I realise this is a controversial topic. I realise I might well be in the minority when I make that statement. But it’s something that needs looking at in a bit of detail, even if it only serves to allow those who are spoon-fed by the media an alternative to shape their views. If it doesn’t, then there was no harm in trying. Essentially though, Frank Arnesen doesn’t deserve the reputation he has been tarnished with.
It seems that since Arnesen arrived from Tottenham in 2005 in controversial circumstances, he’s never been able to shake that tag. The first years of his tenure were also mis-understood by many, and it was largely to due to the misleading media. Keen to create a rift between him and then manager Jose Mourinho, claims of his interference in first-team transfer and selection policy were well wide of the mark. His official job title was Head of Youth Development and Scouting, which as it suggests, meant that his remit was to the future of the club, and not an involvement in the first team. This was largely ignored by the majority.
So Frank set about improving an academy which whilst productive in numbers playing professional football, was struggling to produce players of sufficient calibre for the levels Chelsea were moving to as back-to-back Champions. Whereas previously, the likes of Duberry, Harley and Morris were all good, and could have been matched by the classes of 2002-05, there was a clear and apparent need to step up. Hiring Arnesen was just a part of that – an overhaul which would see state of the art facilities help provide the local Chelsea youngsters with everything they needed to develop as best they possibly could, as well as the financial clout to bring in some of Europe’s finest.
That in itself is a controversial issue, which I’ll skate around because it’s necessary in understanding the context of the situation. Various contractual laws in Europe and in individual nations have allowed loopholes for clubs everywhere to procure talent before the ‘legal’ age of transfer (16 in the EU, 18 worldwide). Most often the club has no option but to stand aside and negotiate a token compensation, but there is the occasional outspoken team who demand a ban on such transfers, whilst seeking greater remuneration for their work in developing the stolen youngster. In proceeding down this route, Arnesen was merely practicing a tactic being used by his contemporaries, and one he will have used in his time at Tottenham and at clubs before that.
Now sure, this meant paying £2.5m each in compensation for Tom Taiwo and Michael Woods when Ken Bates cried foul as Leeds lost two bright lights. It is a lot of money, and they may not have lived up to their valuations just yet, but it has also created a stick with which to bash Arnesen. One newspaper claimed that he, and the club, have ‘squandered’ £62m during his tenure, all for no end product in the first team. But if you look at these numbers, both in isolation and in context, the flaws in this argument become apparent.
Before we get to that, if Arnesen is to be criticised for large fees, he should be commended for negotating smaller fees for more successful talents. The likes of Miroslav Stoch, Ben Sahar and Scott Sinclair arrived for fairly modest money (compensation or not), and two have become international footballers since being signed, whilst Sinclair has been closest to the first team. At the end of the day a transfer fee for a youngster will only truly be able to be appreciated and evaluated some ten years later minimum, when his career will have hopefully shown whether it was worth it or not, or even recouped in a sale.
Going back to that £62m figure. It’s likely inaccurate for starters, and quite probably takes into account the vast expenditure on the new facilities at Cobham. If you hadn’t seen the temporary facilities, and those at Harlington before that, then just take it as granted that they were necessary. Not only were they badly in need of an upgrade, but a club with Chelsea’s financial power and ambition are likely to need the very best to compete with the very best. Take into account fees and total wages in the four years since, and you might be approaching close to that figure, but, and this is the important bit – it’s not any different to how many other clubs are acting.
Some basic research and number crunching reveal that since he was hired, Arnesen has signed 32 players for the youth or reserve teams. The most expensive of these was £4m on Franco Di Santo. We’ll use England’s other top three teams (sorry Man City, you’re not here yet) to compare to. Manchester United, the most productive academy in the Premier League by players currently in the league, have signed half that number, 16 – and this summer has been one of their most active. Arsenal and Liverpool, however, are more comparable.
Arsenal have signed 24 players, and the Arsene Wenger transfer spreadsheet (revered amongst many Arsenal fans) informs me that they have paid a little over £12.5m for these players, with another potential minimum of £4m on top of that based on the progress of those players. With wages taken into account, that spending will have topped £20m in that time. Then there’s Liverpool and their scattergun approach. Since Arnesen took over at Chelsea the Merseysiders have signed an astonishing 45 players for the youth and reserve teams. Considering fees and wages and miscellaneous costs are all quite similar at the top end, their spending will at the very least be level with Chelsea’s.
