It has been a common refrain among Arsenal fans over the last few years - "ARSENAL ALWAYS SELL THEIR BEST PLAYERS!", or "WHY CAN'T ARSENAL KEEP THEIR PLAYERS?", or "ARSENE WENGER AND ARSENAL ONLY WANT TO MAKE MONEY THEY DON'T CARE ABOUT WINNING!!11!!!!!1!!!!!".
That doesn't really sit well with me, for one main reason: There was a time in Arsene's history as manager when not a single player he sold performed better for another club than he did for Arsenal. That told me, anecdotally, that Arsene knew what he was doing; he wouldn't sell a player that, in his judgment, would go on to have the best years of his career somewhere else.
That doesn't mean he sold players on the cheap, or that he was anxious to sell - but he seemed to have a really keen eye for a player's peak, and he always followed the principle that it's better to sell a player a year too early than a year too late. So I decided to take a look at the transfer dealings of Arsene Wenger over the years. I was trying to answer one primary question: Did players who were sold by Arsenal get better after they left?
In order to answer this question, I had to set up some rules. So here are the rules.
- I looked at all of Arsenal's transfers out since the summer of 2008, excluding loaned players and retirees.
- I did not consider transfer fees in my evaluation.
- I only considered summer transfers, not January sales.
- I considered players for three years post-sale, except in the obvious cases of the 2011 and 2012 summers. This quiets the noise of a player who is great for a season then collapses, and tries to account for aging.
- I considered players since the summer of 1998; 1996-97 was Wenger's first season in charge, and he started after the start of the 1996 season, so I'm guessing that summer 1998 was his first summer in full control of transfers with a clear vision of what he wanted.
- I only considered first team regulars and regular substitutes - I did not consider bit players.
The thing I struggled with a bit is what constitutes "better". I come from a baseball-analytics background, and spreadsheets of data and rules like the one I set up are just crying out for quantitative analysis against collected hard data. But, this is soccer, and a lot of that data is immature, unavailable, or unhelpful. So, I decided to basically go with my gut - I looked briefly at the post-Arsenal careers of all the players on my list and made a value judgement as to how much "better", if any, they got after they left Arsenal.
This "better" judgment is solely about the player - it's not about their team. For instance, if a player left Arsenal as a regular starter and, for his new team, came on as an 80th minute substitute in 6 games in a season where his new team wins a championship, I did not consider that to be an example of "getting better", even though the player has been on a championship team.
THE BIGGEST CAVEAT, THE ONE THAT I HAD TO PREFACE WITH A WARNING IN BOLD CAPS IN ORDER TO CALL YOUR ATTENTION TO IT SO PLEASE PAY ATTENTION TO IT: The main thing to remember about this exercise is that it specifically does not answer the question "was/is Arsenal a better team after (whichever player) was sold?" This was done purely to determine whether Arsene Wenger sells players before he should. The answers could help inform the "are Arsenal better/worse" question, but that was not the point here.
With those rules in place, I ended up with a list of 42 players that Arsene has sold since summer 1998. Of those 42 players, how many went on to have more successful careers at other clubs? Let's break it down - since this isn't scientific, there were a few that were debatable, so we need some groupings.
This is an elite group. This group undoubtedly got better after they left Arsenal, as anybody who even pays the smallest amount of attention to the player would agree. This group consists of the following players:
1. Ashley Cole
Yep, this category contains just one player, good ol' Cashley. He was a great player at Arsenal, but it's hard to argue he didn't get even better after he left. Funny how little I miss him, even given how good he is.
This group was harder to judge. They don't show a lot of dropoff, but it's not a slam-dunk that they got better, either, whether that's due to a shifting role or other circumstances. It's a group with a little wider membership than the Unequivocals:
1. Gael Clichy. He was great for Arsenal until his last season, when he wasn't - he's back to form now and is probably playing at the same level as his good-Arsenal peak. I'm not sure if that makes him "better", but it does make me question whether he's an Unequivocal or not.
2. Thierry Henry. When he went to Barcelona, he was asked to play a vastly different role than he did at Arsenal, where he was the focus of everything. At Barcelona, he was playing as one of many attacking options; he played really well there, there wasn't a significant dropoff in his quality, but he didn't play as frequently. I'm not sure he played better than he did at Arsenal, but he was definitely no worse.
3. Marc Overmars. Had a horrific first season at Barcelona in 2000, he really struggled to fit in to both the city and the team, but then he rebounded and had a couple legitimately great seasons until an injury forced him to retire in 2004.
4. Manuel Almunia. If soccer had "quad-A" players like baseball does - players who were too good for the minors, but not quite good enough for the majors - Manuel Almunia would be one. He has started almost every game for Watford this season (he missed a few due to injury), and Watford are in third place. That's obviously not all down to Almunia, but he's been a big part of their success; he wasn't able to get into the Arsenal first team with any regularity, but it's obvious he's a good keeper and that he's found his level. What I don't know is if his level is better than it was at Arsenal, or if this is what he's always been capable of and it just wasn't good enough for the Premier League.
THE JURY'S STILL OUT:
Remember, my survey was using a three-year window post-Arsenal to judge if a player got better. That said, the jury's still out on Robin van Persie - he's in the race for Player of the Season this year, and he just bagged a hat trick in a single half, but this is only his second fully healthy season, so I'm not quite willing to say he's better now than when he left. I'll be more persuaded if he does this again next season.
I'd have to say the jury's still out on Alex Song, as well - by my three-year window rule it's too early to judge, but if you forced me to decide right now whether he got better after he left, it would have to be a no. He doesn't fit in Barcelona's system all that well so he doesn't play often, but after less than a season I can't say with any certainty that he "got worse" after he left. If 2013-14 is the same for Song as 12-13 has been, he'll move into the No group, but for now I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.
This was the easy group - easier than the Unequivocals. Remember, there were 42 players being considered, and you've just read about seven of them. That leaves 35 players whose careers went downhill after leaving Arsenal; players the likes of Patrick Vieira, Edu, Francis Jeffers, Sylvinho, Nicolas Anelka, etc.
So what grand conclusion can we draw from this? That's an interesting question. As mentioned above, Arsenal as a club and Arsene Wenger as a manager are often accused of selling players just to profit from them, and I think this little study shows that's not necessarily true - he did make a handsome profit off a few players, obviously, and several of the players who left made it clear they wouldn't stay for love or money so they had to be sold.
By and large, though, Arsenal's transfer policy seems to in fact be based on how a player performs, to a greater degree than populist rage and Piers Morgan would have you believe. Next time Arsenal sell off a good player - and it will happen, have no doubt - ask yourself "is that player at his peak, and will he get better after he leaves?" The answer, in most cases, is almost certainly going to be no.
My transfer spreadsheet is here if you're interested in having a look and debating my conclusions.