Arsenal’s dealings in transfer markets are well documented, partially because very little happens, as we are all far too aware. But there is another, perhaps even more distressing side to our transfer activities, namely that we tend to sell crucial players at crucial points in our redevelopment, or in their careers. In this post, I’m hoping to evaluate which of our losses we miss the most, and which is the one I regret the most. I hope you enjoy (or at least stick with me until the end). For the sake of ease, I’m going to start at the beginning of our barren trophyless run, which has also been well documented, and started in 2005.
***A big thanks to the ins and outs of the English language for presenting me with the opportunity to write such a phenomenally misleading title. Thanks a lot, apostrophes***
So, picture the scene. It’s May, we’ve lost the title to Chelsea, but we’ve also managed to win the FA Cup, totally undeservedly against Manchester United, with our captain scoring the all important winning kick. There had been much speculation as to whether Vieira was going to stay after the Invincibles season the year before (2003-04), but he did – however, that winning spot kick proved to be his last kick of a ball in an Arsenal shirt. I’ll come onto Vieira later, because he wasn’t the only player we’ve lost since then, and there are a few more players who have departed since then that I’d like to talk about first.
Fast forward one season, and there’s a different tale to be told. Robert Pires, arguably our best ever winger, has just played his last game for the club. Well, I say ‘game’…18 minutes of it. It was the flamboyant Frenchman who was replaced by Manuel Almunia, following Lehmann’s inexplicable red card. The look on his face summed it up – he knew he wasn’t getting the contract extension he wanted, and that this was his last game for the club he loved so much. It was meant to be his swansong, instead, he was left sitting on the bench wondering what might have been. Sentimentally, it was an awful end to his otherwise illustrious career at the club. Footballing-wise, looking back it probably wasn’t so bad. Reyes and Hleb were starting to faze him out, and his pace seemed to have been steadily declining. His partner in crime, Ashley Cole, had spent his entire career at Arsenal, and together, they had created hole after hole in the right hand side of every challenger’s defence. But he too was off to pastures new (and blue), infamously swapping Arsenal for Chelsea. Given his success there (8 medals), I can’t help but imagine how he could have helped us. Yes, he’s a knob, but he’s a fantastic left back…hate to say it, but he’s even better than Santos. Following the departures of Cole and Sol Campbell, our once rock solid defence had been transformed into one that was somewhat more permeable. At least we could hang on to Thierry Henry…for now.
The following season, with Arsenal coming 4th but fighting their way to the Carling Cup Final, there was little activity in the transfer market, until very late on. Lauren had left, but given his age and the refreshing exuberance of Eboue, this was of little note or surprise. Fabrice Muamba moved on to Birmingham, and whilst I did rate him highly during his playing career, it seemed logical at the time to let him go – of course I would have happily kept him, but you have to balance it out financially, as well as letting him play regularly. But then it came – Thierry Henry was Barcelona-bound. Once again, it had been rumoured for years that he was off to Spain, but this time it was confirmed, and I was devastated. Okay, he hadn’t been producing as many goals or jaw-dropping moments, but he was still The King. I don’t claim to know much about the financial position of the club, but it seemed stupid to hang on to him after 2006, when he was already waning, and we were being offered silly money for him (enough to have made him the world record signing). But to lose him for £16m? That’s daylight robbery. Once again, I’ll come back to Henry later on. That season also marked the end for Freddie Ljungberg, another loyal servant, another Invincible, but another ageing talent.
In recent times, there have been calls to sign a defensive midfielder to bolster our defensive options – endless targets have been listed, ranging from Biglia to M’Vila to De Jong. But since when? Even before Alex Song left, there were calls to sign someone ‘big’, literally. It’s been going on since Wenger’s moment of madness, and his decision to sell Gilberto Silva, Mathieu Flamini and Lassana Diarra all in the same season. Madness if you ask me – I don’t know 100% of the details within the Flamini saga, but that one was maybe understandable. Gilberto left because he needed game time, with Flamini having taken up the DM role the previous season, but with the Frenchman gone, there would have been ample opportunity for Gilberto to regain his spot. As for Diarra, whilst his career may have gone a little off course, he was a fantastic player in his prime, and I still maintain that France would have gotten to the quarter finals of the 2010 World Cup (at least) if he hadn’t been unavailable. Hleb was also sold, but to be honest, I think we can all agree he made the wrong decision, whilst Wenger made the right one.
And so now we enter the age of City’s millions. And naturally, they come knocking at Arsene Wenger’s door. And they walk away with what they wanted, namely Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure. Adebayor will always be remembered for that one season where he flourished and scored 30 goals. But before that? He was pretty crap. And after that? Yeah, he had a few good spells, but nothing as impressive as the 2007-08 season, where he led the line in the absence of Henry. As for Toure, he’d forged an impressive partnership with Gallas, but his pace and strength were not as prominent as they had once been, and his loss was more of an inconvenience than anything else. Plus, we’d just bought Thomas Vermaelen off Ajax for almost half the price. Yes we struggled for goals in the long run, but we had Van Persie and Fabregas, who were both scoring for fun, as well as a fit again Eduardo.
