The cool thing about numbers is that you can use them to tell almost any story you want. Last week, they were used a lot as evidence that Arsenal should have beaten Bradford City. The most popular number was 7,500 -- that's how many pounds (plus a friendly in Guernsey) Bradford's squad cost to assemble. Another relevant number, that wasn't so well reported, is -45,000,000. This is the number of pounds by which Arsenal have profited from transfers in the last five seasons. So Arsenal's squad was actually cheaper than Bradford's -- by a pretty considerable £45,007,500. "Lies, damn lies, and statistics", right?
The problem is that with Arsenal, it's all about the numbers to which, as a result, there is no single narrative. In fact, there are many directly contradictory narratives. You can look, for example, at this table of net transfer spend and venerate Arsene Wenger for five years of astonishing over-achievement. Or you can look at their stadium and ticket prices - the highest in the world - and think that their fans have a right to expect better. Both narratives, really, are true so the confusion trickles through any conclusions we might try to draw. In looking, as we're going to do here, at transfer strategy, then, we have to keep both of these facts in mind: Arsenal are, at the same time, a giant club and overachieving minnows.
That explains why they have such a strange squad. At the moment it contains two highly decorated German internationals and a 50 times-capped Spanish midfielder, England's best young player and a ridiculously handsome Frenchman. Youthful and experienced, Arsenal have some great players. On the other hand, they have a list of players -- Andre Santos, Gervinho, Andrey Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh, possibly, (painfully) Aaron Ramsey -- who play, but for various reasons and in startlingly different ways don't look good enough. Then, they have another list of players -- Sebastien Squillaci, Johan Djourou, Nicklas Bendtner and Park Chu-Young -- who, again for different reasons in different ways, never play. No other big club carries so much dead weight; no other minnow has such rich resources.
In the speculation that has followed Arsenal's recent "big money" advertising deal, much has been made of their need to "bring in players", possibly making a "statement signing", in January. Were Arsenal simply an underachieving giant, such speculation would make sense. Given their schizophrenia, and the consequent imbalance in the squad, it's too simplistic. Arsenal need to rebalance their squad and that takes more than big money acquisitions. It means getting rid of players too, and that can be difficult - especially when, like many of Arsenal's misfits, they're on big money. Fortunately for Arsenal, though, a number of those misfits are nearing the end of their problematically lucrative contracts.
As well as meaning the well-publicized end of Theo Walcott's current deal, June 2013 also sees Squillaci, Arshavin and Fabianski come to the end of their contracts. The following summer, Wojciech Szczesny, Vito Mannone, Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna, Tomas Rosicky, Chamakh and Bendtner's deals expire. Some of the players in the latter category -- Szczesny, Gibbs, Sagna -- are still valuable to the club and important to the team, and presumably Arsenal will try and hold on to them. What that shows, though, is that January 2013 is an opportunity.
Rather than making a statement -- Arshavin arrived in January 2009 as a pacifier to dissatisfied fans; he has now become a symbol of that same dissatisfaction -- Arsenal need to use January as the beginning of a new era of coherent squad assembly. With expensive deals running to an end, and new money arriving from commercial sources, Arsenal have the chance to perform the necessary rebalance and begin to re-establish themselves as a big club with an appropriately big club squad. January needs to be seen as the first phase in that project and not as a chance to plug gaps in a thin squad on a tough run.
* Contract information is taken from www.transfermarkt.co.uk.