Arsenal and West Ham are not bothered about the Champions League and Jesse Lingard versus Manchester United situation is just disappointing.
Don’t forget the winners of the 2022 January transfer window.
As the dust from the initial Pierre-Emerick Aubamewingie sideshow settled, there were not quite as many cracks and stains on the Arsenal window as many first thought. While the pursuit of Dusan Vlahovic was ambitious but doomed and a wafer-thin squad had been spread to within a Granit Xhaka red card or one-man Covid outbreak of crisis status, no objectively foolish decision had been made.
The five departures that were sanctioned by that point were all individually justifiable. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Calum Chambers, Sead Kolasinac, Pablo Mari and Folarin Balogun started eight combined Premier League games this season, and only one since August between them, while none have featured at all in the league beyond November. Letting Maitland-Niles go did raise a cursory eyebrow but squad depth is less of a pressing matter for a club out of European competition and both domestic cups. Arsenal know they have 17 games – no more, no less – to play in the next 15 weeks and can cut their cloth accordingly and precisely.
It invited criticism and did leave them susceptible to even one injury or suspension, even if that ruthlessness, clarity and vision was something to be admired from a club that has failed to make the cutthroat decisions in years gone by.
Then the Aubameyang situation was resurrected and those explanations justifiably fell on deaf ears: Arsenal invested heavily, more so than any other club in Europe, just a few months ago; their loan history is hardly a ringing endorsement of that particular market; not buying is better than panic buying. Fair excuses but when a player goes from £57m captain to deadline day free agent with no replacement in the space of seven weeks, it raises myriad questions which, surprisingly enough, cannot be answered with the capture of a player from the owner’s MLS franchise.
Arsenal have essentially cut weight for a bout of marathon boxing against at least three opponents. Their January inaction raises the stakes to almost uncomfortable levels with no margin for error. Mikel Arteta has to deliver Champions League qualification in May or any defence of his premature winter budgeting is rendered moot. It also places a ludicrous amount of pressure on the summer, when the fruits of this month’s labour must be harvested to produce a stellar window with few missteps, if any.
The most miserable doomsday prophecies are, as ever, born from transfer-induced hysteria. Arsenal won’t miss out on their season objectives specifically because of any of those departures, nor for their refusal to bring in another Denis Suarez or Kim Kallstrom. Even with Aubameyang, he has not played any of the club’s last ten games, not played well long before then and was thought to have been outgrown by the process during the recent winning run. But there is an undeniable sense that Arsenal may have made things far more difficult than they had to be. By Arteta’s own admission, making at least one signing “was what we planned”. The only thing he has brought in is a rod for his own back. He and his team are geniuses if it pays off; they will be aware of the consequences if it doesn’t.
The implication that he is being held hostage is deliberately inflammatory and should be disregarded. Jesse Lingard signed a four-year contract under Jose Mourinho in June 2017 that contained a one-year extension option Ole Gunnar Solskjaer activated in December 2020. This is a structural mess that can be traced back well before Ralf Rangnick’s interim ascension. But the idea that Manchester United have an obligation to reward loyalty or show contrition by strengthening either a direct or future rival without proper compensation is fanciful.
A mid-season return to West Ham never seemed likely, while Tottenham is a realistic option only when Manchester United’s say in the matter is finally revoked in the summer. As for the prohibitive loan fees demanded from Newcastle, they might be the only recent example of sensible business acumen from Manchester United when it comes to Lingard. That he has played just 88 Premier League minutes for the club since his deal was extended by another 12 months is peculiar but likening his treatment to that of a prisoner elicits ridicule rather than sympathy.
With that said, it is a regrettable situation. An avoidable one, too. Perhaps it is hindsight to suggest those promises of increased game time were always likely to be broken. Manchester United should have sought a sale in the summer; Lingard ought to have pushed the matter then instead of letting it play out until the winter. The embers flickered once more after productive talks with Rangnick on the morning of deadline day but the circumstances had irrevocably changed by then, through no fault of either party. That could inch the door open for more playing opportunities in the second half of the season, as it happens, but the post-West Ham leverage he earned has been entirely wasted over a largely pointless campaign.
Suitors will be waiting at the end of this bumpy road. The queue will extend far beyond the Premier League and into Spain, Germany and Italy. Lingard has proven his ability and application before and will do so again. But for this to play out so publicly on both sides through press leaks and pointed social media barbs feels so unnecessary. A two-decade association deserved a more mutually beneficial end than this. An elite club has paid for its senseless stockpiling and through a fear of being made to look stupid, has come across as fragile. A 29-year-old with aspirations of representing his country has been further hamstrung from doing so in what will be his final international tournament year at peak age.
If given the chance to approach that crossroads of last summer again, both parties would pursue starkly different paths. Hopefully club and player have learned their lessons.
Have been told not to underestimate the perceived power of the message the Lingard saga sends out to other United players ahead of contract renewals. As in ‘if you try to run your deal down don’t be surprised if you’re frozen out’. Not great.
— Mike Keegan (@MikeKeegan_DM) January 31, 2022
Did the end justify those lean weeks? Is it damning that Fabio Paratici could only successfully negotiate the signing of two players from the club at which he worked for more than a decade, or is that a positive reflection of contacts only he could bring to the role? Can Tottenham be satisfied at finally taking a more unremitting stance on unwanted players, or is it worth admonishing their inability to sell instead of loan? Should there be more focus on them literally being turned down by a non-league striker?
