Arsenal and Manchester United have much to learn as selling well separates best from the rest

Ed Capstick
Arsenal trio Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ozil all left for free

There’s the Big Three and the Malfunctioning Three, and part of what separates them is being able to sell well. Arsenal are terrible at it.


While transfer silly season may be all about who’s coming in (or not coming in, if you’re Manchester United or Chelsea), keeping an eye on the outgoings can prove to be just as instructive.

Arsenal, objectively speaking, are really quite funny. Whatever you’re into – whether that’s tinfoil hat anti-Gooner agenda conspiracy theories, giving £300k-per-week contracts to temperamental 30-somethings to stop playing football, or mental Swiss midfielders having triannual episodes – there is something at the Emirates to tickle even the most mirthless of pickles. And with under a month until the release of the All or Nothing docuseries bares their fouled under-crackers to the world, there is more in store. Pre-schedule the ‘spoiler – it’s nothing’ tweets and fire up the Brent-Arteta crossover meme generator, because the weather is set fair for a truly bumper summer.

Still, as a month is a long time to wait in these barren, tournament-less wastes, have a statistic to sustain you: over the past four seasons, no side in world football comes close to matching Arsenal’s net transfer expenditure.

Going back to 2018/19, to that halcyon pre-pandemic summer when Premier League clubs splurged almost a billion quid more on players than they received, Arsenal have invested – or lost, depending on your viewpoint – £417.5million in transfer fees. Net. Once the players sold have been subtracted from the players purchased, because that is how Maths works. All to get from sixth in 2017/18 to the dizzying heights of fifth last season, they have spent £107million more than Paris Saint Germain, who signed Kylian Mbappé in a transfer that warped the economics of football forever and essentially broke Financial Fair Play. Lol.

Intuitively, the conclusion to draw from all this is that they have spent stupid amounts of money. That, five years ago, they were quite a bad team, finishing 37 points behind the very good, expensively assembled team that won the league, and therefore needed to break the bank to redress the balance. Certainly, a look at last term’s mini-leagues – the leagues within the leagues within the leagues – seems to support this theory. Over the same period, the semi-established Big Three® of Chelsea, Liverpool and City each had smaller net spends (£174million, £234million and £260million, respectively) than the Malfunctioning Three® of Spurs, United and Arsenal. In fact, when Spurs’ deferred purchases of Cristian Romero and Dejan Kulusevski are factored in, the differential is really quite staggering, with each of the latter three running at a net loss of almost £350million – at least double that of Chelsea. Whilst this will doubtless change in the coming weeks, as Todd Boehly’s war chest is flung open to all-comers, this is the state of play as things stand: Arsenal, United and Spurs have spunked a shedload of money to catch up, and only one of them looks remotely capable of doing so.

This, however, is misleading. Even with Cuti and Kulu’s impending fees, Spurs have actually spent less than everyone other than Liverpool. United and Arsenal have spent less than Chelsea and City, who top the figures by some distance. Because where the true issues lie in all of this is not in the buying, but in the selling.

Since 2018/19, Chelsea have made a whopping £383 million from player sales, and City £328million. During the same period, United, Spurs and Arsenal have made £372million between them. Liverpool have only made £170million, but raised £121.5million from the Philippe Coutinho sale the year before, famously funding the purchases of Virgil Van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Andy Robertson. This is, by any measure, a fairly mind-bending discrepancy. And when broken down, the make-up of these sales is even more so.

Whilst Arsenal have let Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Willian, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Danny Welbeck, Saed Kolašinac, Sokratis Papastapopolous, Shkodran Mustafi, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla leave for free, Manchester City have sold Pedro Porro, Lukas Nmecha, Angelio, Danilo and Angus Gunn for a combined £74million. They once managed to hoodwink some poor souls into buying Sunderland’s finest Jason Denayer and some bloke called Pablo Maffeo for £17million in a single summer, and made £20million on Ferran Torres in a year, despite barely ever playing him.

