SOCCER

Arsenal sales may be easier for Edu to explain as Kroenkes understands ‘dead money’

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Of the £8m Arsenal could ultimately receive from Fulham for goalkeeper Bernd Leno, only £3m is absolutely guaranteed. The rest depends on Leno achieving a set number of Premier League appearances and Fulham remaining in the top flight for the next two seasons.

This figure has disappointed many Arsenal supporters, but few can be surprised.

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The club are in the process of getting rid of players they deem surplus to requirements – and in most cases they are struggling to secure substantial fees for them. In some cases, players have even been paid to leave prematurely.

Technical director Edu accepts that this is part of the strategy.

“Try to avoid another year with the problem inside – in the locker room, expensive, not performing,” he said Athleticism last month. “Clean up. Take it out. Even, I’m sorry, if you have to pay. Leaving 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 to keep him.’ But I consider that it’s an investment. Sometimes people say, ‘It’s expensive’. I say, ‘No, it’s an investment.’


Goalkeeper Bernd Leno left for Fulham after four seasons with Arsenal (Photo: Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

One would imagine those conversations with the board were difficult – but perhaps in the Kroenkes, the American owners of Arsenal – Edu is finding a sympathetic ear.

As the owner of other sports teams, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE) has already shown its willingness to make costly and much criticized decisions in the pursuit of sporting success.

Five years ago, the KSE-owned Los Angeles Rams tied their starting quarterback Jared Goff to a four-year contract extension beginning in 2021.

Not only had Goff helped them reach the Super Bowl the previous season, just his third in the NFL, but it also felt like the league’s quarterback market was about to skyrocket. The idea was to lock Goff in for the long haul in a salary that would seem, in relative terms, affordable.

Even in Premier League terms, the numbers are jaw-dropping: a possible $134m (£110.9m, €131.7m) over four years, with $57m guaranteed.

Two disappointing seasons later, however, the Rams admitted they were wrong to commit to that huge contract. They decided to trade Goff and try to sign a better quarterback. The problem, in a salary-capped league like the NFL, was finding someone to shoulder his huge salaries.

Eventually, Goff was traded to the struggling Detroit Lions after the 2020-21 season for thief Matthew Stafford – considered a better quality player, although seven years older at 33 – but only after the Rams also agreed to give the Lions an extremely valuable first prize. -round picks in the 2022 and 2023 NFL Drafts.

It was a very unusual and drastic decision. Trading starting quarterbacks in the NFL is rare, but the Rams’ willingness to give up draft picks has drawn particular derision. Shedding Goff’s contract also left them with a record $22.2 million in dead money.

In the NFL, “dead money” is a term used to describe money that counts toward a team’s salary cap, but is allocated to players who have already been traded or left the team. In fact, it’s money that they have paid or are paying to players who are no longer on the books.

The deal showed that the Rams – and therefore, by implication, KSE – were willing to “squander” money in an attempt 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 don’t 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 committed to long-term contracts which they ultimately regretted – the extensions of Mesut Ozil in 2018 and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in 2020 being perhaps the most notable. Edu oversaw the termination of both of these agreements, resulting in millions of “dead money” in the process.

When Edu sits down with the board (which includes both Stan Kroenke and his son Josh) to argue for a player’s premature release from his contract or the sale of a player at a price below market value, how does it help his case that KSE has found success by similar means in the United States?

There is, of course, an important contextual difference to consider here: Goff’s controversial trade from the Rams was designed to help them win the Super Bowl – the biggest prize available in American sports. It was a short term decision with a short term goal.

The Rams correctly felt they were just a better quarterback away from glory. Arsenal are still battling to get back into 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.

Kroenke Rams victory in the Super Bowl


Stan Kroenke lifts the trophy after the Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl in February (Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

There is no doubt that Arsenal are not big sellers. Of course, the price accessible to a given player is dictated more by the market than anything else. If there is more interest, the fees increase. An auction involving multiple clubs can see a player’s price skyrocket.

The problem for Arsenal is simple: they sold the wrong players at the wrong time.

Their toughest cases have been players beyond their prime, still earning high salaries and underperforming.

It is also often clear that a player is not part of his plans. Leno is arguably such an example: he had a good salary, with only one year remaining on his contract. His preference was to stay in both London and the Premier League, which significantly narrowed 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 forward. They may have initially hoped to secure around £12million for the 30-year-old Germany international and nine caps. In the end, Fulham didn’t come particularly close to that figure.

Another remarkable case is Lucas Torreira.

The Uruguayan midfielder is available for transfer and, having not played for the club since July 2020 and having spent the last two seasons on loan at Atletico Madrid and then Fiorentina, is actively seeking a move ahead of the FIFA Cup. world.

At the moment, the most realistic buyers are Galatasaray. Torreira is yet to decide on his offer, but if that deal goes ahead at the reported sums, Arsenal could face a loss of almost £20m on a player signed for £26m four years ago.

In Edu’s defence, he largely eliminated players the club had acquired before his appointment in the summer of 2019.

He believes in a change in Arsenal’s ability to generate revenue through the transfer market is coming.

“Next summer, look at the valuation of the players we have, the age of the group we have and the salaries we have today,” he said. “Now, as part of the plan, we are creating value in our players today.” Edu clearly feels that in order to sell better, Arsenal first had to buy better. They do now.

Next summer could therefore be an interesting window.

So far, the Kroenkes have shown sympathy for Edu’s argument and a willingness to undo the losses to improve the team.

However, they cannot do this indefinitely.

Sooner or later, Arsenal have to start extracting 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)

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