So not only is it unfair to tarnish Arnesen with the tag of overspending, but it’s grossly inappropriate with the actual success of the signings. If you break down those numbers into those who have represented the club in league football (since the Carling Cup has become a testing ground of sorts), the Blues and Arnesen come out quite well. Four of the 32 – Stoch, Sinclair, Di Santo and Sahar – have played league football. Three of Man Utd’s 16 have done so, four of Arsenal’s 24, and just four of Liverpool’s 45. Percentage-wise, it comes out just below Arsenal and Man Utd, but it’s essentially one player either way, and if Michael Woods had played in the league instead of the FA Cup, for example, it’d look better.
Chelsea even outdo their rivals in commitment to English talent, however necessary that might be. A third of Arnesen’s acquisitions have been English (nine), with three from Man Utd, three from Arsenal, and seven from Liverpool. Time and again though, we’re told Chelsea don’t have a commitment to English football. We’ll even ignore the eleven scholarships handed out to local talent this summer, one of the highest rated groups in years.
So we’ve learned that Arnesen is
– doing nothing different to most other clubs in his approach to signings
– is spending little more comparitively
– is producing about as well as the big clubs are
Yet we’re missing one very important thing. Arnesen is, or was, a scout. He is merely responsible for identifying the talent, and he’s done a fine job of that, because it’s hard to argue that many of his signings aren’t amongst the best of their age. What follows in their careers is down to a number of factors, hardly any of which relate to our Frank. Coaching standards, facilities, the mentality of the individual, and opportunity are the key issues, and as a scout, you can only really attribute one of them to Arnesen.
Whilst clubs like West Ham may be able to blood the likes of Stanislas, Sears, Tomkins or even Frank Nouble into professional football, you have to consider their aims and ambitions. They’re not a European powerhouse, they’re not challenging for honours, they’re merely trying to get into the top 8 at best. When you look at the heights Chelsea scale, it’s incredibly hard to find players of sufficient ability at such a young age, unless you’re Barcelona, who have been doing it better for longer than anyone. In an era where your Fabregas’, your Messis and Agueros are making major impacts at schoolboy age, the expectation is for everyone to follow suit, when in reality these are in the tiny minority.
Arsenal fans are quick to remind people that their Academy is different to everyone else’s, and whilst they’re largely wrong, they often quote Messrs Wenger and Brady in their statements that it takes ten years to see the real fruition in an academy. Huw Jennings, former Premier League Head of Youth Development now in a similar role at Fulham, further stresses that point:
In Europe, players make first-team debuts at 21-22; here they are thrown into Carling Cup games or substitute appearances at an average of 18 years and four months, and judged critically on those performances. Players are not afforded the chance to mature. Reform is desperately needed for the 18-21 age group.”
So if such well-educated people are speaking of this, why isn’t their word spread? Expecting a 17 year old to break into arguably one of the best club sides in the world is folly. Expecting a scout such as Arnesen to go and find such a player is almost as ambitious – if the individual is out there, it’s not going to be easy to get him. As we’ve seen in the Kakuta case, the club will put up a fight – and it’s Arnesen who gets blamed if things go slightly off course. You’re damned if you do, and you’re even more damned if you don’t. Or, as the blind might think, if you do and you don’t do it well. Everyone craves accountability, and whilst that’s fine, it needs to be credible.
It’s a long-term processed being judged by those stuck to the ‘what have you done for me lately’ theory. Arnesen is four years into his Chelsea career, and has obviously impressed some with his work, earning a promotion to Sporting Director this summer. Even that has been taken with a negative slant, as if to suggest poor work in the academy has led to his responsibilities there being reduced. That remains to be seen, but is unlikely. Be patient, not expectant, and take a moment to breathe before going off half-cocked at the latest scapegoat for a media explosion at Chelsea’s account. He’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and has a lot of ‘wait and see’ ahead before he can be judged. For now though, a lot of it just isn’t valid.
Players signed during Frank Arnesen’s tenure at Chelsea:
Jan Sebek, Niclas Heimann, Sam Walker, Ryan Bertrand, Jeffrey Bruma, Patrick van Aanholt, Ben Gordon, Harry Worley, Vincenzo Camilleri, Slobodan Rajovic, Jacob Mellis, Daniel Philliskirk, Michael Woods, Tom Taiwo, Conor Clifford, Kaby, Ricardo Fernandes, Fabio Ferreira, Tomi Saarelma, Sergio Tejera, Miroslav Stoch, Franco Di Santo, Jacopo Sala, Fabio Borini, Gael Kakuta, Scott Sinclair, Milan Lalkovic, Marko Mitrovic, Philipp Prosenik, Gokhan Tore, Ben Sahar, Morten Nielsen