With Chelsea, a similar story. In spite of letting £60million worth of defender leave for free in the past month – and, lest we forget, Danny Drinkwater – the revolving door at Stamford Bridge has also been obscenely profitable. Even post-pandemic, as poor cash-strapped clubs on the continent are feeding on gruel and dribbling enviously over the channel at the decadence of Merry England, Chelsea have managed to bleed £80million from Serie A for a pair of academy graduates deemed surplus to requirements, as well as Mario Pašalić and Davide Zappacosta. Including loan fees, they pulled off the frankly absurd act of recouping £47.7million for barn-door-evasionist Álvaro Morata, and have made countless millions from lending their players to other teams. Most notably, whilst their purchase of Tiemoue Bakayoko may have been slightly errant, the severity of it has been somewhat alleviated by the fact that they have made back almost a third of their investment by charging other teams for the dubious privilege of having him bundle ineffectively around their midfield for a bit.

As for Liverpool, there is only one name you need to know. Signed in 2016 and sent on loan for four seasons – each, of course, for a fee – Marko Grujić was finally sold this summer. Inexplicably, at a total profit of more than £6million.

Because this is the thing. We are now living in an era where the finest no longer flock to La Liga, and there is no pressure on the Premier League’s big guns to sell. With the exception of Eden Hazard in 2019 and Sadio Mane this summer, none of those sold have been key players in the prime of their careers. At best, the departees of all six have been decent squad players you wouldn’t mind having around; at worst, they have been chaff.

Yet, the chaff at Liverpool, City and Chelsea is far more marketable than that at United, Spurs and Arsenal. And, as with all market matters, it is all about consumer confidence. Rightly or wrongly, if you are buying a player from City, you believe you are getting one schooled in the Guardiola way. Likewise with Klopp at Liverpool, and as for Chelsea, the very least you are expecting is one who has gained from a fully-functional coaching system with a track record of improving players. It is often said that money breeds success, but here it appears the opposite is true: success breeds money. If the player you are looking at has been around a winning formula, no matter how peripherally, their price will be higher. If they haven’t, you can have Timothy Fosu-Mensah for £1.53million, should you so wish.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in last week’s signing of Gabriel Jesus by Arsenal from Manchester City. Signed for £28million back in 2017, scorer of a goal every two-and-a-half games in the most potent attack in club football, Jesus has at times been very good, but has mostly been fine. Yet, for seemingly little reason other than having played in Pep’s (almost) all-conquering side, he has commanded a fee of £47million, with only a single year remaining on his contract.

Whilst money may not seem like much of an object to a side bankrolled by a nation state, the way the Abu Dhabi group have run the club as a legitimate business, financing much of their spending through sales these past years, bringing in at least £55million each and every season, appears to suggest otherwise. This is only natural. The desire to pump endless sums of cash into a plaything or a sportswashing project recedes with time; one look at those Chelsea figures when compared with the five years previous is enough to tell you this, even accounting for the transfer ban. And whilst the likes of Newcastle may well be in the throes of those first lovestruck moments in which money is no object, those already at the top are looking to run a more sustainable model. Liverpool have always been run this way, the suggestion is Chelsea will be, and City of late have too; the aim is to invest, rather than to splurge.

By paying them £47million, Arsenal are enabling City to do this. They have gained one good player, and funded 87% of Erling Braut Haaland in the process, bolstering an already far superior squad with a far superior centre forward, further entrenching the divide between them.

What is more, the effects of the pandemic, the Middle East’s blood-oil money, and disastrous financial mismanagement have meant that much of the traditional market for a player like Jesus – namely, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus – simply does not have the cash to fund it. The only way City could have commanded anything like the fee that they have is if they got it from within the Premier League. To give it to them seems shortsighted, to say the least.

It can, of course, be said that Arsenal’s fight isn’t with the likes of City, but with those likely to be scrapping it out for that fourth spot. If so, fair enough – signing Jesus may make that a slightly more likely prospect. But what with Arsenal being Arsenal, it probably won’t, and has only enriched a richer club and impoverished themselves in the process. And for that, you have to say, lol.