The Premier League summer silly season ended Monday night (at 6:00pm or 7:00pm, I’m not sure, I’ve never really understood the metric system) not with a whimper, but with a bang. The annual deadline day blockbuster, the annual deadline day steal, the annual deadline day head-scratcher…all the usual suspects were presented to us by teams overreacting to the results of the first three games of the season. And while that’s all par for the (generally overpriced) course, here’s what makes this year somewhat distinct: It’s possible the blockbuster, the steal, and the head-scratcher this year were the same move. Namely, Manchester United sending Danny Welbeck to Arsenal for a reported £16 million.
The move was prompted by a number of factors, on both sides of the deal. Going into this past week, United were carrying four strikers (Van Persie, Rooney, Welback, and Hernandez), who had combined to score all of one goal in United’s opening three fixtures. Three fixtures that generated all of two points: A loss at home to Swansea (which might not turn out to be embarrassing, Swansea might be legit, although they’ve fooled us before), a draw to a perennial relegation candidate (Sunderland), and a draw to one of the newly-promoted sides (Burnley). That’s not good enough for the red half of Manchester. Hell, that’s not good enough for the hot pink portion of Afrim’s co-ed, indoor D-league (I don’t wanna talk about it, the color choice was out of my hands).
United, feeling the pressure to strengthen up front, decided to make a late, big-money move for Falcao, signing the striker on a one-year loan deal from Monaco late Monday. This left United with five strikers, two of whom had been getting very little time on the field lately. The first to go was Hernandez, who got shipped on a loan deal to Real Madrid (the perfect destination for a poacher, he might score a bazillion goals [all numbers approximate]). That left Welback as a diiiiiiistant fourth wheel, and it soon became apparent he was heading for the door.
Arsenal had their own motivations. For the second year in a row, they were in danger of entering a season with Olivier Giroud as their only true striker (no, Nichlas Bendtner doesn’t count, he’s not the answer…regardless of the question). Admittedly, that worked out perfectly last year, as Giroud started to run down at the perfect time for Arsenal to go from the top of the table to their customary place in fourth. In other words: Mission accomplished.
As much as Wenger probably would’ve loved to follow the same footpath to fourth place this year, he just couldn’t. For three reasons. First, Arsenal earned five points in their first three matches, but they very easily could’ve earned only two (they probably should’ve drawn against Palace on opening day, and definitely should’ve lost to Everton in Week 2). Second, there are just too many solid teams right now in contention for fourth place in the table (Everton, Spurs, United…possibly Liverpool) for Arsenal to have a protracted swoon at any point in the year. And, third, there’s the whole Giroud breaking his foot last week thing. You know, the thing that left Arsenal with the following options up front: Podolski (not a true striker), Sanogo (untested), Campbell (even more untested), or Sanchez (seemingly unprepared). With one day left in the transfer market, Wenger looked at those options and decided to go off-menu.
Hence the Welbeck deal.
Now, incestuous striker moves like this at the top of the table aren’t all that unusual. Here are four relatively recent ones:
- Chelsea dealing Romelu Lukaku to Everton (summer 2014)
- Chelsea dealing Daniel Sturridge to Liverpool (winter 2013)
- Arsenal dealing Robin van Persie to United (summer 2012)
- City dealing Emmanuel Adebayor to Spurs (summer 2011)
What makes the Welbeck deal different, though, is the second reason Arsenal needed to make this deal: Arsenal and United are in direct competition right now, namely for the last Champions League spot (the first two spots are almost certainly going to Chelsea and City, and Liverpool look likely to stake a claim to either third or fourth). It’s not immediately apparent by looking at the other four transfers mentioned above now, but at the time, those teams weren’t truly competitors. Here, look:
- Chelsea dealing Lukaku to Everton (summer 2014): Chelsea are going for the title, while Everton are going for fourth place (and a nice run this year in Europa League).
- Chelsea dealing Sturridge to Liverpool (winter 2013): Again, Chelsea were clearing the way for a title run, while Liverpool (despite being really good now) weren’t anywhere near the title conversation back then. They finished the 2012/2013 season in seventh place.
- Arsenal dealing Van Persie to United (summer 2012): Obviously, all the comments Mark and I make about Arsenal trying to finish fourth every year are intended as jokes…but in a way they’re not. And here’s that way: Historically, Arsenal haven’t actually tried to field the best team they possibly can. They haven’t. What they’ve tried to do instead is to field the best team they possibly can while adhering to some strict financial rules (self-imposed for years until the new Financial Fair Play stuff). If they had wanted to field the best team possible, they’d have held on to Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, and, yes, Van Persie. So, in the Van Persie deal, United were making a play for the title, while Arsenal were trying to be responsibly successful (read: finish with a Champions League spot without paying anyone too much).
- City dealing Adebayor to Spurs (summer 2011): City were clearing the way for a title run, while Spurs were going for fourth place.
With the Welbeck deal, you have two teams going for the exact same thing trading a starting striker. That’s pretty unusual, especially because Arsenal and United don’t just both want to finish third or fourth, they both need to. Both teams have dropped some serious money on transfers over the summer and both teams now need the money that comes with playing in the Champions League. What both teams didn’t need, however, was to swap Welbeck. Arsenal needed it, United didn’t.
Arsenal were staring down the barrel of three to four months without an established striker. Podolski, Sanogo, Campbell, Sanchez…not one has shown he can be the guy leading the line for a top Premier League team. They’re all huge gambles in a year when Arsenal really doesn’t want to gamble. Arsenal’s only other hope then would’ve been Walcott, who has shown he can lead the line, but who’s just now coming back from a long-term injury. He needs to establish his fitness before getting the keys to the offense.
Taken as a whole, that’s a pretty bleak picture. And all United had to do to lock Arsenal, a direct competitor, into that bleak reality for half the season was…nothing.
Not a damn thing.
Just sit there fielding calls from other teams. Seriously, every phone has Caller ID these days. If the call is from the Arsenal front office…let it go to voicemail. That’s all they needed to do. And now, if Arsenal finish fourth this year with United in fifth, I’m betting that £16 million won’t seem like very much. To either team.
Oh, and if you think Sir Alex Ferguson would’ve sent Welbeck to Arsenal…you’re insane. Fergie didn’t let people up off the mat, he was an assassin. He’d kill ya. And then he’d go to work on ya.
Author: Jeffery Simpson Day
Has no grade point average. All courses, incomplete. Whereabouts unknown.