Contracts: A Going Concern

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more clubs are strapped for cash. Given the financial implications behind big signings, huge fees needing to be structured over a period of time when cashflow cannot be guaranteed, more and more teams have had to look to the free market.

In recent seasons, Arsenal have struggled in the opposite way. Being a member of the “big 6” in England and with the kind of money that flows around English clubs, Arsenal rarely struggle to bring players in, but their ability to shift players has been far less successful.

A worrying concern for Arsenal has been the inability to shift players who want out. In the past 4 years, Arsenal have terminated the contracts of 6 players: Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Mesut Özil, Shkodran Mustafi, Willian and, more recently, Sead Kolašinac.

These 6 players cost Arsenal a combined figure of around £96m. To have made no money on any of them is worrying.

Willian mercifully saved Arsenal any further financial outlay.

It would be unfair to lay the blame entirely with the club for these players, especially since only 3 of the 6 actually cost Arsenal any money. Mkhitaryan joined as part of a swap deal for wantaway Alexis Sánchez, Sead Kolašinac was a free transfer from Schalke and Willian moved for free from Chelsea, albeit under the watchful eye and interfering hands of super-agent Kia Joorabchian.

As for the other 3, there has been a worrying lack of return. Mesut Özil, then a club-record signing, cost a whopping £42.5m and left in very controversial circumstances; Mustafi was meant to be the next big partner for Laurent Koscielny, but ultimately failed to impress; and Sokratis was brought in to shore up the Arsenal defence, only to be left unregistered for the final 6 months of his deal and to be considered a relatively poor recruit.

Of course, the reason the club terminates a deal is also going to change from player-to-player. With Mkhitaryan, the player wanted to leave and Roma were unable to stump up the fee required to sign him outright; Özil and Sokratis were both left unregistered for the new season and were unfavoured by the manager, with the former already becoming increasingly unpopular with the club’s hierarchy and Willian forgoed a termination clause and any remaining wages in order to leave Arsenal as quickly as possible.

In almost all cases, the act of terminating the player’s contract was seen more as a money-saving device more than anything. While the club does ostensibly have to pay a termination penalty and potentially the remainder of the player’s salary (or at least, a portion of it), ridding themselves of the player means that space is made on the ever-growing wage bill. The fact that all but 2 of the 6 earned over £100,000-a-week at the club, means that the club made substantial savings after releasing the player.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan was the first to go.

Mkhitaryan was on as much as £200,000-a-week, Sokratis was collecting wages just shy of £95,000-a-week, Özil was earning a highly controversial and highly publicised £350,000-a-week, Mustafi was earning around £95,000-a-week, Willian was collecting staggering weekly wages of around £140,000 and Kolašinac was on around £100,000-a-week, these savings have certainly helped in the long-run.

The issue that many Arsenal fans have is more that the players could have fetched a transfer sum of some kind, even a nominal one.

The fact that Arsenal seemed to shy away from forcing Roma to pay a fee for Mkhitaryan was worrying. The player’s contract was not due to expire for at least another year or so and forgoing a transfer fee for a player who had recorded 9 goals in 22 Serie A games, represented a real coup for Roma and a very disappointing style of business from Arsenal.

Both Özil and Sokratis were deemed surplus to requirements and unregistered from the Premier League squad, so their terminations felt more necessary than others. Sokratis was unlikely to be re-registered and having been a pillar of professionalism throughout, he had earned the right to move forward without fuss – whereas the club were practically popping the champagne bottles as soon as Fenerbahçe announced Özil’s signature.

As for Mustafi, it is perhaps strange that Arsenal did not come to another agreement. His contract was torn up and he joined Schalke without a fuss, but the question remains as to why Arsenal could not have simply loaned Mustafi to Schalke for the remainder of the season, received a small, nominal fee and allowed him to leave when the contract was over, as they had already done when they signed Cédric Soares.

Sead Kolašinac and Shkodran Mustafi spent the final part of last season on loan at Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga.