Another season, and another crucial loss. Just as the partnership between Vermaelen and Gallas was beginning to resemble that of Campbell and Toure in their pomp, Gallas was off (in a huff…). All because Wenger didn’t want to break his over-30s policy (which he then incidentally broke with Squillaci a few months later). Sure, Wenger wasn’t to know that Seb would be so bad, and that Vermaelen would be out all season, but it wasn’t a great bit of business to say the least. Eduardo also left, but as much as I love the guy, it wasn’t working out for him after his awful injury, and so a move to the less intense and fast paced Ukrainian League seemed to be a good move for all involved. It wasn’t necessarily the losses here that caused problems, but the inability to find a quick fix solution (Koscielny has come good, but looked shaky during his debut season).
Once again, City came calling for two of our stars. Once again, they plucked a one-season wonder, and an Invincible (the last one – that’s just out of order…like taking the last Rolo). Gael Clichy was first to go, and despite his rashness in the tackle, he was a good attacking outlet – I’m torn here, because he’s obviously good enough to be starting for the champions most weeks, but he was always inconsistent, and his departure allowed Gibbs to get a run in the side, who could well become better than Clichy in the long run. As for Na$ri, well I was quite happy to be honest. Yes, he was a mercurial talent, and could turn games. But we didn’t see that Na$ri in the 2nd half of the season (I blame the banning of the snood). Instead, we got one who didn’t look interested, and wanted to leave. So good riddance, especially for £24m. He hasn’t been nearly as good for City, and I think Wenger did a good job here in tough conditions. And to add to that, we lost Eboue – I’m serious here, I rated him very highly as a right back, and who’s to say that he didn’t have a positive effect on the squad morale!
As you all know however, it wasn’t just Na$ri, Clichy and Eboue who left that fateful Summer. Perhaps the most drawn out transfer saga of the 21st Century (bit overdramatic, but oh well) came to a tenuous and painful end. Cesc Fabregas completed his long-protracted move to Barcelona, following a series of frankly outrageous comments and bids from the Catalans. If you’re interested, read this timeline from ArsenalReport:
Once more, I’ll come back to Cesc.
And once more, the following season, we found ourselves having to find a new captain, following RVP’s move to Manchester United. Now, I know this is a touchy subject, but here’s my view – he didn’t want to sign an extension, so we could either make him stay, or sell him for a somewhat discounted price. The first option wasn’t ever going to happen, because let’s face it, a player who doesn’t want to play for a particular club won’t play well there. So, once the second choice had been made, then the player has a lot of power. If he only wanted to go to Manchester United, then there’s nothing we could do about it. He would have just gone there a year later for free, and I’d much rather get the money for him than have a half-hearted captain leading out a team that needs as much inspiration as possible, but knowing that he was off in a few months time…but hey, maybe I’m just bitter. Either way, he’s doing bloody well at Old Trafford, and we do miss him – it’s a little too soon to make a judgement, but that’s just my feeling. As for Alex Song, I haven’t heard much other than the fact that he gets a few games at centre back, and otherwise essentially is getting paid to watch Barcelona. If he really was a disruptive influence, then that’s enough given his erratic tendencies on the pitch to get rid of him. I’d like to see him in a few years time and see where he is.
So, there are 3 names who have come up that I said I’d come back to. Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas. All captains of Arsenal. All wonderful players. All sold. The first two could both easily claim to be the best in the world in their respective positions at the time, and had everyone trembling in their boots whenever they emerged from the tunnel. As a result, they were prime property in the world of football, and everybody wanted them. Both of them were, in my eyes, kept a year too long, and were sold off the back of poor seasons for much less than was being offered a year prior. They were still world class, but they weren’t as effective, and thus losing them seemed more psychological than anything else.
As for Cesc Fabregas, he too was kept a year too long, but paradoxically also a fair few years too short. He was and still is phenomenal, and fitted the bill perfectly. Henry’s skills were sublime, but a lot was instinctive – Vieira’s game was based on technical ability intertwined with strength. But Fabregas had it all in my eyes, and with the team around him really should have won more. His versatility was key, and still could be in this team that we have now. If he had stayed just one more season, with RVP in the form he was in, I’m sure we would have won the league, and RVP would have stayed. But he didn’t, and we suffered hugely as a result. I don’t really believe the whole ‘striking’ thing. The respect he had for the club and the manager was far too great. And crucially, he was sold at the peak of his powers, right when his value should have been highest. I said I’d come back to him in this article, but I would be more than ecstatic if Wenger comes back for him and brings him back ‘home’ (oh the irony).
It seems to me that as one goes through this sentimental piece, there’s an unfortunate trend. Yes, we have sold our best players over time, but whilst in the beginning it was as they grew old or restless, now it seems as though we are selling them at their peaks, and thus strengthening others, as well as weakening ourselves. As well as this, there seems to be a sense that the replacements that we have sought out haven’t been as good as the players that they have replaced, but this is a new trend that wasn’t around pre-Invincibles.
I hope you enjoyed the piece, please comment and vote in the poll below – it should (hopefully) make for some interesting reading!