If this transfer window is any guide, Arsenal are undergoing a second period of enforced austerity. But while the Emirates era austerity was in response to building a stadium, this period of austerity is effectively because Stan Kroenke doesn’t want to spend any money of his own money on Arsenal, and having had to get a bridging loan to fully takeover the club, the club is now funding his takeover, lessening funds available.
It is perhaps not a bad thing that Arsenal cannot spend money this window, taking the club away from short-term, expensive fixes, such as Ever Banega, or Gary Cahill. For if Arsenal are to get back into the Champions League places and ensure that it is a constant, while being self-sustaining, they must copy what other clubs in England’s elite do, particularly Liverpool and Chelsea. Chelsea, of course, have the backing of Roman Abramovic, but that backing is less in direct expenditure now. Chelsea’s recent purchases—such as Christian Pulisic—come from selling assets for large fees. Callum Hudson-Odoi, for example, may depart for £40m. Last season, Chelsea sold Nathan Aké to Bournemouth for £22.8m. Aké made 17 appearances for Chelsea over four seasons, and while it is perhaps cheaper to keep Aké rather than sign, say, Antonio Rudiger, having young players who are attractive to other clubs is a vital way of being a self-sustaining club.
Liverpool famously sold Coutinho and bought Van Dijk, among others, but it is other sales that have helped them just as much: Dominic Solanke left this month for £19m, Danny Ings left in the summer on loan with Southampton obliged to buy, for up to £20m, and Jordon Ibe departed two summers ago for £15m: £55m for three players that Liverpool no longer needed. Conversely, Arsenal let Serge Gnabry go for under £10m, and Danny Welbeck will leave on a free transfer (not to mention Aaron Ramsey, Wojciech Szczesny, etc etc). An added bonus from Ibe, Ings and Solanke is that they are all home-grown players, which may become vastly more important in a post-Brexit Premier League.
Arsenal, though, cannot really do this. Perhaps, in time, Héctor Bellerín could appeal to Manchester City, and Rob Holding, Lucas Torreira an Mattéo Guendouzi could collect fees. But those are all players needed now, who are not surplus. In terms of sellable assets, they simply don’t exist. Furthermore, with the 7th-oldest squad in the league, it is not as if Arsenal’s current first team can be phased out; Arsenal will take a loss on Mkhitaryan, Lacazette, Aubameyang and Özil, all of whom will need replacing in the next 2-3 years.
This is why Arsenal’s new philosophy has to be a return to project youth. That will entail first that the team will get younger, and secondly, that the team can sustainably fund big purchases and wages. The addition of a loans manager is an encouraging step, for choosing the right loan can increase the attractiveness of a player. Even if Reiss Nelson does not make the first team at Arsenal, a deal for a large fee should be found. The same goes for Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah; there is value in developing these players even if they don’t make the first team, because they allow for a return on investment.
Arsenal went for a quick rebuild last summer. But moving forward, the approach of the team has to be to surround an emerging core of younger talent with elite players—the final step that was missing from the Project Youth of the Wenger era. If a move to a younger approach is successful, Arsenal should be able to fund their purchases and handle the loss of big stars by being able to smartly scout and sign their successors, while collecting a profit. If Arsenal don’t do this intelligently, then the club are looking at a longer look outside of Europe’s elite. The first indication of whether Arsenal will be able to return to Europe’s elite or if they will be on the outside looking in will come this summer.