The departures of Clichy, Nasri and Cesc this summer have shocked us all. Just when ‘Project Youth’ started to deliver on its promises, some of the most valuable assets are sold for hard cash to a major domestic competitor, and a European competitor. It is so much harder to build a club’s strategy around youth development than it is to buy fully ripened and proven top quality players every year. It is also absolutely paramount not to sell your top players when they start to hit their peak, if your strategy is based around growing talents from within. Yet, Arsenal did just that: not because the club wanted it, but simply because it had no other choice as a result of bad contract management, and a clear lack of loyalty to our club by those particular players (Cesc included).
Looking back towards the end of last season, we can now see that a significant number of our players had made their mind up about leaving Arsenal during that crucial – and oh so painful – period. I cannot prove it, but my gut instinct tells me that after that feeble surrender against the Mancs in the FA-cup last year – which for me was the defining game of our 2010-2011 season – a number of players started to plan their exit strategies, and the morale amongst the entire squad was heavily influenced by it. We should have finished at least third last season, but too many players showed no loyalty to Arsenal: they did not seem to care anymore, and it cost us dearly. They clearly let Arsene and the fans down, and it should come as no surprise to a number of players who left us this summer that they will not be welcomed back, if and when they return to the Emirates.
This brings me to the two topics I have always been interested in, both in football and in my professional life: leadership and loyalty. To be successful in football, you need more than just leadership and loyalty, but for me these two will become paramount for Arsenal in the next few years. In this post, I will focus on loyalty and I will cover leadership in another post, in the near future.
Every football team needs loyal players. Loyalty, in my opinion, consists of both a real desire/passion to give their all for our club, and a willingness to spend most – if not all – of their playing career at Arsenal. The key thing for Arsenal is to find the right mix between ‘Stayers’; those who have a passionate commitment to give their all for the club and over a long period, and ‘Contract Footballers (for a lack of a better word)’: those who have a more calculative commitment. Some players are pure professionals and can be loyal and dedicated to any team they play for. They can be very useful to a team as well. They will give their all during the time they are at a particular club, but will do so again for any next club they move to (Overmars, Gallas, Robben, etc). Understandably, not everyone likes to stay at one and the same club either.
Both ‘Stayers’ and ‘Contractors’ need to be fully committed to the team when they play for us, but it is really important to have as many quality Stayers in our spine as possible. The current spine is starting to look awesome: Szczesny – Vermaelen/Koscielny – Song – Wilshere – RvP. We really have 6 players in our spine of high quality, around which we can build the best team in the England and Europe for the next 5-10 years. On top of that we have Sagna and Walcott, and a number of promising young players and new recruits, and surely a couple of quality players will be added before the end of the TW.
For me there are three key questions regarding loyalty to our club:
Question 1: How many of our current players are to be regarded as loyal, as Stayers – especially in our spine?
I believe that we are now left with a set of players who are mostly loyal to the club. That does not mean that they will never leave us if they were to be offered a lot more money somewhere else, but in principle they love playing for us and would like to be successful with us. I believe it would take quite a bit for any of them to ask for a transfer request. This bodes well for the future of Arsenal football club.
Question 2: What do we need to do to recruit more quality Stayers for the future and to entice them, as well as our current ones, to our club?
I strongly believe that Arsenal needs to focus its recruitment of key players more on nations were players are used to relatively harsh/wet winters, and the British ‘way of life’. Germany, Holland, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries and to a certain extent France, are good recruitment grounds. Countries like Spain, Portugal and (southern) Italy are best to be avoided. Reyes and Cesc come to mind, who both wanted to return home, as a result of a form of homesickness.
I also believe we need to reward loyalty more by offering good players who reach the age of 30+, better and longer contracts than we currently do. We let the likes of Pires, Vieira, Gilberto, etc go as soon as the club believed they were past their best and so we could save money, but this also gave a signal to other, younger players that the club does not really care about players that much (so why should they be loyal to our club?).
Question 3: What do we need to do to protect us from clubs like Barcalona and Citeh to come and cream off our players and the end of every season?
Better and more pro-active contract management. We need to get all our key players on long term contracts, and be prepared to pay the market rate in pay packages to our top players. This will be crucial
to avoid a repeat of the Nasri situation, and would give a clear sign to our competitors – as well as our own current players – that we are no longer prepared to let our best players leave to them.
Most importantly, Wenger and the BoD need to (re)convince the players (and supporters) that we are to remain a major force in football – that Arsenal is going onwards and upwards from here on, so that everyone is passionate to stay at the club and give their all.
Loyalty is a complex issue, and I do not pretend to have all the answers to the above questions. However, I hope this post will start a good discussion on how we can establish more loyal and committed players at our club, who will stay with us and help us to win major prizes again.