Unless numerous media reports are all wrong (and thankfully, the media reports are not just coming from the Barcelona-based sports dailies that have pages and pages to fill every day), the long-running Cesc-to-Barca odyssey is finally about to reach Ithaca. The final price: €29M up front, €6M in performance bonuses (the remaining negotiations are supposedly about the terms of those bonuses), and €5M from Cesc himself. That’s the real kicker in the whole situation. Arsene Wenger has so mismanaged his Arsenal project over the past several years that his star captain is willing to pay €5M out of his own pocket to make a transfer happen. Arsenal has sold players before, but usually, they have taken Barcelona to the cleaners for players who were at the tail-end of their useful years (Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, and Thierry Henry) or just weren’t very good to begin with (Alexander Hleb). This time, Arsenal are selling their captain at the start of his prime years and they are doing so for less than their valuation.*
* – Arsenal fans have pointed to a number of the ludicrous sums paid for various players - usually by Manchester City and Liverpool – and made arguments like “if Andy Carroll is worth £35M, then Cesc is worth a billion!” The problem with this argument was that City don’t set the market prices because they have to pay over the moon for players as a result of being an ascendant side rather than an established preferred destination for top players. Liverpool is paying through the nose because of a fetish for British. The rumors regarding Wesley Sneijder heading to Manchester United for £36m were telling. Sneijder is older than Cesc, but he was also on the verge of being the FIFA Player of the Year. He has performed at a higher level than Fabregas. Moreover, Inter can sell Sneijder to the highest bidder, whereas Cesc wants to go to one club and one club only. If he’s worth £36m, then Arsenal’s dreams of getting £50m for Cesc were dead.
ArseBlog takes stock of the implications for Arsenal:
It’s not just us, of course, there’s Barcelona, there’s Cesc’s desire to go there, but I look at this sorry mess and it’s hard to think we’ve dealt with it as well as we should have. On every level. From this summer, to the way we’ve failed to invest properly in our team which has resulted in two of best players wanting out, and doubts over others not too far in the distance. Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott will reach next summer and only have one year left on their contracts. I would suggest that right now there’s little chance of them signing new deals.
The players we have – with the exception of one or two – clearly aren’t stupid and they’ll be looking closely at what’s going on. It was Arsene Wenger himself who said that you cannot be considered a big club if you sell your best players. Well, we’re about to sell one of them – and maybe Nasri too (although I think the Frenchman could stay simply because AW won’t let both him and Cesc go) – and from a purely footballing point of view it’s not good for Arsenal.
Wenger has let his pride get in the way of clear thinking. His best player has wanted to leave since last summer. Wenger fought and fought to keep him, but in the end, he is having to sell him for less than Arsenal’s valuation. More importantly, Arsenal are going to make the sale with only three weeks left in the transfer window, which means they are going to have to scramble to bring in the sort of replacements who will convince the next crop of potential free agents that they should stay in North London. The irony of the whole situation is that Wenger, a trained economist, is almost certainly one of the smartest, most rational thinkers in club football, but he has made mistakes over the past several years that seem to be borne out of stubbornness and commitment to an ideology.
As for Barcelona, the club have managed to sign their two summer targets – Cesc and Alexis Sanchez – while staying within their stated transfer budget of €45M. They will end up paying €55M up front for Cesc and Sanchez* and with the sales of Bojan, Jeffren, and Oriol Romeu bringing back about €20M, the total summer spend comes in below budget. This is the advantage of Barca being on top of the world right now while also having much-publicized debt issues: players want to play for the club and other teams know that they can’t take the club to the cleaners. Barca have added quality depth in the midfield and attack. They will now be insured against the event that would have derailed their past three seasons: a major injury to Xavi or Messi.
There are two questions now for the club. First, how is Pep Guardiola going to dole out playing time? This has always been a strength of Jose Mourinho – keeping all members of a deep squad happy – and now Pep is going to have to show the same ability. He now has three established stars – Xavi, Iniesta, and Cesc – and a burgeoning prospect in need of playing time – Thiago - for two spots in the midfield. Normally, a manager could rely on using a substitution to keep the players happy, but Pep usually uses Seydou Keita as the late sub for the last 15 minutes to kill off games, so this isn’t really an option.** Iniesta can play at left forward, so it is possible to put three on the pitch at once, but that only creates a logjam in the forward line where Barca now have four established players for three spots. The interesting question is how this new depth fits in with the Cruyff thesis that teams usually have a four-year cycle. Will Cesc and Sanchez prolong the cycle by creating competition for spots and thereby ensuring that the incumbents don’t get stale? Are they replacements in the event that one or more of the incumbents get tired of their current situation? Are they likely to cause strife that will speed the end of the cycle? Time will tell.
* - This does not account for the €17M in performance-based incentives that Barca is likely to pay if the players perform and the team stays close to its current level of success; those funds should be applied against future transfer budgets.
** – This assumes that Barca is leading at the end of a match. Over the past several seasons, this has been a safe assumption.
The second question is whether Barca has enough cover defensively. Right now, the club have only two established center backs: Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. There are a number of players at other positions who can cover in the spot. When Puyol was hurt last year, Eric Abidal, Javier Mascherano, and Sergi Busquets all played the position with Mascherano emerging as the preferred option late in the season. Is Pep comfortable going into the season with his current depth chart? Is he planning on relying on youth team product Andreu Fontas for depth? I suspect that the answer to both questions is "yes, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if a top center back (Thiago Silva?) isn’t the major transfer target next summer.