spent frivolously in the 1990s, Arsenal record signings through Wiltord, Reyes and Arshavin were all modest by comparison. It wasn’t until Mesut Ozil signed for £42m in 2014 that the Gunners entered the transfer big-time.

Just an Illusion

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment Wenger lost his mojo on building a squad. Arguably, he last managed that feat in 2007/08 when we were last genuine title contenders. It wasn’t expensively assembled but it was a talented squad.

The signings of Eduardo and Bacary Sagna were key to improving an already impressive group of players. Had the former not been cruelly scythed down at St Andrews, Arsenal would surely have been the worthiest of champions. Certainly, the youngest, if nothing else.

But since then, Wenger has floundered when it comes to a cohesive transfer policy. Repeatedly, Arsenal have entered the season woefully short in key areas of the pitch – usually defensive – and paid the price.

His natural conservatism with finances has held the club back on more than one occasion while the procrastination – or dithering if you want to cut to the chase – is as much of a barrier to overcome.

A man whose footballing ethos is now entirely around attacking will always struggle with defenders. When you think the last good defender we bought was an unknown 26-year-old Spanish left-back five years ago, the picture in that sense becomes clearer.

Too much isolation hasn’t been good for Arsene. Just as we supporters are guilty of locking ourselves in electronic echo chambers on social media, he did so at Arsenal with his coaching staff. The lack of new input from acolytes or yes-men damaged his perception of what constituted a balanced squad.

Going into successive seasons with only three central defenders was the warning and the bells rang as we still await the defensive midfielder the XI continues to beg for.

Last Days of Summer

Will the new team around him – Ivan’s men – bring back a coherent policy for recruitment? You’d think so; it’s what they were hired to do, but the question is how much they can impose on Wenger.

Hints of that happened in January; it was a Dortmund-themed winter and to the chagrin of many, the usurpers landed their targets. There was almost a desire in some for the Aubameyang deal to fall flat on its face; proclaiming Wenger transfer king or deflecting criticism was more important. Arsenal fans are the most bizarre creatures at times.

The question we wait to be answered is how Arsene will react to the new regime. The summer is shorter so there is no time to react to defeats as we have in the past.

Closing the Premier League window before the season kicks off demands a coherent approach to squad-building. Can Wenger – who I assume is staying for one more summer, at least – rediscover the skills he has left to become covered in cobwebs in his footballing closet?

50 thoughts on “On the Dying Art of Squadbuilding

  1. Brilliant stuff Yogi.

    Personally. i think it was when he Eduardo got injured and then Cesc, Nasri, Clichy left, it was almost like his sons left home and he retreated into a shell and then when RvP, Song and Verm left it crushed him. It was like instead of buying quality players who will want to fight for trophies and leave if it doesn’t happen, he valued loyalty and taking advantage of desperate clubs needing to sell players, then playing players that shouldn’t be played because they are ‘his guys’ like not buying/not completing Higuian because he had Giroud who isn’t in the same class or quality but would want to win and a quality squad was built.

  2. The answer to your question is simple and straight forward. You can’t go anywhere if you keep losing your best players. Incidentally we have lost our best players to already string teams that went on to win leagues.

    So when AW talks about financial doping and seems to whine at every corner about the undesirable influence of money in the league, its because every time he builds a player they leave for higher pay. Either to sit on the bench or to play for a season and then be loaned to a team that’s not causing any threat to them.

    I think your article started well but lost its shine in your blind vision of ‘AW is the problem at Arsenal’.

  3. Here’s a worry YW….I’ve got loads of their singles in perfect condition…on of course…vinyl ……😂😂

  4. I read those quotes from Wenger at the weekend. Excuses Excuses Deflection

    Looking at a recent report Arsenal have the 7th biggest turnover in world football, 3rd in England after United and City. On Wenger’s reasoning we should be in the top 3 of the Premier League (currently 6th) and heading to the last 8 of the Champions League (currently Europa League).

    Of course his whole argument falls down when you remember Leicester won the PL 2 seasons ago. He conveniently forgets this.

    Wenger’s decrees from his ivory towers (wearing the emperor’s new clothes) drive me nuts!

  5. Gooner96

    Well, Wenger is the problem at Arsenal because we don’t build squads. Or is that someone else’s responsibility?

  6. Gooner96,

    Why do we keep losing our best players? Because they want to win the PL and CL and Arsene is unable to challenge for those. It’s a lazy argument to blame money and ignore that human beings also have ambition.