The three players Tottenham have farmed back out to the leagues they signed them from were bought for more than £100m – equivalent to the approximate price tag placed around the neck of Everton’s new free transfer, Dele Alli, at one stage. Bryan Gil joined 190 days ago and has temporarily return to Spain already. There is considerable, painstaking work to be done in terms of a recruitment model that prioritised the arrival of a right wing-back that never came.
Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski at least sated the transfer thirst somewhat. Neither particularly set the pulse racing but the former is an accomplished central midfielder and the latter changes the dynamic of a volatile attack.
But those rejections are difficult to countenance. Franck Kessie, Adama Traore and Luis Diaz were extensively tracked and while there is no shame in losing out to either Liverpool or even this iteration of Barcelona, such high-profile knock-backs tell a revealing story of a club still trying to operate like it did when the market was a different beast. The right wing-back, creative midfielder and back-up striker will have to wait another window even though an opportunity to solidify their Champions League credentials presented itself against all odds this month.
It should probably come as no surprise that Tottenham have failed to convert the pull of Antonio Conte to make themselves a more alluring prospect for players. They failed to take advantage of even stronger positions at the height of their Premier League powers and after reaching the Champions League final. It is difficult to shake the sense that ship has sailed and Spurs are flailing in the waves of the bigger and better teams they claim to be in cahoots with.
When the passivity of others is your biggest mitigation, the grounds for defence are automatically shaky. Tottenham waited as long as possible and neither Manchester United nor Arsenal moved at all. But those three Champions League contenders all had less of a need than West Ham.
The areas of weakness that were clear during that run of one win in seven before the turn of the year have not been addressed even after consecutive defeats to Leeds and Manchester United highlighted them further.
The Hammers have gone from signing all the strikers to flirting with a few but sealing the deal for none. Benni McCarthy and Simone Zaza cannot possibly have left a sour enough taste that Michail Antonio’s hamstrings are entrusted to bear the weight of a full Premier and Europa League season for fear of a new arrival not being up to standard. The centre-half issue has been bordering on disaster for months. And Lingard was courted despite it being patently obvious Manchester United would not play ball this time.
“Are we ready to act? Probably not,” was the frank answer from David Moyes in late December. “That is not to do with resources but it’s to do with availability, generally it looks like a difficult market. All I would say is that our last few January windows have seen us get Soucek, Bowen and Jesse Lingard so if I could get anybody that would give us that level of success during the January window it would be seen as a positive.”
Therein lies the negativity. For all the talk of January being a difficult window, West Ham have used it to their immense advantage in recent years. This month was spent lodging £50m bids Leeds were never going to accept, then waiting until the final days to enquire about Benfica forward Darwin Nunez. A chance to gate-crash the VIP Champions League party has been spurned; it is hardly the show of ambition that might tempt Declan Rice and others into staying for the long haul.
West Ham have had one of the most disappointing transfer windows in Europe. Fifth in the league, one point away from fourth, fighting for Europa, and didn’t bring in a single player despite needing depth. David Moyes’ impact has really papered over the ownerships’s cracks.
— Zach Lowy (@ZachLowy) January 31, 2022
Dean Smith and Ralf Rangnick
Eight managers were appointed by Premier League clubs since the closure of the summer transfer window. The degrees to which they were backed in terms of recruitment ranges wildly. Eddie Howe was given more than £90m to spend; Steven Gerrard was able to bring in a Barcelona player; even Claudio Ranieri and Roy Hodgson were given four and one Watford signing respectively.
Most stark is that Frank Lampard had his squad adorned with Donny van de Beek and Dele Alli despite only being appointed by Everton on the morning of deadline day. Yet there go Dean Smith and Ralf Rangnick, thrown no bones whatsoever for different, albeit understandable, reasons.
Norwich did transform their squad in the summer, thus weakening Smith’s position to request reinforcements through no fault of his own. And Rangnick remains in interim charge, which complicates mid-season incomings and might well dissuade some players from committing their own long-term futures to a vague project.
But the Canaries were the only team in the bottom five to make no signings and the suggestion is that Rangnick was eventually receptive to Lingard’s last plea to leave, only for the Manchester United board to block his loan exit. The future consultant already being overruled by the inexperienced executives that helped create the problem in the first place is not a great sign.
They just about turned it around in the end and did sign a pair of new full-backs at great expense a while back, but let it never be forgotten that Everton sold one of their better players to a direct rival after he fell out with the manager, who they subsequently sacked five days later. And the loan arrival of a player said coach did not want – and who has not yet played – meant that some creative accounting was required to secure Dele Alli.
Frank Lampard already had a tangible positive impact before his first day as Everton manager was over but he will be under no illusions as to the structural, systemic issues facing him in the near future.
Anwar El Ghazi
On that note, you really don’t fancy his chances of doing the soccer too much going forward. The poor bloke has only been there 19 days and will have trained under three different head coaches by Tuesday.
Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Leeds, Leicester and Southampton
Not quite as egregious as Arsenal and West Ham, nor as curious as Manchester United and Norwich. These five clubs can therefore be safely classified as absolute nerds for deciding not to get involved with any transfers because they think they’re above it all. Pathetic.
No longer Chelsea’s longest-serving player. Leave both the memories and his 34 first-team minutes in 17 years at the club alone.