I’m delighted Calum has extended his stay with us. He played an important role last season and will be part of my plans this season.
That was Unai Emery, on July 3, when Calum Chambers signed a contract extension, having signed a new contract in the fall of 2017. A mere 5 weeks later to the day, Emery’s claim that Chambers was part of his plans for this season was contradicted, as Chambers left for the duration of the 2018/19 season for Fulham.
This stuff does happen. Players sign new contracts and then leave on loan, unable to get into the first team, blocked, for example, by new signings. But have been no new signings at Arsenal, at least in the defence, since Chambers signed his contract extension. When Chambers signed again, Sokratis had already been purchased. Indeed, at the time the thought was that Shkodran Mustafi would leave if Arsenal purchased another centre back. Mustafi is still here, as of writing there is no new centre back, and Chambers is gone. It is rather puzzling.
It is puzzling for both footballing and personnel reasons, and both speak to a bigger, worrying trend of summer transfer windows at Arsenal. In footballing terms, Chambers, as Emery noted, emerged as one of Arsenal’s better centre halves at the end of last season, with his good play on the ball being complemented by better defensive play. With Laurent Koscielny injured, Shkodran Mustafi coming off of a very poor season, and Sokratis having a poor campaign at Borussia Dortmund, Chambers would’ve backed himself to get into Arsenal’s first XI, especially as he complements Arsenal’s other senior centre halves better than the pair of Mustafi and Sokratis so far, who are both rash. Chambers, the best ball-player of the centre backs at the club, also suits the tactical decision to build from the back more so than someone like Sokratis, who the linked Domagoj Vida, both of whom can be clumsy on the ball.
With Chambers having had a year out on loan, already, he is at a point where he does not need “more seasoning.” He is either good enough to get in ahead of Arsenal’s weakest first choice centre back pairing in a decade, or he is not, and if he is not, then giving him a new contract was a mistake. That a decision to move him on came 5 weeks after extending him potentially means that decisions are being made without the various members of Arsenal’s front office and coaching staff not consulting each other.
In personnel terms, this leaves Arsenal, barring a late purchase, with four centre backs: Mustafi, Sokratis, Rob Holding and Konstantinos Mavropanos, who has played three games for the club. Should one of Mustafi or Sokratis suffer injury or suspension, it’ll be an inexperienced player they’ll be turning to.
It is possible that after pre-season, Emery was unimpressed with Chambers, or that Chambers wanted to go out and play every week (though there’s an argument that Arsenal should not have let him). Whatever the rationale is, Arsenal are faced in a situation that they have been in before: having conducted early business—and yes, Arsenal regularly conducted early business under Arsène Wenger—they are in a position of feeling that the summer transfer dealings are complete, only to panic the week before the window closes having realized that the squad has a major hole in it. The results have not been great: Lucas Perez was bought in 2016 for £17.5m and will leave for £5m. Shkodran Mustafi was a late-August purchase. In 2015, Arsenal only signed Petr Cech before making late bids for a striker, and in 2014, Arsenal signed Danny Welbeck on deadline day, with Wenger deciding after two games that Alexis Sánchez wouldn’t play as a striker and needing cover for the injured Olivier Giroud, Arsenal’s only senior centre forward on the books since the end of the 2013/14 campaign.
One of the reasons from moving on from Wenger was that the club so often made these reactive decisions, dispensing with a longer-term plan. Another example of this was the long-term search for a midfield player that was put on the backburner when Francis Coquelin came to the fore in January 2015. A year on, Arsenal purchased Mohamed Elneny, having resorted to using Mathieu Flamini at times during the 2015/16 season.
Yet, even after Wenger, Arsenal are acting in a similar way; changing plans and targets on a whim, with long-term centre back target Caglar Soyuncu moving to Leicester for less money than the older Vida may move to Arsenal. Arsenal held talks with Freiburg for the player this summer; interest was serious, and he clearly was available. Why, at this point, are Arsenal changing tack? It speaks to a disconnect at the club, which speaks to a greater structural issue. If Arsenal are to move beyond farcical decisions at the end of tranfser windows, then they are going to have to identify why these decisions keep happening, and what can be done to rectify them. For much of the summer, Arsenal didn’t face this scrutiny because of the assumption that after Wenger, these things wouldn’t happen. For the first time, it is clear that while Wenger may have contributed to institutional disconnect, he was not the only factor.