    The same claim as YW suggests, could have been made in times past. Arsenal have not been the richest club for decades. United, Liverpool, even Everton, Newcastle and Spurs have had bigger budgets in the past and we’ve still succeeded. Under Wenger we sold Anelka for a huge sum to RM and come back stronger and won titles. The richest club doesn’t always win. And we’re hardly paupers.

    What doesn’t win a title is a dodgy defence, blinkered thinking and an excuse for every occasion. Wenger has led a charmed life in managerial terms and that needs to end if AFC are to challenge again at the very top of the game.

  7. YW,

    Ah…you’re all Body Talk YW….
    But…you could’ve put ‘changes’ in todays list-that would’ve been rather fitting really

  8. Probably the most shitting thing about all of this is that we had a GK in Sczcesny that would have been the present and future which would have then only left us needing a CB and DM but now we need all three and quite honestly, we need them this summer while also moving players out and making the decision on Jack and Ramsey.

    I wouldn’t mind giving Macey a run at the #1 shirt but if not then there are quite a few GK’s such as Oblak who would be really expensive but there is also Kevin Trapp who is PSG’s #2 but whose talents deserve the #1 shirt as many in Germany think he can be Neuer’s #2 if he was able to get the #1 shirt at a club.

  9. Manager Michael Flynn said:

    ‘While Spurs were beating Man Utd, I lost a Newport player who quit to become a tattoo artist’

    Talk about struggling to build a squad…..

  10. The most successful transfer window in a decade or more was surely down to the influence of the new boys. The determination to sign Aubameyang was way beyond anything Wenger has demonstrated in the past. The fact that he referred to Konstantinos Mavropanos, as the Greek kid says to me that he was unaware of the signing until it had happened. Whilst getting Mkhitaryan in a swap for Sanchez and the re-signing of Ozil is down to the new found willingness to spend the necessary amounts of money. Something that Wenger has never been able to bring himself to do.

    Bring back Martinez, and sign a truly World class defensive midfielder, in the summer, and we will have in place the bricks and mortar to build into a very good squad.

    We just need a manager capable of cementing it all together.

  11. ….I almost forgot, the only transfer that didn’t come off was due to the miserly offer that Wenger publicly made for Evans. Thank you Alan Pardew for kicking it into the long grass.

  12. I have to admit that most people who support Arsene Wenger are often shying away from observations made by more astute observers.
    I think it was on another blog that I said I would have changed Wenger in 2004 or 2006, because he was often Sir Red nose’s sidekick.

    Some supporters easily misrepresent the Arsenal FC as Arsene FC. Wenger made a mistake on contract negotiations with Kanu, shoved Adebayor to Man City, made the decision to promote Jack Wilshere instead of buying a defensive midfielder (on the back of a sterling loan performance at Bolton), proceeded to burn out the same player contributing to the injury problems, retained deadwood players, bought Yaya Sanogo, Ryo Myaichi and Park lee 1 goal Young.

    Everyone makes mistakes,true,but Wenger’s biggest mistake is staying on too long.

  13. lari03,

    Yup. while Arsene bangs on about money ruining futbol because he can’t win a title, Newport are trying to just hold onto their players

  14. The club hasn’t been afraid to fork out for young players under Wenger. Walcott cost £12m (eventually) as a 16 year old on the basis that he would sign a professional contract when he hit 17. Probably one of the biggest transfers of both the summer and winter transfer windows that season. Given that Berbatov signed for the Spuds for £11m the following summer, it does make you wonder why we were paying fairly big fees for untried youngsters.

  15. Well i felt that your argument will have more weight if you were not blinded by the ‘AW is the problem at Arsenal’ thing.

    AW said it himself that we now have money to compete and he went for Suarez and ended up with Ozil. Prior to that Man U, Chelsea and Man City were signing players for well over 30m, whilst our most expensive player was Arshavin for around 17m. The talk from our camp was also not convincing, Peter Hillwood would say we have 70m and it would later turn out that some is for negotiating new contracts, some for buying players, approx. 20 for paying for the stadium, etc In the end talk that between 2006 and say 2015 AFC had money is a myth to me.

    And the pattern regarding teams without money is the same to me. How is Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Monaco, Leicester, etc doing in their leagues. The same. They win the league, start losing players to teams with money and start sliding backwards just like what happened to AFC after 2007/2008 (which was our best chance).

