As we enter the final fortnight of the transfer window, Arsenal fans, perhaps more than most, have the right to ask, just what is the hold up?
On the eve of Arsenal’s maiden Premier League kick off, the team enters the game with only three signings made. One is straight into the first team, one will likely start owing to an unfortunate injury crisis and the other is back-up to a pre-established player.
And yet, still, Arsenal have not still not addressed those areas that need attention. No back-up goalkeeper signed, no trustworthy right-back, a total lack of a goalscoring midfielder, no competition or depth for a creative midfielder and no new strikers, just what have Arsenal been doing all this time?
For Arsenal transfers, there are two men at the helm; Richard Garlick, Head of Football Operations and Edu, Technical Director. Given that this is Garlick’s first season with the club and he is barely a matter of months into the position, it seems unfair to be too critical of his role in the window so far, especially since fans have no clue as to what extent, if at all, he is involved, however, for Edu, questions begin to arise.
When Edu was appointed to the club’s first ever Technical Director role, fans began to question just how such a role would dovetail with then-Director of Football, Raul Sanhlleí. What was the difference between the two? Did the two work in tandem? Was Edu’s job similar to Sanllehí’s? What part does a ‘Technical Director’ play in scouting and recruitment?
As with Garlick, Edu’s first season is a little hard to be too critical of. By and large, the majority of Arsenal’s scouting and analytics was done months before Edu joined the club and Sanllehí had already begun groundwork on the signings to be made in the summer.
However, at the end of Edu’s first season, which ended with one sacked managed, a global pandemic and the club’s record-extending 14th FA Cup, it was Sanllehí who parted ways with the club.
Though Arsenal fans were perhaps a little reticent to give praise to the man who brought about Arsenal’s sudden copacetic relationship with so-called “super agents”, Arsenal fans knew that the departure of Sanllehí was a big blow to potential transfer negotiations. For all his faults, the Spaniard’s earthy and charming personality was often a hit with bosses of other clubs and was often paramount to concluding business swiftly and as close to efficiently as Arsenal can manage.
With Sanllehí gone, the burden of strengthening the team fell largely onto Edu’s shoulders. Sanllehí’s somewhat brief redundancy meant that any deals the former-Barcelona man had been working on, would need to be re-negotiated. This meant that deals for Lille’s Gabriel Magalhães and for the re-loaning of Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid would have to start again from scratch.
These delays were not Edu’s fault and his ability to conclude both deals is to be commended. Gabriel, though he frustratingly dropped repeated hints that his decision was merely a week away, was signed up for a very attractive price, a price that is looking like a bargain so far.
Elsewhere, however, Edu’s fingerprints were unmistakbly all over the deal to bring Willian from Chelsea. Though Willian was announced before Sanllehí’s subsequent departure, the rhetoric surrounding the deal suggests that Edu was its biggest advocate.
Sharing an agent with the Brazilian winger and having a pre-established relationship from their time in the Brazilian national team, the deal felt very much like Edu’s first real foray into recruitment.
The deal proved to be a total disaster for the club and though even the most pessimistic of Arsenal fans could not have predicted how badly it could have gone, it seems Arsenal, and by extension Edu, were blinded by the potential to sign a player from a local rival for free.
Of course, Willian’s disappointing Arsenal career is not the Technical Director’s fault, far from it. It’s not Edu who picks the team or the formation; it’s not Edu who hands out the tactical briefing before a game; Edu doesn’t pull the Arsenal shirt on and play the game for Willian, nor does he take the decision to persevere with the player when his poor form continues.
However, Willian’s presence at the club feels like a deal badly though through. On the obvious plus sides, Willian is a Premier League proven player, who has won just about everything there is to win in his career and has proven to be a useful player for Chelsea over the years. His penchant for deadball situations cannot be overstated either.
However, the positives were vastly outweighed by the negatives.
Arsenal fans may have many faults, but their ability to smell a rat is fairly mind-boggling. The deal had the air of a player wanting to chase one last big contract in London before retirement; his performances in recent seasons hadn’t exactly been stellar and his connection to Edu by proxy, had fans worried from the start.
The baffling thing for Arsenal fans, was how they, the man on the street, were able to spot a declining player, and yet a team of highly-trained and expensive scouts as well as a top-level football executive with a lifetime spent in the game, could not.
Another strange decision was the signing of Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson, from FC Dijon. The signing was suggested to the recruitment team by goalkeeping coach Iñaki Caña Pavón. Perhaps it’s fan’s naivety that led to questions being asked as to why the goalkeeping coach is able to make suggestions for transfers and then push them through, but the sentiment was still there, where was the recruitment team?
All hindsight is 20/20 and no one has it, but seeing Rúnarsson play last season, especially in his memorable disasterclass in the League Cup against Manchester City, fans began to question if the club had even bothered to do it’s homework before signing the player.
Then there was the signing of Thomas Partey from Atlético Madrid. Though the player was and still is a hugely impressive signing for a midtable team to make, concerns were raised as to why it took until deadline day to complete. Arsenal had known about Partey’s release clause for sometime, in fact, it had proven an obstacle the season before when Unai Emery expressed admiration for the player.
Yet, Edu, after weeks and weeks of trying and ultimately failing to get Atlético to agree to an instalment plan or any other price for the player, decided to activate the player’s release clause on deadline day. Since Partey was a priority transfer and would no doubt need time to settle into the club, amidst the celebrations, queries were again raised; if Arsenal were always going to just pay the release clause, why hadn’t they done it weeks ago?