This too seems to be the question with Kolašinac. Surely the terms of terminating the player’s contract are less favourable than a straight loan to the club and allowing him to freely negotiate a pre-contract agreement while there?

There is also the fact that Arsenal are light on numbers at the moment. They have already had to call off a Premier League match owing to a small squad size and Kolašinac’s absence is perhaps something the club could have done without, despite his lack of appearances this season.

The forthcoming summer will be an interesting time for Arsenal as they look to clear yet more deadwood from the current squad.

Arsenal have always been a team that have struggled to extract a decent sum for their players. Players are either sold for way below market value or are held on to for too long and eventually allowed to walk for free. That Tomáš Rosický, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere and Alexis Sánchez all fetched an accumulative sum of £0 is proof that Arsenal have been too reluctant to allow their players to leave when their stock is highest.

Of course, the current crop of players are far more likely to collect a transfer fee than the 6 that are mentioned here, but it still seems likely that Arsenal will need to cancel a contract or two to make end’s meet.

Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson does have a purchase clause in his deal with OH Leuven, but they seem unwilling to activate the clause and with Arsenal reportedly close to tying up a deal for MLS goalkeeper Matt Turner, chances are he will need to have his deal torn up in order to make space too.

Arsenal have a tendency to hold onto players too long.

The termination of deals does not necessarily speak to incompetence on behalf of the decision-makers at Arsenal – in many instances, it’s the only option the club has left to them after a player refuses to leave and even then, there is a fair amount of work to be done to convince both the player and their agent that the deal should be terminated – the issue is more that very little has been done to extract some value for the player, however small or large it may seem.

Given the rate of spending at Arsenal since Arsène Wenger has left, Arsenal need to start making some money back. True, many people have spoken about how Arsenal do not necessarily need to balance the books, but this can only be an option for so long before questions begin to be asked.

Of the 6 players that Arsenal have terminated, 2 were signed post-Wenger, which raises questions of the people deciding to sign them in the first place.

With Arsenal spending an eye-watering £140m this summer alone and another large window expected to follow, come the end of the season, it’s not unreasonable for even the most apathetic owners, such as Stan Kroenke, to wonder when the club will start to see a return on their outlay.

Many players will leave Arsenal this summer upon the expiration of their contract, such as Alexandre Lacazette, Eddie Nketiah, Calum Chambers and Mohamed Elneny, Arsenal will already be making a huge loss on a nearly £70m expenditure, the prospect of terminating contracts in order to free the club of the player’s presence, simply won’t cut it anymore, especially with other players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang expected to leave some time between now and the beginning of next season, which will almost certainly see a massive loss on the £56m spent on bringing the Gabonese forward to the club in the first place.

The other side of the argument is that Arsenal are being as ruthless as they can be as they look to shift the deadwood from the current side.

Technical Director, Edu Gaspar.

The squad has been in need of an extensive overhaul since Arsène Wenger left, but constant changes in the executive make-up of the club has meant that the responsibility has now fallen to Technical Director, Edu and Director of Football, Richard Garlick. With termination on the cards, Arsenal can rid themselves of players that refuse to move or are unable to find viable suitors and allow Mikel Arteta to continue adding to his attractive project.

Even after the aforementioned 4 players leave at the end of their deals, Arsenal may still potentially need to find homes for players such as Aubameyang, Héctor Bellerín, Cédric Soares, Rob Holding, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Pablo Marí, Reiss Nelson, Nicolas Pépé and Bernd Leno and the club will be keen to extract every bit of value they can on all of those players, even if it means taking a substantial loss.

Currently, the focus is more on incoming players than outgoing for Arsenal, as Edu and his team look to try and bring in a striker for Mikel Arteta, a midfielder and wrap up a deal for Turner all before the window slams shut at the end of January, but Arsenal fans will hope that the transfer team have more creative tricks up their sleeves than just simply cancelling player contracts whenever they need to sell.

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