    I hope i’m making sense or am i just a dog that fell into a Den full of lions?

  16. I think if I had my choice, I would go for either Fabinho, Fred or Lemina for our DM position. Fabinho will be one to watch to see if Monaco are ready to sell their prized DM with many comparing him to our Invisible Wall, Gilberto Silva

  17. What would it take Arsene to just decide he has had enough of this questioning his squad bullshit and just say im going to go out with a blaze motherfuckers…get in that top class gk,cb,dm and winger?

    **sigh**

  18. A skilfully presented counter-argument put forward in your Post, YW, regarding AW’s anger over perceived financial doping in football, particularly by the top clubs in the European Leagues, which he sees as self-evident proof of his case.

    Is it possible that Wenger in mentioning the financial doping indulged in by certain clubs is not being entirely specious, but he is opening himself up to misinterpretation by not explaining what he actually means by the term ‘financial doping’?

    Let’s see what he may have meant.

    Much has been made of Wenger being a footballing scrounge — as a result of the current owner’s de facto policy of balancing the books, as a going concern, by relying only on generated football revenues for such things as transfer purchases.

    This is in contrast, as Arsene seems to see it, to the liberal investment of non-footballing funds by rather wealthy sovereign states or bored oligarch owners who use their state or personal wealth to ‘invest’ in buying the very best players available in each transfer window,

    If that is what he means by financial doping, there are some flaws in that theory.
    For example, many clubs, as YW has mentioned above, would themselves point the finger at Arsenal for using their wealth to build a stadium that generates riches beyond the avarice of most other clubs enabling them to outbid most of the non-elite clubs for players; and then, it cannot slip by without comment, that not all mega rich billionaire owners of football clubs wish to inject personal funds into their clubs, over and above the purchase of the necessary controlling shares when purchasing their clubs.
    It is also true that some, like Abramovich, did indulge in larding their clubs with major loan funds, later legally converted into shares, when he first bought Chelsea, but he now appears to follow a financial self-funding model not dissimilar to Arsenal’s.

    I could not be bothered to underline any more of the other exceptions to the ‘financial doping’ theory, other than to mention the one that seems to have been ignored, or abandoned, by Wenger himself – namely the protection offered by FFP or the Financial Fair Play rules which were supposed to prevent any such financial doping by governing the clubs’ profitability, and the ratio of salaries and player purchase to the amount of revenue generated by each one.

    If the latter case were true, that FFP has failed, which is the only way financial doping could succeed, then the fault lies firmly at the feet of UEFA and FIFA for not ensuring those rules are complied with, and is not solely down to the individual club owners who are happy to use whatever advantage presents itself, especially if the authorities themselves do not seem to support FFP, or are content to administer derisory financial penalties when the rules are breached.

    I think you are barking up the wrong tree, Arsene, or wagging your finger at the wrong people.

  19. Gooner96,

    When the club’s annual accounts are readily available online (including Arsenal.com) it’s a mystery why anyone can cling to the belief that we had no money at any point during AW’s tenure. At the start of the period you mention the accounts show that we had around £90m cash reserves. By 2014/15 we had circa £200m. This didn’t suddenly materialise from down the back of the sofa.

    Yes we had a stadium to finance but again as the club has explained many times the impact was very limited and did not preclude investing in players. Arsene stated on many occasions that money was available but he chose not to spend it. That includes in 2007/8 when he declared that he was happy with the squad and trusted them to take the title, and declined to invest in the January window (while selling Diarra to Portsmouth).

  20. Evening,

    I think it was Orse who said it and probably YWs intention, but darn, Wenger as Uncle Scrooge is just awesome🙂.

    Made me chuckle as it’s just fits the bill so nicely. He isn’t all that bad. Is just that he’s lost his way and now is a really tight miser, however good he used to be and now it’s time for change.

  21. andy1886,

    Andy, I really must compliment you sir. You are an artist in your economical, to the point, analytical, measured manner of refuting that old, tedious, really unbelievable boring money argument.

    Boo ho, we didn’t have any money, yea right🙂.

  22. Interesting reports flying from Italy and some big Italian agent saying we are poking around the Napoli manager Sarri

  23. The other thing is who gets the armband when Mert retires. If Jack gets it then we know Ramsey is back up and visa versa, but more than likely should Kos not leave then he gets the armband and whoever is Co-Captain will be telling.

  24. C,

    I think Ramsey is an informal leader in the team. I’ve heard rumors that he floored the the Dutch skunk a couple of years ago being a bastard and that takes some balls. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s our next real captain.