The summer ended with a failed attempt to lure Lyon’s Houssem Aouar away from his boyhood club too. Though reports are sketchy as to why Arsenal were unable to sign the Frenchman, the fact remains that Arsenal failed to sign an important target, one the manager practically begged for and one who’s absence cost Arsenal dearly.
Given Edu’s (albeit tenuous) connection to Lyon sporting director, Juninho Pernambucano, negotiations seemed but a formality. However, Edu either failed to make the connection count or the connection was, alas, meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Jean-Michel Aulas, the club’s CEO is a hard man to negotiate with at the best of times, and any prior relationship with his colleagues made little to no difference on the outcome at all. Arsenal left empty-handed.
From there, Arsenal’s on-field performance took precedent and people did not like what they saw. The decision not to register Mesut Özil for the forthcoming season amid his ongoing feud with the club, looked an inspired one at first, however, as Willian failed to have an impact in the middle and as there were no active creative midfielders in the squad, Arsenal nosedived and crashed before Christmas.
Though form eventually picked up and Hale End graduate Emile Smith Rowe stepped up to the plate, there was a feeling of desperation for creativity. Martin Ødegaard joined in January to fill the void and Özil was bundled through the fire exit with a blanket over his head, while the club quietly continued to pay his mammoth wages during his first 6 months with Fenerbahçe.
In fairness to Edu, his ability, along with Mikel Arteta, to persuade players staring longly at the departure’s lounge to renew their deals has been incredible. New deals for Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe, as well as persuading Folarian Balogun to extend his stay with the club have been very welcome news.
Many may dismiss the work done to retain academy products keen to extend their stay with their boyhood clubs as easy work, however, as Chelsea have discovered to their cost, childhood affection doesn’t always swing the deal your way.
Callum Hudson-Odoi’s salary is an albatross around the neck of Chelsea and the club likely look back with hindsight that they should have sold the player to Bayern Munich, when the club tabled a £30m offer for him.
Edu and co. have not had to break the bank to retain the stars of tomorrow and the players seem all too happy to be where they are.
During the run up to the summer, Mikel Arteta and Edu spoke of their tireless work to have their recruitments for the summer ready. Groundwork was laid, scouting was done and negotiations had, informally begun.
However, now, on the eve of their inaugural Premier League game, Arsenal look woefully ill-prepared.
A failed move for Aston Villa’s Emiliano Buendía was certainly an ego bruising Edu could have done without, but the weeks and weeks of negotiations with Brighton & Hove Albion, with no fewer than 5 bids being lodged for Ben White, only to then crumble and pay what was initially demanded is not a good look.
Deals have either taken too long to confirm, seem to have been badly negotiated on the fee side or have failed ot come to fruition.
Weeks of tracking Sheffield United’s Aaron Ramsdale have, so far, reached an impasse. The Blades are totally unwilling to budge from their £30m valuation of the player and Arsenal have so far yet to reach even half of that in their offers.
Elsewhere, creativity is still a huge issue. While the renewal of Emile Smith Rowe is to be commended, Arsenal still gave no cover available for the notoriously injury-prone youngster.
Martin Ødegaard continues to um and ah over his future with Real Madrid and a move for Leicester City’s James Maddison seems even more unlikely by the day.
Players who would vastly improve the team, who have openly flirted with the club, are still not under serious consideration. Ajax’s André Onana seems to be totally dead in the water and Yves Bissouma, though the club like him a lot, hasn’t even been spoken to.
Re-ignited interest in Houssem Aouar is welcome, but seems to be more as a back-up interest if moves elsewhere fall through.
Two weeks until the end of the season and Arsenal are hardly any further forward than they were when they started. Edu’s harrying of the scouting team last summer, which saw the controversial decision to sack the extremely successful scout Francis Cagigao, seems woefully ill-advised as Arsenal have seemingly no real improvements selected for the team.
White is certainly the player Arsenal have been crying out for for a while now. Composed on the ball, quick, tactically and positional versatile and with a good eye for a pass, White ticks all the boxes the club has to replace the hastily forgotten days of Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and David Luiz, but his price tag and need is somewhat overstated.
Despite his natural abilities, £50m or a central defender seems excessive, especially since Arsenal have often spoken about “outsmarting the market” and being sensible with their cash reserves.
There is also the underlying feeling that White would not need to have been signed had the club not loaned out William Saliba for the third time-in-a-row.
Saliba ended last season’s Ligue 1 campaign strongly, yet, despite his performances, the defender was immediately loaned out to French side Marseille, thus prompting a need for Arsenal to sign a new central defender.
The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively placed most clubs in dire straits. The ability to shift players (something Arsenal are often mocked for) is a valuable one as teams face more and more financial restraints which prevent them from shifting deadwood.
It is therefore difficult to blame Edu for not being able to shift the likes of Sead Kolašinac, Héctor Bellerín, Alexandre Lacazette, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Lucas Torreira, however, the lack of shifted players is a worrying concern.
So far this summer, only Mattéo Guendouzi (who Arsenal will not receive a fee for until next summer) and Joe Willock (who will be joining Newcastle in a £25m deal) look to be leaving.
It seems as though Edu is taking on too much work for one man. With a new sub-goalkeeper, right-back, box-to-box midfielder, attacking midfielder and striker to sign as well as nearly eight players who all need to be moved on, the worries continue to grow.
As Mikel Arteta’s men gear themselves up for their first game of the Premier League season away to Brentford, work behind the scenes continues. Edu and his team will not be dogged by Arsenal fans for the next few weeks, ready to pounce on any potential slip-up or success, the question is, is Edu the man for the job?