“Spend some money!” That was the chant that came from the away end as Arsenal drew 0-0 with Leicester City on August 20, 2016.
It was a familiar refrain from the Gunners fans and this one came after Arsenal had bought just one player in the summer transfer window, spending £35million to land Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Granit Xhaka.
In the latter years of Arsene Wenger’s reign, the club had become synonymous with frugality. Supporters were frequently angry at what they saw as a lack of ambition coming from the hierarchy of their club, with their rivals frequently outspending Arsenal in the transfer market.
Wenger saw himself as the fall guy, so – not for the first time – he faced the press and attempted to explain the club’s transfer policy. Asked why he was “reluctant” to splash out transfer fees, Wenger launched into a passionate response. He said: “Why do you say I’m reluctant? I don’t understand that. If I buy you tomorrow for £45million, I’ve spent £45million. Have I done well, yes? If I listen to you, I will have done well, because I have spent the money. But spending the money in itself is not a quality.
“Spending the money and buying a top player, that is different. We are ready to do that. I spend “300million if I find the player, if I have the £300million. I have not to forget as well that we are a club who has 600 employees who we need to have a responsible attitude as well.
“It’s a bit surprising that you come out of football games, you don’t speak about football. You have to speak about money. I believe that you have to respect the players who have played, the performance that has been done today by those teams. If we can find players who can strengthen our team, we are not reluctant to spend the money.”
Despite Wenger’s speech from the heart, Arsenal did act. Ten days after their plea to the club, fans got their wish. Money was spent on August 30, 2016, with defender Shkodran Mustafi arriving for £35m and striker Lucas Perez for £17.1m from Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna respectively. Arsenal fans don’t need reminding that those deals – and the 2016/17 season in general – did not go to plan.
The moral of the story is that Wenger was right. Just spending money because it’s available is not a very good transfer policy. Arsenal have had their fair share of duds in the market and, when you are trying to operate against time pressure, mistakes are inevitable. But the recent business of big-hitters Liverpool and Manchester City shows it is possible to minimise such errors.
Having played under Wenger at Arsenal and worked under Pep Guardiola at Man City, Mikel Arteta knows these lessons better than most. He oversaw a cumulative spend of over £150m last summer on six new players and still found himself finishing in fifth in the Premier League, like Wenger did in 2016/17.
Arteta needs a similar outlay this summer if Arsenal are going to stand any chance of closing the gap to their rivals, with strikers particularly important. While money does need to be spent, the Arsenal manager would be wise to remember the words of Wenger when choosing how to spend it.