Despite significant changes to the senior management team, my club Arsenal once again find themselves in a situation where they look like losing a player who has seemingly chosen to run down his contract rather than commit to a new deal. Thinking back to this time last season, we were going through almost identical will-they-won’t-they-sign situations with both Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez; in the end the former signed a bumper new deal and the other departed in a swap deal that brought out of favour Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Manchester United to North London.
Finding themselves in an almost carbon-copy situation this year with Aaron Ramsey begs the question of how the club has let itself get to this point again. Is it mismanagement by the club? Is it the balance of power shifting even more to favour the players? Or is it an outcome of ever-spiralling transfer fees? In truth it is probably a combination of all three.
Speaking ahead of the start of the 2017/18 season in relation to the Özil and Sánchez situations, Arsène Wenger said that he thought players running down their contracts would become the norm: “You will see more and more players going into the final year of the contract because no club will want to pay the amount demanded… in the next 10 years, it will become usual.” While the former Arsenal manager’s comments can of course be taken as a defence of the club’s and his (mis)handling of the situation, it does feel that by necessity clubs’ approaches to recruitment and retention of players are changing in football.
Previously it was in a player’s best interests to secure a long-term deal that would protect their earnings against slumps in form and/ or injury, but with so much being paid to players in terms of salary alongside other commercial earnings, is there still the same need for such security amongst the top players? There are also clear advantages to the players of being a ‘free agent’, in that money that would have been used to cover transfer fees will instead go straight to them in the form of signing-on bonuses and inflated wage agreements.
Increasingly clubs are taking more short-term strategic views these days. Now that Arsène Wenger has departed the Premier League scene, Eddie Howe of Bournemouth is the longest serving Premier League manager, having taken up post in October 2012 and securing promotion to the Premier League in 2015. However of the other nineteen managers, eight are in their first season and mind-bogglingly Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho rank amongst the ten longest serving despite only arriving at their clubs in the summer of 2016. No doubt as we head into the autumn and the reality of league performance begins to bite, we will see the usual managerial churn once again. Why would clubs offer long term deals to players when they are not sure that the next manager will want them in their squad?
Consider the case of Joe Hart as just one example, first choice for club and country and on a contract that ran through until 2019, and seemingly completely secure in his position at the club. Until Pep Guardiola arrived that is. Hart played one game under the then new Manchester City boss, a Champions League qualifier against Steaua Bucharest, before being farmed out on loan, first to Torino, and then to West Ham, then being sold at a knock down price to Burnley in the summer. Wouldn’t it have been an easier situation to manage without having to factor in the three years that remained on his contract when Guardiola judged him to be surplus to requirements?
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to reach the conclusion that the Aaron Ramsey contract situation and the lack of funds the club are willing/able to commit to convince him to stay does not have its roots in the mega-bucks allocated to retaining Özil in January? One wonders if, given the choice, new Head Coach Unai Emery might have preferred to have the option of being able to let the mercurial German playmaker go in order to retain Ramsey.
As is so often the case with regard to the finance of sport, we need only look across the Pond for how things might continue to play out. In the States players are treated much more as mercenaries, brought in to do a specific job for a defined but relatively short period of time. This summer NBA uber-star Le Bron James signed a 4-year contract with the Los Angeles Lakers worth a scarcely believable $154 million; he set himself up for the record deal by having the ability to opt out of his previous contract after two years and make himself available to the highest bidder, in this instance the Lakers.
A couple of years ago (2016) vaunted baseball closing pitcher, Aroldis Chapman, started the season with the New York Yankees, only to be dealt to the Chicago Cubs midway through the season when the Yankees judged themselves out of contention for the play-offs; he won the World Series with the Cubs and then re-joined the Yankees ready for the 2017 season start. Could football be showing the early indications that this is a direction in which it is headed?
Just last month after intense speculation in the summer that he was on his way to Barcelona, Paul Pogba went on record as saying: “I still have a contract, I am playing there at the moment, but who knows what will happen in the next few months.” Which would seem as clear a come-and-get-me from a player who has a contract that runs through to 2021 as you could wish to hear; the problem for Pogba is that for his release to be secured any potential suitor would need to find the astronomical transfer fee to do so. If Pogba was, like Ramsey and others, going into the final months of his contract then he would very much be holding all the cards.