Arsenal’s Problem With Branded Players

Arsenal Football Club Exclusive Article

So – the crisis has already begun in earnest. Even before the match began at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, there was audible grumbling amongst the supporters about the non arrival of Rooney and Suarez. “Same old story,” shrugged one of my neighbours. “It’s so embarrassing,” claimed another Gunners fan. “Swansea are telling us that we can’t buy Michu or Williams. Wolfsburg pipped us to Gustavo. Who are Swansea or Wolfsburg? We’re a laughing stock.” As the game went Villa’s way, and as the injuries began to stack up, the chants aimed at Wenger to crank open his much talked about “war chest” became louder and more ferocious. Given the resources available, there is simply no excuse for the squad being thin on the ground, or the lack of a “marquee” signing. Nothing less than the addition of a top class signing will silence the dissenters. Not now. Not after the club announced a few months ago in such grandiose fashion that their “financial firepower is now significantly increased.”

Herbert Chapman, with the support of the board, is the only Gunners boss ready, willing and able to sign “branded” players; stars who’d forged their reputation and enjoyed success elsewhere. Charlie Buchan, having won the title at Roker Park was the first, arriving from Sunderland for a huge fee, showing that Chapman was willing to flaunt owner Sir Henry Norris’s ruling that “Managers wishing to pay exhorbitant fees for players need not apply” (for the job). It was Buchan who helped Chapman implement his WM formation and helped steer Arsenal towards their first FA Cup Final in 1927. Chapman relished the opportunity to add Alex James from Preston and David Jack from Bolton, two players who were considered to have acquired legendary status at their respective clubs, to his team for huge fees, which equate to multi million pound deals in today’s money. It remains the only time in Arsenal’s history when the club accepted that in order to sign the best players, you had to pay the going rate, and a little more besides, and move like lighting to close it off.  Little wonder that the Gunners were nicknamed the Bank Of England club in the 1930s, and Chapman’s genius lay in his ability to man manage expensive signings and mould them into the team pattern he wanted to create.

The story of Alan Ball – a British record £220,000 signing when he joined Arsenal from Everton at Christmas 1971 – speaks volumes for the Gunners’ unease when it comes to adding top class players to the squad. A World Cup winner and a league champion with the Goodison outfit, Ball arrived with a massive reputation and commanded an equally massive wage. Yet it never quite worked out for him, or the Gunners, who’d won the Double shortly before he arrived. Bally served Arsenal excellently in his five year spell at the club, but he was aware of an undercurrent of dissension when it came to his wages. “Word always gets out about how much players earn, and when some of the home grown lads heard about what I was on, which was about three times what they earned, they weren’t happy,” he told me in 2005. “You could blame Bertie Mee for allowing the side to run down, but my arrival unsettled a lot of players, and it started to break down the unity of the squad. It led to bickering and a bit of jealousy. Players went to Bertie demanding a pay rise. That’s what happens when expensive new players come in. Everyone wants more money. And one senior Arsenal pro pointed out to me that no one at the club liked ‘star’ players. ‘Arsenal’s success is about team work and mucking in together,’ he told me. Some of them didn’t trust me.”

George Graham point blank refused to sign ‘star’ talent, preferring instead to place his faith in blue collar players from the lower leagues (Bould, Dixon and Groves) and blend them with freshly nurtured home grown talent. It worked well for several seasons, before his refusal to embrace the new generation of foreign players who began to move to England in the mid 1990s (he famously described Eric Cantona as a “cry baby” and ruthlessly ostracised Swedish winger Anders Limpar by 1994) began to appear hopelessly outdated in the burgeoning Premiership era. Arsene Wenger always preferred to exploit inefficiencies in the market (Anelka’s signing was down to a legal loophole discovered by David Dein), or buy promising players who’d had difficult experiences elsewhere (Vieira and Henry arrived at Highbury having failed to shine in Italy). Admittedly, large sums were invested by Bruce Rioch in David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp (another legendary Gunner who’d endured a miserable time in Serie A before his arrival in North London) in 1995, but these are exceptions to the norm.

Under Mee, Graham and now Wenger, the club has allowed successful teams to disintegrate, demur from investing in top talent to sustain success, and insist on periods of (often) unnecessary retrenchment, when faith is placed in bargain signings and youth team graduates, with varying degrees of success. Despite the promises of big spending by Ivan Gazidis earlier this summer, it hasn’t happened, and his comments have placed the club, and him, in a highly embarrassing situation. One imagines he’s not looking forward to the forthcoming AGM, where Arsenal shareholders can often get quite feisty. Arsenal’s historical way of doing business – even in more expansive eras – has been to sign “B” grade players in the hope that they can turn them into “A” star footballers. The acquisitions of Ashley Williams and Marouanne Fellaini would have been fine examples of such an approach, but it now seems highly unlikely that either man will be plying his trade in North London this season. The club has failed to get their tried and trusted policy right, partly perhaps because Gazidis’s comments suggested the club wished to simply cut to the chase and head straight for luxury brand players.

The evidence points to the fact that Wenger and Gazidis are struggling to come to terms with what the pursuit of top stars really entails; paying over the odds, and acting speedily in the transfer market to seal the deals. The problem is, Arsenal are not securing any “B” grade signings either, and unless a miracle occurs over the next fourteen days, there won’t be any new faces at all, let alone the “branded” players which my disgruntled neighbours called for at the Emirates this weekend, and which Gazidis hinted were now well within the club’s grasp. The discontent at the Villa match may soon become a rapidly expanding bubble of protest. Welcome to the new season!