Arsenal’s January 2018 transfer window had more in common than the NBA than football – but why?

There have been countless articles, blogs, podcasts etc that have been posted over the last 24 hours, all with the aim of trying to explain Arsenal’s bat**** mental transfer window in a rational and considered way. Most of them do a fine job of doing so, but all of them are looking at it through a footballing lens, as in they’re trying to make sense of it using logic that derives from how football clubs usually go about their business. But there was something very different about the way Arsenal did their business this winter, and it had a certain Mr Kroenke’s fingerprints all over it.

Not Stan’s though. Josh. As in ‘President of the Denver Nuggets’ and ‘President of the Colorado Avalanche’, Josh Kroenke. Because Arsenal’s actions over the last month are completely in line with how an NBA or NFL franchise would deal with player transactions and roster changes.

Here’s how:

First off, when your NBA team stinks, there are three options available to you in order to get back into contention for championships; either you tank for draft picks, you try to rebuild on the fly or you clear everyone out and use the cap space to bring in big names. Tanking is easy, you trade away your best players for future assets and you make your team as good as you can without it being able to actually win games. Philadelphia did it for years and are only now starting to reap the benefits of it, but it’s still risky, as the players you select from the draft may not turn into star players, and you may just as easily find yourself having to tank all over again in a few years.

Rebuilding on the fly is a lot harder, and most teams don’t do it, simply because a general manager can explain being useless now much easier if he can say there’s a chance the team will be great in three years time. Unlike in football, there is a general acceptance by all fans that at some stage, their team will stink. The leagues are designed to keep teams as equal as possible, so if your team is really good, it’s almost impossible to keep it together, so regression is inevitable. US sports fans will buy into hope. Football fans want hope as well as current success. We’re greedy like that.

But rebuilding whilst remaining competitive is not impossible. Boston and San Antonio have remained in the NBA playoffs despite losing elite players. New England have gotten to conference finals of the NFL six straight times, despite trading numerous players along the way. Maintaining a level of competitiveness all depends with what you get in return for the players you have to give up. In US leagues, you can’t just swap one player for another, their current salaries have to be roughly equal. If Cleveland wanted to trade LeBron James, they would be limited by his salary as to what players they could get in return. They could get draft picks on top of that, but as far as the numbers go, both sides have to give up a relatively equal amount.

Arsenal, of course, could never ask for Manchester United’s first round draft pick when they swapped Alexis Sanchez for Henrikh Mhkitaryan, because such a thing doesn’t exist. But by accepting a player instead of straight cash, it indicates a change in the way transfers are being operated at Arsenal. Alexis is a better player than Mkhitaryan, but is having Alexis under contract for six months worth more than having Mhkitaryan under contract for three and a half years? No, it isn’t.

Then there’s the other big trade Arsenal made. That’s right, Arsenal made two trades last month, one was made to recoup as much as possible for a superstar player who was about leave for nothing in five months, and the other was for his replacement. Arsenal traded Francis Coquelin, Theo Walcott, Mathieu Debuchy and Olivier Giroud for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang AND three more years of Mesut Özil. The salaries and transfer fees brought in just about match the transfer fee for Aubameyang and Özil’s extension. Is that a coincidence? I highly doubt it. With reports of Arsenal bidding £12m for Jonny Evans late last night, it’s clear that Arsenal didn’t need the money from Giroud’s transfer, but they sold him anyway. Why?

Why would Arsenal attempt to balance the books when there was no financial need to? It would be easy to suggest that it’s just a money grab by our favourite American owner, but I highly doubt it. You see, even though the Premier League doesn’t have a salary cap per se, there are yearly limits to how much you can increase your spending by. Manchester City are desperate to get under this, which means the likes of Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany will be flogged for peanuts in the summer, just to clear the wages off their bill. Arsenal are in the same boat, after buying Alexandre Lacazette in the summer and not selling anyone of note to cover his wages. But because Arsenal have managed to get in Mhkitaryan and Aubameyang, extend Özil’s contract yet not have the wage bill rise by much at all, it means they’ll have far more freedom in the summer to address other issues in the squad, such as buying a midfielder who can track a runner, for example.

By structuring these deals the way they have, Arsenal have room in their wage cap and room in their squad to make the significant improvements the team desperately needs. All our rivals will have to sell off some of their squad to do the same, whilst Arsenal have already done the hard work. All we have to do between now and the summer is work out how to play Özil, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette in the same team.

I can think of worse problems to have.