Of the £8million Arsenal might ultimately receive from Fulham for goalkeeper Bernd Leno, just £3m of it is absolutely guaranteed. The rest is contingent on Leno achieving a set number of Premier League appearances, and Fulham staying in the top flight for the next two seasons.
That figure has left many Arsenal supporters disappointed, but few can be surprised.
The club are in the process of shedding players they deem surplus to requirements — and in most cases, they have struggled to get substantial fees for them. In some instances, players have even been paid to leave prematurely.
Technical director Edu accepts that has been part of the strategy.
“Try to avoid one more year with the problem inside — in the dressing room, expensive, not performing,” he told The Athletic last month. “Clean. Take it out. Even, I’m sorry, if you have to pay. To leave is better.
“I know it hurts, I know it’s strange when I go to the board and say, ‘Sometimes it’s better to pay a player to leave than maintain them’. But I consider it an investment. Sometimes people say, ‘It’s expensive’. I say, ‘No, it’s investment’.”
One would imagine those conversations with the board have been difficult — but perhaps, in the Kroenkes, Arsenal’s American owners — Edu finds a sympathetic ear.
In its ownership of other sports teams, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE) has already shown a willingness to take expensive, highly-criticized decisions in the pursuit of sporting success.
Five years ago, the KSE-owned Los Angeles Rams tied their starting quarterback Jared Goff down on a four-year contract extension to begin in 2021.
Not only had Goff helped them reach the Super Bowl the previous season, just his third in the NFL, but he was also felt the league’s quarterback market was about to skyrocket. The idea was to lock Goff long-term into a salary that would look, in relative terms, affordable.
Even in Premier League terms, the numbers are eye-watering: a possible $134m (£110.9m, €131.7m) over four years, with $57m of it guaranteed.
Two disappointing seasons later, however, the Rams accepted they had been wrong to commit to that enormous contract. They decided to trade Goff and try to sign a better quarterback. The issue, in a salary-capped league such as the NFL, was finding someone to take on his huge wages.
Eventually, Goff was traded to the struggling Detroit Lions following the 2020-21 season for the wantaway Matthew Stafford — considered a higher-quality player, though seven years older at 33 — but only after the Rams also agreed to give the Lions hugely valuable first -round picks in the 2022 and 2023 NFL drafts.
It was a highly unusual, radical move. Swapping starting quarterbacks in the NFL is uncommon, but the Rams’ willingness to forego draft picks attracted particular derision. Shedding Goff’s contract also saw them left with a record $22.2m in dead money.
In the NFL, “dead money” is a term used to describe money that counts against a team’s salary cap, but is allocated to players who have already been traded away or otherwise left the squad. Effectively, it’s money they have paid or are paying to players who are no longer on the books.
The deal showed the Rams — and thus, by inference, KSE — were prepared to “waste” money to try to achieve sporting success. And it worked. Earlier this year, Stafford also led the Rams to the Super Bowl, and unlike Goff, won it.
There are echoes of this story in north London.
Arsenal do not have to stay under a salary cap, but there is financial fair play to worry about, and an economy ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic to contend with. Like the Rams, they have committed to long-term contracts they have ultimately regretted — the extensions of Mesut Ozil in 2018 and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in 2020 being perhaps the most notable. Edu has overseen the termination of both those deals, incurring millions in “dead money” in the process.
When Edu sits down with the board (which includes both Stan Kroenke and his son Josh) to make a case for releasing a player from his contract prematurely, or selling one at a price that appears below their market value, how much does it help his case that KSE has experienced success via similar means in the United States?
There is, of course, an important contextual difference to consider here: the Rams’ controversial Goff trade was designed to help them win the Super Bowl — the biggest prize available in American sport. It was a short-term decision with a short-term goal.
The Rams correctly felt they were only a better quarterback away from glory. Arsenal are still fighting to get back to finishing in the Premier League’s top four, having not played Champions League football since 2016-17, and are trying to implement a long-term strategy.
The Rams were in “win-now” mode — Arsenal, currently, are a “win-tomorrow” club.
There can be no question that Arsenal are not great sellers. Of course, the price attainable for any given player is dictated more by the market than anything else. If there is greater interest, fees increase. An auction involving multiple clubs can see a player’s price skyrocket.
The issue for Arsenal is simple: they’ve sold the wrong players at the wrong time.
Their most difficult cases have been players beyond their prime years, still earning high wages, and underperforming.
It’s also frequently clear when a player is not part of their plans. Leno is arguably such an example: he was on a good salary, with just one year left on his contract. His preference was to stay in both London and the Premier League, which heavily reduced the possible list of suitors.
Arsenal had also already signed USMNT first-choice goalkeeper Matt Turner, 28, from MLS side New England Revolution, making it clear they wanted to move Leno on. They may initially have hoped to get around £12m for the 30-year-old, nine-cap Germany international. Ultimately, Fulham did not get especially close to that figure.
Lucas Torreira is another noteworthy case.
The Uruguay midfielder is available for transfer and, having not played for the club since July 2020 and spending the past two seasons on loan at Atletico Madrid and then Fiorentina, is actively looking for a move ahead of the World Cup.
At the moment, the most realistic buyers are Galatasaray. Torreira is as yet undecided on their offer, but if that deal goes through at the sums being reported, Arsenal could sustain a loss of almost £20m on a player signed for £26m four years ago.
In Edu’s defence, he has largely been shedding players the club acquired before his appointment in the summer of 2019.
He believes a change in Arsenal’s ability to generate revenue via the transfer market is coming.
“Next summer, have a look at the valuation of the players we have, the age of the group that we have, and the salaries that we have today,” he says. “Now, as part of the plan, we create value in our players today.” Edu clearly feels that to sell better, Arsenal first needed to buy better. They are now doing that.
Next summer, then, could make for an interesting window.
Until now, the Kroenkes have shown sympathy for Edu’s argument, and a willingness to write off losses to improve the squad.
They cannot, however, do that indefinitely.
Sooner or later, Arsenal must begin to extract value from their playing staff via the transfer market. It is a necessary step in their evolution.
(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)