Picture the scene.
It’s 19th December 2012, and Arsene Wenger is leaning forwards with a grandfatherly smile on his face, resting his hands on the chairs in front of him. Five young footballers of British descent are putting pen to paper to commit themselves to Arsenal Football Club for another five-and-a-half years.
Scroll forward four years, and those five players are all entering the last 18 months of those very same contracts.
We’re all acutely aware of the situation with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil’s respective contract expiry. That’s also reminded us quite how short 18 months can seem.
It’s troubling enough to have your two biggest superstars out of contract at the same time. Throw in Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs, and you’ve got quite a list. And it doesn’t stop there.
Wojciech Szczesny is also a 2018 expiree, as is Joel Campbell, not to mention promising youngsters like Jon Toral.
Whatever you think of the individuals on that list, it’s a long list to be losing in any given year. We’ve also renewed Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin, Olivier Giroud, Per Mertesacker and Santi Cazorla this season. Quite a roster of talent.
It makes you wonder.
Are they waiting on Arsene?
The pile up of contract extensions does look curious – potentially 15 players expiring in the same year.
I touched recently on how the manager – despite the apathy of many fans – could still hold of lot of importance for Alexis and Mesut. It’s not hard to imagine that the rest of the squad are also (at least moderately) interested in how Arsene’s own contract situation might affect them.
The main man has been at the club for more than 20 years. One consequence of this is that he has personally brought in every single player currently on the books. We know anecdotally that Arsene is often crucial in convincing a player to join. Ozil has spoken of a personal phone call. Wenger arranged to fly Aaron Ramsey out to Switzerland during Euro 2008.
He is perhaps the last manager of his type, involving himself in all aspects of the club. However, that also means his players are invested in and loyal to their coach to a whole different level.
Which means if his future is uncertain, then so is theirs.
It’s a squad game
We can perhaps afford to lose a player or two, whether that means selling them early to avoid losing them for nothing, or allowing them to run down their contract. However, the football calendar is now so packed that you need quality throughout your squad. We simply cannot afford to lose a significant number of those players.
And it’s all interlinked.
The longer each deal takes, it cranks up the pressure on the club to get others over the line. The top players want to see other top players commit. Younger players might feel the same, or they might be looking at whether they’ll get an opportunity in seasons ahead.
Joel Campbell and Carl Jenkinson are likely to leave, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Toral depart either. However, I would hate to lose every other name on the 2018 expiry list.
Alexis and Mesut are unwritten – you simply cannot afford to let that quality walk out the door. Certainly you cannot claim to be ambitious if you do.
Wilshere is returning to his best on the South coast, and Ramsey is inching back towards FA-Cup-winning form. Gibbs is probably the only benched left back in the league who many regard as better than the incumbent. That quality is tough to replace like for like. Oxlade-Chamberlain continues to impress and disappoint in equal measure, but is still only 23.
In fact, age is important across the board here – these players are all heading into their theoretical peaks. Gibbs is the eldest of the pack at 27, Ramsey is 26 – there’s still a lot to come. These are players who have grown up at the club, who thoroughly buy into our values.
“Change isn’t a quality. Improvement is”
Every player you lose costs much more to replace – in money, yes, but also in time. Few players slot straight in with no preparation, especially if there is a lot of turnover in the same window. You only have to look at the so-called ‘trolley dash’ of August 2011 to see the impact of aggregated change.
As 10 players tiptoe ever closer to the end of their deals, it is vital we lock many of them down. That includes the players at the very top of the club. But it also includes the players who add depth of quality to the squad.
Allowing the odd player to leave can present an opportunity for improvement. After all, Nicolas Anelka’s departure directly led to the arrival of a certain Thierry Henry. However, we’ve been emerging from a transition period over the last few years, with two FA Cup titles and improved league finishes.
Can you believe we haven’t finished 4th since 2014 (with more points than the 1997-98 title winning side)? Shocking given the way everyone bangs on about it.
It’s not our turn to go through another mammoth change. There’s no guarantee that it will be one step backwards to take two forwards. Have a peek over at Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, and three-and-a-half years after Ferguson’s departure, they’re still a side “in transition”.
Sometimes, you have to start by making sure you don’t go backwards. Only then can you start to move forwards.
And ‘Forward’ is exactly where we want to go.