Despite this past weekend's hiccup, things are good in Arsenal-land right now. The team's healthy, playing well, and on the business side revenues are up and debts are down, which puts Arsenal in an enviable position of financial strength.
It wasn't that long ago, however, that Arsenal were...not exactly a financial mess, but their wage bill was waaaaaay out of whack. They were paying starting players a bit less than the market would say they should be, which led to all sorts of fun, but they were also paying bench players a whole lot more than the market would dictate. This also led to problems - more intractable, significantly more annoying problems, like "I don't know why nobody will take Sebastian Squillaci's £50,000 a week salary off our hands".
But, as mentioned, Arsenal's more visible financials are better now - with the Puma deal and the other improved commercial deals, Arsenal have more money than they have had in several years. This got me to thinking about those fringe players - Arsenal clearly have shored up their first team regulars, but are they still overpaying guys who don't see a lot of time, at least relative to other Top Club Clubs?
To do this, I of course had to first define my terms. I had to be able to clearly differentiate what was a "squad player" or a "fringe player" over a regular starter. My first swipe at this was to say "if a senior team player has been healthy and has played in less than a third of this season's games, he's probably a fringe player". So, I set the line at 12 games - most teams who aren't Arsenal have played 36 games in 2014/15 - and started looking at rosters and appearances for the top five teams in England.
Smart Arsenal fans can probably see where this headed off the rails.
When I applied that criteria to the Arsenal roster, the list of Arsenal players that could be classified as "fringe" players consisted of the following:
So, clearly that criteria wasn't good enough. Problem was, I was struggling to find better data by which to establish more robust criteria - most of what I found was just number of appearances, so it was tough. Then, somebody pointed me towards soccerway.com, which is a fantastic resource for all sorts of granular player data, and I was able to be a little more specific. After playing around with various parameters, where I finally landed was that if a player had averaged fewer than 60 minutes per game, he could probably be described as a fringe player.
I then applied that criteria to the top five teams, and got a more satisfying, yet still not perfect, set of players that I could use to answer my question. Before I present them and thus the answer, though, it's time for...
SOME VERY BIG CAVEATS AS TO WHAT COMES NEXT!
1. When considering what is a "fringe player", I am only looking at 2014-15 league games
2. Salary data is really, really, REALLY hard to verify, and in many cases, to find
3. Salary data is really, really, REALLY just a best guess in a lot of cases based on conflicting reports (see #3)
4. My "60 min/gm" criteria obviously lumps a lot of injured players into the "fringe" category. I could probably control for that, but that would take a lot more time than I have or want to spend on this, so at least in Arsenal's case, you'll say BUT THEO ISN'T A FRINGE PLAYER. And you'll be right, in the real world. For the purposes of this, though, he is.
With all that said, what did I find? I found this:
|TEAM||# OF FRINGE PLAYERS||AVG SAL (wk)|
I found...inconclusiveness. As mentioned, Theo Walcott and his £110,000/wk are counted as a "fringe player" for Arsenal, which may or may not be true, and there are probably other examples of this on other teams as well. Arsenal are second on the list, but still a ways behind Manchester City, who are paying Frank Lampard to be a pinch-hitter; he's off their books in two weeks to go play soccer in a baseball stadium, and once he goes, their average drops by almost £20K/week, so that number's also a bit deceptive.
It's also important to note that the presence of youth team players (who typically earn between £1000-3000/week) skews the numbers the other way; both Chelsea and Manchester United have two, and Manchester City also have one (about whom I could find zero salary data at all).
The final caveat I didn't mention above is somewhat more obvious: the financial landscape of the Premier League is drastically different than it was at the turn of the decade, when Arsenal were at their worst as far as overpaying replacement-level talent. Insane TV deals and the resultant wage inflation mean it's not all that extraordinary for a guy who doesn't play much to make more in a week than most of us make in a year.
The question is thus not as much "Are Arsenal's fringe players making more than other team's fringe players" as it is "do fringe players make too much money". Do the wages made by the players who are secondary considerations preclude those players from being sold to other teams if Arsenal want to create space for new players?
When looked at this way, the only bench player Arsenal have that would seem to be overpaid relative to other players on other teams is Tomas Rosicky; there's a whole debate to be had whether Theo is a fringe player, but assuming he is not, I'll take his £110K out of the discussion for now. Otherwise, when Manchester City is paying their lowest-paid fringe guy (Dedryk Boyata) £60K/week, and when Jon Obi Mikel is making £75K/week, it becomes more clear that Arsenal have ratcheted down their wage structure to a point where it's possible to shift players to other teams if needed.
So, I guess the answer to my original question - does Arsenal still overpay its fringe players relative to the rest of the league? - is a resounding "well, probably not". There aren't the glaring, Squillaci-esque examples of wastage on the roster, and at the extreme end there's no Lampard or Radamel Falcao blowing the curve, so it seems overall that Arsenal have brought their fringe-player wages more or less in line with the rest of the big players in the league, which is where they need to be.
One thing I found interesting was the number of fringe players per team; Arsenal had the fewest, thanks to Injuryghazi. In a "normal" year, I would expect Arsenal to have six or seven, but even given my loose, unscientific criteria, Arsenal only had four. If only Arsenal could have been healthy enough this season to have had more fringe players.
Thanks to @fbj0 for his help with this.
My salary and minutes data is here; players in blue are who I consider to be fringe players, who played fewer than 60 min/game this season in the league. If you want to dig more into the murky, undefined world of Premier League salaries to expand this out a bit, please feel free. Prepare to be frustrated.