Spending is the new measure of success for a football club

You could be forgiven for assuming in recent weeks that football success is evident not in goals scored and games won, but in players signed; a team built in the boardroom and not the training ground.

Welcome to silly season, where the points don’t matter and the bids are all made up.

If you don’t think someone somewhere is making this stuff up, here, for example, is a list of all the players Arsenal have been linked to in major publications this summer. The sport pages at this time of the year are a free for all. The dirty secret of transfer journalism however is not, as many surmise, that the majority of stories are conjured from the ether by journalists with dark intentions, but that many stories are ‘fed’ to journalists by clubs or agents, and some of these guys do have ulterior motives.

Wind your memory back down memory lane like Harry Redknapp’s car window; was ole ‘arry giving the media that information to keep us all in the loop, or did it serve his interests?

Journalists rely on access to figures within the game for future stories – if a journalist is asked by (for the sake of an example only) Mesut Özil’s agent to reference interest from, I don’t know, let’s say… Manchester United, to give an upper hand in contract renewal negotiations, to drum up interest from other clubs for his client, will the journalist, knowing the information is false, refuse to publish and risk future scoops?

Robbie Savage spoke to the BBC about unhappy players engineering moves away from their employers and mentioned using the media to achieve that aim :

Some players have friends in the media and make use of those contacts to get the move they want. I’ve called newspaper reporters I was close to and asked them to link me with this team or that team, even when I knew it wasn’t true.

It helped get my name out there and flush out possible interest. It’s harder to do that nowadays because the media often know what’s true or not, but I called people I knew a few times and got them to make up a story.

You have to be realistic, of course. There was no point linking myself with Real Madrid because everybody would know that would be a lie!

In yesterday’s Guardian blog, Jonathon Wilson put it better than most when he said :

I think the whole transfer market is a scam that is kept spinning by mutual interests:

  • agents love it because it makes money
  • players love it because it makes money
  • managers love it because it gives them an excuse
  • fans love it because it gives them the chance to dream
  • media loves it because it fills space
  • even club owners/directors love it because some make money and others get to strut about feeling important

The only losers are the actual clubs and perhaps the integrity of football itself – if that isn’t too quaint a term. Most clubs would do just fine by slowly phasing out transfers, promoting youth and making one or two buys a year to plug gaps. But they’re all too terrified to do it because they’d look so silly if they failed.

Wilson is only wrong on one point here, that the “media loves it because it fills space”. This may have been true for print journalism, but the internet football sites actually generate a huge majority of their traffic (and hence, revenue) during the transfer windows. In a way we the fans are to blame; as we clamour to find and share news about that latest prospect, we create a market and a great demand that the media dutifully fill with increasingly spurious content. I know plenty of fans who scoff at watching soap operas or ridicule celebrity gossip magazines, but are glued to their ‘sources’ during the transfer windows. When you think about it, it’s not so different, is it?

But an assumption that I don’t recall being as prevalent before is that to achieve success, clubs must ‘buy big’. This is what Wilson alludes and is something that I as an Arsenal supporter have had plenty of cause to consider over the last decade. Attempting to leave aside club bias and nostalgia for better times, I think it is a point to be considered. (Note : We compared the financial spending and the cost per title of last season’s Champions League semi-finalists here).

Borussia Dortmund under Jürgen Klopp won two Bundesliga titles and reached last year’s Champions League final on (according to Transfer Markt) a 5-year transfer expenditure of £4.1 million. With a meagre transfer spend, Klopp was able to construct not a squad of individuals, but a team. A team in which he instilled a common idea, a common philosophy and a tactical plan to win.

There are plenty of examples of teams built without mega-signings going on to achieve success, so do clubs now need to buy big to succeed? The truth is that while big spending does not guarantee success, neither does working with what you have neccessarily guarantee failure.

Arsène Wenger is widely ridiculed for not bringing in big signings this summer, but has proven in the past his ability to get the most out of players observers held in low esteem. The summer after reaching the Champions League final of 2006, Arsenal sold Henry, Ljungberg and Reyes, with the only notable new signings being Eduardo and Sagna. The 2007/08 season that followed was the closest Arsenal have come to success since their FA Cup victory and stadium move, as Wenger took a squad of talented youngsters he had assembled and trained in his system to lead the Premier League; until an infamous breakdown saw the squad finish third in a two horse race.

Ironically it was big signings that killed Wenger’s chance of continuing his plan with Cesc Fàbregas, Kolo Touré, Robin van Persie, Alexander Hleb, Mathieu Flamini, Alexandre Song and Emmanuel Adebayor all important members of that young squad lured away from North London in future windows.

Not to defend Wenger’s summer transfer dealings but I think the likelihood is that he will bring in players to bolster the Arsenal squad, whether it will appease the media/fans or not is another matter.

Wenger seems to dislike the entire process and perhaps that influences the way in which he conducts his business. Speaking before tonight’s Champions League qualifiers, when pushed on transfers he said :

“I would just like to reiterate to you that in the last 16 years we have been very successful with transfers – if you look at the players who play tomorrow, they are top quality players, and you should never forget that.”

“It is not always to think what is outside is better than what you have. What is important as well is to rate what you have and our fans have to understand that as well.

What is important is to go out and see a good football game. All that other stuff is good for the newspapers, but it is not real football.”

The media are fond of saying that even successful clubs need to ‘spend well’ to keep up with other free spending rivals as if £50million players make a team on their own. Plenty of teams are considered to have spent well and yet achieve merely a more expensive nothing – ask a Liverpool supporter.

Of course it’s not just the football media that is increasingly callous and reactionary. A friend borrowed my Brass Eye DVD a couple of years ago and while I missed it at first, I no-longer need it back, I can turn on any news channel and cringe 24/7.

And yet, Sky Sports News in the final days of the transfer window remains a show like no other, a voyage into the heart of darkness outside stadiums nationwide, the fans clustered around roving reporters with their sticky faces pressed up to the glass of the shop window.

But hey it’s not all so bad. We might have another two weeks until the transfer window ‘slams’ shut to put up with this nonsense, but now at least we have the sideshow of top-level competitive football to distract us.

Founder of Proven Quality and a network of Football news aggregator sites, John lives in Spain, and has also lived in France, Germany and the UK. John can be found tweeting under the provenquality handle.
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