Morning all. I’m going to start today with a question. How many times have you heard this debate?
“Arsenal have the fourth biggest wage bill in the Premiership, therefore should be finishing fourth.”
“But we also have a lower net spend on transfers over the past six years than the vast majority of the league. Surely in those terms, anything above 17th is overachieving?”
“No, it doesn’t work like that. It is all about the wage bill. And ours is huge.”
I’m guessing this argument isn’t new to you. The strange thing about it is that, like many other debates in the Arsenal world, it is entirely polarising – most people seem to sit firmly in the ‘our net spend is tiny, therefore Wenger is working miracles‘ or ‘our wage bill is way higher than Spurs, therefore we’re underachieving‘ camp. I know I talk a lot on this blog about middle ground, but it amazes me that it is isn’t found on this one. After all, net spend and wages are the two ways of spending your money. They both count.
Not only do they both count, but they are intrinsically and inextricably linked. Over the past decade in particular, Arsenal have had a very clear strategy when it comes to replacing players – promote from within wherever possible, and recruit from outside when there is no-one of sufficient standing to elevate. That has had two direct results:
- a focus on investing in the reserves and youths, paying the promising youngsters a salary designed to keep them out of the clutches of our rivals. End result – a higher wage bill, because we have a larger collection of players in development, each on decent money.
- a higher proportion of departing players replaced from within. End result – a reduced net transfer spend, because incoming fees are not always spent on replacements.
We have a higher wage spend so that we can reduce our transfer spend – they are fundamentally intertwined, and it makes no sense to consider one without the other. You cannot say we are working miracles because our transfer spend is so low without acknowledging that it is our wage bill enabling that, and likewise you cannot judge us against expectations set purely by our wage bill when a considerable chunk of that is not being paid to players who will affect the club this season (it is also true that some of our wage bill is reserved for players not necessarily worthy of their salaries, but you can find examples of that at every club).
There are advantages and disadvantages to the strategy. Promoting from within leaves you less exposed to being ripped off when your rivals know of your desperate need for a player in a certain position (otherwise known as the Andy Carroll effect), and it also means that by the time a player hits the first team, they have already been schooled in the Arsenal way and are settled within the club. You could also argue that players require less gelling with each other than new arrivals, since many of them will have played together at youth or reserve level.
On the flip side, some of the money invested in youngsters is ultimately wasted when they do not come to fruition. Arsenal have historically been very clever with sell on clauses for players they let go, but sometimes three or four years (sometimes more) are invested in a talent who ultimately leaves for nothing before reaching the first team squad. Not only that, but having a young talent pool at your disposal can tempt the manager into promoting too early – if he needs to fill a particular berth in the squad, and has a great talent coming through the ranks, he may take a gamble on a player a year or two before the ideal moment. We’ve seen it happen.
So there are pros and cons, good elements and bad elements to the approach, but it annoys me when people fail to acknowledge what we have tried to do, and point either to the wage bill or transfer spend in complete isolation, and using it as evidence of our over- or underachievement. One affects the other directly.
The other related point is the 71 man playing staff figure that came out this week. It is hardly news – if you go to the dot com and count up the first team squad and reserves, you’ll reach a total of 72 (I assume Benayoun is the additional one, since he isn’t actually ours), so it isn’t as if the club are hiding anything. But this ties in with our strategy once again – if you plan to promote from within wherever you can, you need a decent pool from which to select. Some players are patently a few years from fruition, but they increase the wage bill and player count to the point where people can criticise. For the record, most other top clubs have 55-70, so we aren’t enormously inflated.
Imagine if we changed our strategy tomorrow, let as many of the youngsters go as we could, and recruited purely (or mainly) through the transfer market. In the short term, our wage bill would drop considerably, and the club balance sheet would look healthier. But, a few years down the line, three players might leave at the end of their contracts, with another two sold, and we would have to recruit five players from the market. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the wages saved are then used to funds the transfers (and associated fees).
Essentially, the club’s plan is to invest in youth, and cash in on that investment by banking a transfer fee for an outgoing player without necessarily having to fritter it away on a replacement. It is a strategy that confuses the media, who believe that every sale should result in a like for like purchase, and it frustrates fans, who don’t see as much spending action going on during a transfer window (incidentally, I am not saying we don’t need to purchase, the strategy is to promote from within where you can, it certainly doesn’t preclude signings when you don’t have someone good enough and ready).
So next time you hear two people debating over whether our expectations should be driven by our net spend or our wage bill, bang their heads together, tell them they are both right and end this most frustrating of cyclical arguments.