Arsenal Is in Crisis, but a Signing Changes the Mood

Arsenal Is in Crisis, but a Signing Changes the Mood

Last week, he presented Donald J. Trump with an Arsenal jersey at the end of his television interview with the American president in Davos, Switzerland, and implored him to replace Wenger. (To be clear: Morgan is not involved in Arsenal’s staffing decisions.) On Wednesday, though, even he seemed uncharacteristically buoyant.

The reason for Arsenal’s good cheer, of course, was that at 11 a.m. Wednesday, the club had confirmed the $78 million signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund.

Aubameyang, a 28-year-old striker, has never kicked a ball for Arsenal. His arrival does not change the gap with Chelsea. A rational analysis might suggest there are other areas of Arsenal’s team in more immediate need of reinforcement. And he left his previous club under something of a cloud after a number of disciplinary transgressions.

None of that mattered, however. Nor did the dispiriting defeat on Tuesday night, or the distance between Arsenal and its supposed rivals for a place in the Premier League’s top four.

There can scarcely have been a starker example of the restorative effect of a transfer, the palliative power of cold, hard cash, than seeing one hyper-stylized introductory video — Aubameyang shot in silhouette, a little strobe lighting, a bespoke hashtag — uniting Arsenal’s perpetually warring fan base immediately after an embarrassing defeat.

It is neither a profound nor an original observation to suggest that there has been, in the last 10 years or so, a seismic shift in significance away from what happens in full view on the field toward what happens in the smoke and mirrors of the transfer market.

By any measure, soccer’s biannual transfer deadline days — currently at the end of August and January — are among its most celebrated occasions (certainly in England; elsewhere, the frenzy is not quite so pronounced). If the attraction is not quite at the level of the Champions League final, it is then at least the equal of the F.A. Cup.

News outlets and cable channels excitedly keep a running total of exactly how much has been spent; the rule of thumb is that the bigger the number, the better, a league’s virility measured by the number of its zeros. Huge acres of airtime and newsprint are given over to rumors and whispers and breathless updates.

It all functions as social conditioning: Fans have been taught that it is important for a team to sign players, that price is a guarantee of quality, and that not doing so invites failure.


Arsène Wenger’s team is sixth in the Premier League standings after Wednesday’s matches, eight points adrift of fourth place — and a spot in the Champions League next season.

Dimitris Legakis/European Pressphoto Agency

No wonder managers are chastised for being too parsimonious, or too indecisive. No wonder websites regularly see massive spikes in traffic, and not just ones dedicated to soccer. On Tuesday, as a private jet flew Aubameyang from Dortmund to London’s Luton airport, tens of thousands of fans logged on to a flight-tracking site to see exactly where over the North Sea the striker was.

None of that was unique to this January; what made it noteworthy was that a full slate of Premier League games had been scheduled for Tuesday, the day before the market closed, and Wednesday. The matches would finish an hour or so before all deals had to be completed.

The result was a rare chance to establish whether soccer — the actual sport — still takes precedence over the soap opera that surrounds it, whether the plot of the film is more important than whose name is on the bill.

The answer is, frankly, unclear. Tottenham’s game against Manchester United was largely framed as a chance to see Alexis Sánchez, recently signed from Arsenal, make his Premier League debut for the visitor; Manchester City’s routine win against West Bromwich Albion was notable only for the debuts handed to City’s record signing, Aymeric Laporte, and West Brom’s new striker, Daniel Sturridge.

At various clubs, considerable amounts of energy during the day had gone into filming the increasingly elaborate introductory videos that are the hallmark of a new signing. Several were paraded on the field before games or at halftime, wheeled out as the spoils of conquest: Lucas Moura at Tottenham, Olivier Giroud at Chelsea, Badou Ndiaye at Stoke City.

It was not just the social media and marketing departments that were busy: Sam Allardyce, the Everton manager, revealed that “five or six” of the players on his squad to face Leicester City had dispatched their agents to him that morning to ask if they might be allowed to leave on loan.

At Chelsea, Antonio Conte had to redraw his plans for his game with Bournemouth because Michy Batshuayi, his striker, had suddenly been lent to Borussia Dortmund, so that Giroud might be signed from Arsenal. Chelsea lost, 3-0.

It was not quite that the games were an afterthought, but there was certainly a sense that they were an inconvenience, a distraction from the day’s main business of haggling and horse trading.

That is, perhaps, an inevitable consequence of the surging transfer culture — something encouraged not just by the news media, hungry for clicks, but by managers themselves, forever demanding more money to spend on players — that serves as the ever-louder background music to the Premier League.

Increasingly, the season is read as a way of establishing which players each team needs to buy. Increasingly, it is not the soccer itself that is of interest; increasingly, what matters is not who wins on the field, but who is perceived to win off it.

Arsenal is still 8 points out of fourth place, behind all of its main rivals and locked in turgid form. Who minds about losing soccer games, though, when you can win without even playing?

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