Reading the transcript of one of Arsene Wenger’s press conferences in Japan last week, you could be forgiven for thinking at least for a brief moment that maybe this was a missing chapter from Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running.
Exploring the theme of motivation and what it means to him, he told an anecdote about jogging in Saitama earlier that day and how he had got lost. “I was motivated to come back to the hotel,” Wenger said, “but I couldn’t find my way. So, I was highly motivated and slowly I found my way back.”
The image of the Arsenal manager stood on a street corner somewhere, a puzzled look on his face as he tries to get his bearings is a mildly amusing one. There’s a temptation, however, to see it as a metaphor for something else. Like Arsenal’s transfer strategy perhaps.
At various points over the summer they have seemed to be on the right path. The Gunners were supposedly in the running for a number of players of the calibre that they require. Along the way, however, they appear to have become a little disorientated and frustrated by things.
Just when Arsenal thought they were home and dry with a signing, they have discovered that they’ve either been misguided or that the lay of the land has suddenly changed and an obstacle is blocking their way.
Whether Arsenal, like Wenger on his actual jog around Saitama, are motivated highly enough to overcome the issues that they’re encountering while navigating the transfer market this summer remains to be seen.
This isn’t to say that they haven’t tried to break from what became the norm after Arsenal built the Emirates. They have been prepared to go beyond the £17.6m they paid for Jose Antonio Reyes a decade ago, which is still a club record transfer.
However, while Arsenal appear willing and able to spend more, they don’t seem prepared to go much beyond their valuation of a player. So, for instance, when Real Madrid raised Gonzalo Higuain’s price from £24m to £32m, you get the impression that they felt it just wasn’t on.
Sometimes, however, if you believe that a player is the “right man” for your team, the piece that might complete the puzzle, then compromising on your principles – which doesn’t mean abandoning them – can be justifiable.
Take Bayern Munich, for instance, a club to whom Arsenal are often compared for their shared values predicated on a responsible financial model. A year ago they were well aware that they were paying over the odds for the Athletic Bilbao player Javi Martinez.
They were prepared to do so, however, because, heck, they could afford to and their team was missing a player with Martinez’s attributes. Bayern reasoned that paying more might cost less in the end if it meant completing or contributing to the completion of the puzzle.
“Martinez is of course not worth [€40m],” Uli Hoeness fronted up, “but that’s the sum we had to pay due to his contractual release clause. His normal worth is perhaps €20m, €25m. We decided we will take part in this insanity, for once.”
Arsenal supporters wish that their coach and board would do the same every now and again. CEO Ivan Gazidis has said: “We should be able to compete at a level of a club such as Bayern Munich, I’m not saying we are there by any means, we have a way to go before we can put ourselves on that level.”
But we do know from what the club bid for Liverpool striker Luis Suarez that, had they wanted to, they could have comfortably matched what Napoli spent on Higuain. It would have meant spending more than anticipated, considerably more, but at least they’d have a top class striker.
He was in their grasp. “We didn’t think there was a chance of getting Higuain,” Napoli coach Rafa Benitez admitted, “because he’d spoken a lot with Arsenal.” But get him they did, acknowledging, like Bayern, that to do so they had to go an extra mile or two, or three.
Arsenal instead gave up the chase when the finishing line was in sight, which is a questionable decision, perhaps, when you consider that the probability of getting a deal done for Higuain was higher than it is now for Suarez.
“What are they smoking over at the Emirates?” asked Liverpool owner John W Henry. It’s a valid question. Another one might be: was this Arsenal’s attempt at a ‘Martinez transfer’? In short, no.
Because if, hypothetically speaking, a bid worth £40m plus £1 was actually enough to active a sale clause, which is a misinterpretation according to Liverpool, then that figure, particularly, for a player like Suarez in this market, even taking into account all his personal baggage, probably represents decent value. By paying it, Arsenal would break their transfer record and by some distance, but few would argue that they’d paid over the odds.
Instead, it seems, offering £40m plus £1 only compels Liverpool to inform the player that they have received a bid for him, which leaves Arsenal in a difficult spot.
For all the posturing towards the end of last season by Gazidis who insisted Wenger “is not scared to spend money,” little has been done to change that perception. With just over a fortnight to go until the beginning of the Premier League season and less than a month until the transfer window closes, their only new recruit is Yaya Sanogo, the France Under-21 striker, who arrived on a free from Ligue 2 side Auxerre.
Understandably Arsenal supporters are growing anxious. By this time last year, they’d signed Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud and weren’t far away from announcing a deal for Santi Cazorla. Wenger’s latest comments have offered little reassurance that the situation is about to change either.
In Saitama he expressed his pride at how “Arsenal have fought against the policy of only buying stars.” Then in a Google Hangout on Thursday he suggested that, while “we are still working on improving our squad.” Arsenal have a basis of young players who “have a special bond and are on the way up,” indicating that he’s confident with what he’s got, which, is perhaps reasonable on the evidence of how the team performed in the final third of last season.
But after all the indications that this summer would be different, so far it has been most underwhelming. At the Emirates Cup this weekend, Arsenal supporters will get to see Higuain, a timely reminder for them and the club of what could have been.