There is no question that Arsenal’s fingers have been burnt with players and their contracts in recent years. Thierry Henry signed a new contract and left a year later whilst Cesc, Nasri and Robin van Persie have all trodden different contractual paths to the exit door. It is not a one-way street, Arsenal like all other clubs, break the hearts of young players by releasing them with hopes and aspirations in tatters whilst casting aside this year’s model when the next edition comes along.
Like so many other aspects of the game, football is out of touch with the rest of the real world. Financially and legally, it operates in a bubble, protected from the usual censures and judgements by centuries of protectionism and lobbying. Laws that apply to normal businesses are inexplicably not pointed at the football arena, the European Union agreeing to a laxity in their own rules and strictures to reinforce the notion that professional sport is special. As clubs become more commercially aware, that argument becomes specious and the stench of corruption in the corridors of power fills the air.
Football contracts are not worth the paper they are written on. Managers are sacked on a whim and whilst this is not a cheap option for the owners with pay-offs and golden hellos, anyone expecting longevity through success need only look at the history of the head coaches of clubs who have won the Champions League; few last beyond 2 or 3 seasons. Players are no different.
Historically the power laid with the clubs but that was eroded gradually through the abolition of the maximum wage and the introduction of transfer tribunals two decades later. Bosman blew the doors off and players became king. At the top of the game, that is still the case although FFP regulations on profits seem likely to restore some balance. Those at the top will earn more but the disparity between those few and the rest will most likely grow. Cristiano Ronaldo’s reported demands for £500k each week underline that.
The egalitarian model pursued by Arsenal is a different take on that. The differential at the club between the top and bottom earners is nowhere near as dramatic as those at other big clubs around the globe. That is changing, a point to which Ivan Gazidis admitted earlier this summer; whether that is a realignment of policy or an admission of failure depends on your viewpoint.
With the definite end to each contract, clubs have to manage their renewal. Arsenal have been stung with Cesc and Henry, renewing barely long enough to purchase the airline tickets online. That is a chance that they have to take and in those two cases, the departures were inevitable. Arsenal were the architects of this situation to a large extent. There was a spate of signing players to ‘long-term’ deals following the move to The Emirates, young players were well-paid at the time and tied to contracts that were supposed to ensure that their loyalty to the club was bought – we’re not so far down the medical route to claim prove DNA claims, that is whole different type of doping.
At the time, the club were – and continue to be – criticised for the salaries paid to those players. The problem is that whilst they were well-paid compared to their peers at the time, the players grew up and those who reached the stars found that their salaries were no longer at comparable levels. This is the weakness of the egalitarian structure, the boundaries that limit the budget are achieved far quicker than a wider salary spread. Note: this is a different subject to whether the player is worth it.
So we find ourselves at a point where the contractual cycle is becoming more rapidly into view. We have lost Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri due to the proximity of the end of their deals, sold to avoid nil value being achieved twelve months later. The club in both instances were rebuffed when trying to talk to the player and their representatives about new contracts or the discussions were merely fodder for misfiring PR. The same situation has arisen with Theo Walcott although he is in discussions with the club. My own view is that had van Persie signed a new deal, Walcott would have been the star player to leave this summer. Patience has finite boundaries.
Alex Song left in a flurry of bizarre claims. Three years remained on his five year deal; his team wanted to renegotiate and Arsenal rebuffed them. Barcelona had probably been in contact and the pay-off to the player greater had he signed, the club were not that stupid. This summer has seen the club become tougher with contracts in some cases and Team Song found out the hard way that there are a lot more aspects of contract renegotiations than money. They scented weakness with the van Persie saga, determining that the club would not want to lose another key player. They were wrong. Are Team Walcott similarly misjudging the situation?
The other Alex is being spoken to at the moment to reward his progress; Koscielny and Vermaelen signed new deals in the past year and Mikel Arteta was rewarded for Player of the Season performances at the heart of the Arsenal midfield. Playing well is being rewarded. But can the club apply a broadbrush approach to deals and the renewals process? Is two years into a deal too soon to talk; one more year and it seems to be too late with two years remaining being the trigger for panic. Can the club find a middle ground?
It seems the club is locked in a cycle whereby the young are satisfied, the mature players are discontented with their lot. Perhaps Oxlade-Chamberlain is signalling a change to that approach. Shorter renegotiation cycles which are triggered by achievements both for the team and personally, the latter has to happen. I don’t think anyone can complain with that policy since personal achievement cannot be entirely subsumed in a team structure.
You can never relieve the issue of players signing deals that allow them to take their money and playing out their contracts. It always has happened, it always will. Arsenal have to protect their investment in assets and need to find a balance. Even in a time when Arsenal have been stung once more, the seeds of change can be seen. As much as from securing the playing strength of the squad perspective, the club needs a run of positive PR in terms of contract renewals. Too many column inches have been lost to those who have gone, it is time to redirect them towards those that want to remain.