Arsene Wenger made the mistake of comparing the transfer window to a poker game on Wednesday evening, so he should not have been surprised at the next question he was posed.
“Are you any good at poker?” the Arsenal manager was asked, one journalist spotting a cheeky line of inquiry.
“No,” was Wenger’s somewhat amused response.
For much of the summer, it has appeared Wenger has been taking aim at the wrong targets—folding too many hands without even looking at them, and then attempting to call bluffs that were never really bluffs in the first place.
Arsenal’s pursuit of Luis Suarez never really felt like an actual deal to be done, and Wenger’s announcement that negotiations have now been cut off, reported here by the Guardian, perhaps indicates he is finally getting serious about what he needs to achieve before this transfer window closes.
"There is absolutely no chance of that," Wenger said, when asked again about Suarez.
“The transfer market starts for me now and a lot of activity will happen between now and September 2.”
Arsenal were apparently willing to pay £40 million (and one pound, lest we forget), but not much more than that. They obviously hoped the contentious Suarez ‘clause’ meant that their bid would be sufficient to force his release—whether they were undone by legalese or misinformed by the Uruguayan’s team (in a veiled attempt to smoke out firm interest from Real Madrid), it was a sad saga for the North London club.
Extricating themselves from negotiations, ones that would likely have absorbed much of their efforts between now and the close of the window on September 2 with little hope of a positive conclusion, should free them up to pursue deals to reinforce more than one other deficiency in the squad.
As Wenger knows (or does he?), there are a few of them.
"It starts now and it is like a poker game,” Wenger said, attempting to explain his recent lack of transfer activity. “People hold their cards as long as possible and see what is happening out there. In the end, they go for decisions.
"First everybody goes on holiday and nobody wants to do anything, then in many clubs there are manager changes. They need to know the squad before they make a decision. It is always like that."
Wenger’s claims ring somewhat hollow, considering the plentiful business the likes of Tottenham and Chelsea have already done this summer. It’s almost as if it was actually he who needed to know his squad before making a decision, only realising after the Aston Villa defeat what many had already deduced—that, while Arsenal stood still in the summer, other clubs had taken huge leaps forward.
As much criticism as Wenger has taken, little acknowledgement has been made of the difficult situation he is actually in. Arsenal are both blessed and cursed by the array of young talent they have at their disposal. The likes of Wojciech Sczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott have all shown glimpses of top-class ability at times, yet have struggled to find that level on a consistent basis due to injury, loss of confidence or some other ailment.
Coming into the crucial phase of their development, signing others in their position now would essentially mean giving up on their talent—or at least the full realisation of it. It hardly helps that all four were impressive in Arsenal’s Champions League win over Fenerbahce, once again inspiring thoughts that they might be good enough after all.
Similarly, Arsenal’s results do not support the outcry about how bad this team supposedly is. Wenger has seen his side lose just once (that season opener against Aston Villa) since defeat to Tottenham in March, a fine run of results that saw them overhaul their rivals for Champions League qualifications.
But that is judging by last season’s standards, and this year both Spurs and Chelsea (who were roped into the battle for fourth almost to the wire) have improved considerably (Liverpool may even harbour lofty ambitions, especially if they reintegrate Suarez successfully).
It is difficult to argue that any of Spurs’ signings—specifically Roberto Soldado and Paulinho—would not have improved Arsenal tangibly, while the same goes for Erik Lamela and Willian, two impending arrivals at White Hart Lane who Wenger presumably could (and, really, perhaps should) hijack.
But that seems Wenger’s primary issue—an almost pathological distaste for spending vast sums of money. As an economist by education, part of that is logical; the Frenchman knows that Arsenal’s (partly self-publicised) wealth only inflates transfer fees, similarly driving up wages.
He knows that players coming in on high wages will eventually only provoke others within the squad to make comparable demands.
He knows that is how one deal worth £30m can end up costing a club £60m plus, and for a player he only wanted to complement his existing options in the first place!
But, on the other hand, you can only play the game in front of you, and this is the game he is presented with. Chasing Suarez seemed a somewhat transparent attempt to show the fans, ‘Look, we are trying to be active!’ But giving up on him now indicates Wenger has finally realised the need to stop grandstanding and be pragmatic.
A big 12 days await for Arsenal. The fear is that there will be a repeat of the panic buying that occurred during a similar period of scaremongering two years ago—when quick deals for Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker worked out, but moves for Andre Santos and Chu-Young Park proved somewhat disastrous.
Arsenal desperately need additions now—in all areas really, but specifically in attack (both a striker and a wide forward) central defence and, due to recent injuries, central midfield. If he really will not spend vast sums, then Wenger better have done his research into the less well-lit corners of the market.
A laughably low offer for Yohan Cabaye and rumoured interest in Swansea's Ashley Williams (surely 2013's Roger Johnson, a robust defender lacking the technique or composure to excel for a top side) do not inspire confidence, but there is still time.
Arguably the club’s best deal of that 2011 summer was Carl Jenkinson, who was signed early and continues to develop into an impressive right-back. Jenkinson was only signed after a long period of attentive scouting and due diligence, and only cost about £1m.
Hopefully, despite fixating on Suarez, Wenger has kept his eye on other targets in the interim. Because he needs quality reinforcements to stave off the advances of others, and he has now left himself only 12 days to do so.