    There’s something to him, Je ne said quoi😀.

  25. Welsh corgi cardigan,

    True but I don’t think he is Captain of this Arsenal side with these players. The players that we have hear are winners, they know how to win and need a strong Captain who isn’t just a yes man and I say that because there were also reports saying Ramsey was one of those who told Cesc and Sanchez to fuck off because they wanted better quality in the team.

    Sure, there is something to him but would much prefer Jack who knows quality and is a but more sound in his responsibilities to the XI. If I’m honest, neither is the captain I want due to inconsistencies but if I had to chose I lean towards a fit Jack over a fit Ramsey.

  26. C,

    The image is wrong for Jack-too much nonsense in the past-without a shadow of doubt….smoking,drinking,dust ups…the list goes on.Aaron’s only got the occasional dodgy haircut to have against him.I’m with Welsh Corgi…it would be Aaron if I were a betting man.

  27. C,

    Yepp, go along with that. Jacks probaly captain material and if he can stay fit there’s no objection.

    My rooting for Ramsey as Captain is partly for flooring the Dutch skunk and also for being Captain for Wales. He’s a leader (shows on the pitch I think) and telling Sanchez to fuck off is quite to my liking🙂.

  28. C,

    Talking of Cesc wanting better quality in the side….wonder how he feels about Giroud at Chelsea now?…what goes around….

  29. Bonsoir mes. Il est ou Henry?

    YW top post comme d’habitude.

    Its well in advance but I’m looking forward very much to Samedi. Le NLD.

    I’m asking will be a game just to early for PEA? I’m really intrigued to see how it pans out.

    Which takes me to current morale panic and the question of diving. The Spuds with Kane and Ali are well known for their antics.

    The Spuds Manager Pochetino has bed a lot to say about diving.

    It your unfamiliar he has been saying that diving is a part of the Game. It’s trickery in his eyes. He’s a great friend of Maradona and the Hand of God incident has been well documented.

    One could say he encourages in his players as he grew with it in Argentina.

    Often there is a perception in the UK Media that diving was somehow a foreign thing. It’s true that European players have and South American players have had a reputation for diving.

    J Klinsman ‘ Her Bomber’ comes to mind straight away. When he came to the PL and played for the Spuds was very much under the UK Media scrutiny and was great copy. There are many other examples.

    However the UK Media can’t just blame ithat the influx of foreign players into the PL over the last 30 years. There have been many British players who were known as divers over the years . Stan Bowles who played for QPR in the 70s was very skilled. Shearer, Lineker , Owen they all dived.

    Samedi après midi We going to have to tread water very carefully.

  30. Jonnygunner,

    The problem I have with the Ramsey debate is that so much is being thought of because of his magical season and FA Final goal but overall has he done enough, been consistent enough…..I would say no.

    I think neither player has done enough but a fit Jack IMHO is a better player than a fit Ramsey especiall since Ramsey’s best position is currently where Mhkitaryan and Ozil are and he isn’t a better player nor offer as much as either of them. Ramsey is a good player but is he better than those he is ‘competing’ with. i would say no.

  31. Welsh corgi cardigan,

    Have no problem with your rationale for Ramsey but the question then goes, who is more likely to inspire or take the match in the middle of the park by the scruff: Jack or Ramsey? I think Ramsey is a player who thrives off of having others create for him where as Jack is more a player to help boss in the middle of the park.

    Think with both, they need to prove they can stay fit for a season.

  32. Well done for writing the article.

    You are positing that Wenger is the problem – and I think that is a fundamental flaw of the article. He had built title-winning teams in the past and I think he’s always working at doing it again. The man identified money as the problem of competition in Europe’s big leagues, have you tried analysing that statement to see his point?

    You noted that the last real team was 07/08, why is that so? Was it that he can’t do it again or there are factors militating against achieving that aim. Except you want to say the man is merely collecting salaries and bonuses with no genuine work ethic.

    It’s not like the guy hasn’t won stuffs recently, that should count for something.
    I don’t think I Wenger himself denies the need to always do things better by rising up to the challenge.

    Rather than criticize him for “being unable to build a squad”, l advise you consider why it looks more difficult these days, when in actual fact he had done it well in the past.

  33. > You are positing that Wenger is the problem – and I think that is a fundamental flaw of the article.

    No, it’s the truth, my friend; the truth.

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