The reality is that, for all the hype and drama around the transfer deadline, most deals completed on the final day of the window are set in motion some time before. Twenty-four hours is not a long time in which to strike a multi-million pound agreement.
Don’t Arsenal know it. Their last-gasp attempts to sign Douglas Luiz from Aston Villa ultimately proved unsuccessful. Three formal offers, the final one in the region of £25 million ($28.9m), were rejected outright. Arsenal pushed, the player made his preference known, the agent worked to bridge the gap — but Villa were intransigent.
In fairness to them, Villa had made their position evident in the early hours of Thursday morning. The messaging was clear: Luiz was not for sale. Arsenal hoped that was posturing — with 12 months remaining on his contract and the looming threat of losing him for free, it was thought an offer of £25 million would be enough to tempt them into a sale. Part of the reason Arsenal targeted Luiz was a belief that he was an attainable target.
Arsenal’s hopes were ultimately misplaced. Villa held their nerve and Arsenal ended up without the midfielder they sought to add to supplement the squad. While manager Mikel Arteta will undoubtedly be frustrated at the failure to further strengthen his options, Arsenal are broadly satisfied with their window. They have improved the quality of the squad, if not necessarily the depth. The question now is whether they can handle a frenetic fixture list between now and the World Cup.
The attempt to sign Luiz was, in the end, a bit of a scramble. As late as Friday August 26 — less than a week before the transfer deadline — Arsenal were not planning on signing a central midfielder. They had already added Fabio Vieira, who can play as a No 8, and believed they had sufficient depth to see them through the winter months. The focus was instead on recruiting a wide player. Having allowed Nicolas Pepe to join OGC Nice on loan, a gap had been created for another attacking arrival.
Arsenal’s primary target had been Raphinha, but the Brazilian ultimately chose Barcelona. Attention then turned to Pedro Neto of Wolves. Edu has a good relationship with Neto’s agent, Jorge Mendes, and earlier in the window they collaborated to bring Mendes’ client Vieira to the Emirates Stadium. They engaged in dialogue about the prospect of Neto joining Arsenal, but Wolves were unwilling to sell. Given Wolves had signed Neto to a new five-year contract just a matter of months ago, it would have taken an enormous offer to persuade them to reconsider their position.
Mykhaylo Mudryk was another name discussed among Arsenal’s recruitment team. The 21-year-old Shakhtar Donetsk winger was a target for several Premier League clubs and Arsenal received glowing reports about both his talent and his temperament. With days remaining in the window, Arsenal made exploratory contact with Mudryk’s representatives and were thought to be considering a formal bid to sign the Ukrainian international.
And then, a change in circumstances forced a change of plan. On the Friday afternoon, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Thomas Partey both suffered injuries. At this stage, Arsenal were not particularly concerned, as neither injury was considered serious.
The situation escalated the following day. During the course of Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Fulham, Mohamed Elneny sustained an injury to his right leg. To his credit, he played on — but the problem worsened in the aftermath of the game. By Monday evening, the player had undergone initial scans and the suspected prognosis was that the Egypt international would be absent for a significant period.
Arsenal are still awaiting a full assessment from specialists, but there is an acceptance that Elneny will miss a considerable spell. Arsenal are about to embark on a frenetic period of the season in which they must readjust to juggling domestic challenges with the Europa League. With Partey already sidelined, the timing of Elneny’s injury could not have been worse.
A decision was taken to change emphasis and focus on bolstering the midfield. The challenge was identifying a doable deal in such a short space of time. Arsenal spent Tuesday analyzing potential targets and assessing their viability at that late stage of the window.
Arsenal were offered the chance to reignite their interest in Arthur Melo, but declined. Youri Tielemans was the subject of internal discussions, as he had been earlier in the window, but Arsenal never went as far as directly approaching Leicester. Although Tielemans’ character and quality was admired, Arsenal held some reservations about the physical and defensive aspects of his game. What’s more, the Belgian international was always seen primarily as a No 8 and potential replacement for Granit Xhaka, whereas the absence of Partey and Elneny left Arsenal looking for a No 6.
Crucially, Arsenal felt a deal for Luiz could prove expedient. The Brazilian international had just 12 months remaining on his deal at Villa Park and had shown no great inclination to sign an extension. Although Aston Villa privately insisted they intended to keep the player, Steven Gerrard’s comments after the match against Arsenal suggested the situation was far less clear-cut. “I am not in control of that,” said Gerrard. “That will be Douglas, his agent and what happens around that… We are not in a position where we need to lose our top players but at the same time Douglas has a year to go.”
Personal terms were never likely to be an obstacle. Luiz was minded to leave Villa Park and Arsenal fulfilled his wish to play European football. Arsenal also hoped to benefit from Edu’s strong relationship with Luiz’s agent, Kia Joorabchian — when an agreement needs to be struck at speed, that kind of familiarity can be beneficial.
Arsenal felt the 24-year-old Luiz offered a proven Premier League option who could provide long-term support for first-choice defensive midfielder Partey. He was well known to Arteta after their time together at Manchester City and was seen as a good fit for Arsenal’s tactical system. The £25 million bid was determined as a fair price for a reliable squad player.
Villa did not agree and Arsenal were not prepared to be held to ransom. The club have tried to take a more strategic approach to their transfer business across recent windows, which includes avoiding “panic buys” and overpaying. It has meant missing out on some targets, but Arsenal believe it benefits the health of the club and the squad in the long run.
Of those that did join, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko have both made a tremendous impact, while there is excitement about the as yet untapped potential of Vieira. Matt Turner has replaced Bernd Leno and is likely to play significant minutes in the cup competitions.
Ideally, they would have liked to add that elusive central midfielder and wide player. In the absence of further signings in the middle of the park, Albert Sambi Lokonga seems the man most likely to benefit. The 22-year-old Belgian stepped into Partey’s position for the 2-1 victory over Aston Villa and impressed. The optimistic view would be that the absence of Partey and Elneny provides a valuable platform for Lokonga’s development.
In the wide areas, Arsenal have Emile Smith Rowe to provide cover — the Englishman has not started a league game yet this season. Jesus and Vieira can also play there if required. In the cup competitions, we may see glimpses of another summer signing, 19-year-old Marquinhos. Reiss Nelson has also received assurances that he will be given a chance to compete for a place once he has proven his fitness. There is an opportunity for those fringe players to make their case.
A number of other players have also been cleared out of the squad, but the disappointment will be Arsenal’s inability to recoup substantial fees for those departing players. Hector Bellerin left for Barcelona on deadline day, but the move did nothing for Arsenal’s cash balance. It is galling for Arsenal fans to see Barca receive a fee of £12million plus Marcos Alonso for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang just months after their club let him go for nothing. There are mitigating circumstances, but the numbers make for brutal reading.
And the ins and outs are obviously connected. Had Arsenal sold more effectively, they would have had greater financial flexibility to recruit further signings.
Arsenal’s willingness to terminate contracts or allow players to leave on free transfers has arguably set a precedent. Sooner rather than later, Arsenal must draw a line under that policy and start generating revenue through player sales.
Arsenal have made a fantastic start to the Premier League season. Over the coming weeks, we will discover whether they have the requisite depth to maintain it.
(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)