08 July 2013

This kugelsortierer sorts Arsenal's ambitions

As we wring our hands and twiddle our thumbs and chew our nails, wondering who, if anyone, we'll be signing, I thought it would be worth taking stock and assessing the bigger picture. What does this all mean? Arsenal, after all, has managed to balance its books, more or less, over the last decade only to see other clubs vacuum up talent (all too frequently, talent we have nurtured). However, the dilemma exists at a deeper level. I struggled to find a suitable symbol for it and finally stumbled on it in the form of a Dutch ball-bearing sorter, Keppler's Kugelsortierer. It's similar to a child's piggy-bank that will sort coins by sending coins down a chute lined with slots so that the slimmest, smallest coins slot out first and the largest ones roll down to the end. The Kugelsortierer ("ball grader") does the same with bearings; bearings with the smallest diameter fall through a matching hole near the top, the next-largest rolls a little farther before falling through the next-largest hole, and so on.

You can see the contraption there, and you're probably starting to sense its relevance to the transfer-window. To make it clear, each ball-bearing represents a player, each slot and chamber represents one club or another, and the sorter itself is the transfer-market. With a sense of grim inevitability, especially for those smaller clubs, the transfer-window remorselessly sorts players according to the clubs to which they apparently belong. Should a player grow to be too big for his club, the sorter sends him further down the line. Should a club's ambitions shrink, its players will be re-sorted accordingly. Of course, for those to the left of the sorter, this all works out just fine as the biggest and best players find their way to their destination. The end-result is that each league will end up with a small handful of powerful clubs and a larger assortment of hopefuls.

However, the system is not without its hiccups. Occasionally, a bearing will roll past its intended hole and end up at a too-large club. Conversely, a bearing will get stuck in a too-small club. Perhaps Fernando Torres is an example of the former; he might have been better-off at Liverpool over Chelsea. Maybe Gareth Bale is an example of the latter; a player who may have ended up at a club he is too 'big' for.

It's a larger problem for the smaller clubs, whether they're facing relegation in the Prem for fighting to win the Eredivisie; they'll lose their best players to larger clubs. It's inevitable. Heck, we took Giroud from Montpellier, a huge factor in them tumbling from first place in 2012 to ninth in 2013. Much as we lament the loss of various players to other clubs, we do have to admit that we inflict similar pain on other, smaller, clubs.

As we've discussed, Arsene considered signing Bale in 2007. Maybe this would have been an example of the kugelsortierer doing its job. Bale has arguably outgrown Spurs and is ready for somewhere bigger. Perhaps he should've come to Arsenal. Over the last five years, if not longer, Arsenal has been guilty of letting itself be that club that lets the larger ball-bearings roll past to end up in bigger slots. Van Persie. Fabregas. Cole. We won't even indulge in the list of players we've "almost" signed. The question that then arises is, under the current system, how does Arsenal see itself? Where do we lie on the kugelsortierer? Sure, we were once at the very-left end and deservedly so. How far to the right, though, have we slid?

Back in January, I would have said we'd slid pretty far. Being linked with the likes of David Villa, a 31-year old coming off of a broken leg, suggested that we saw ourselves as a club with modest ambitions with talk of fourth place as a trophy. Now, however, we seem to be moving to the left. Our pursuit of Higuain, a prolific scorer for the world's largest club (financially, at least), suggests that we have our sights set on goals that are larger than a fourth-place finish or finishing above Spurs. The idea that we're seriously linked with Rooney further suggests that we're eyeing a return to our days of glory and have outgrown our current stasis.

However, the larger problem still persists. Under the current system, a "small" club's reward for success is to see its best players leave. Whether it's Aston Villa's Christian Benteke or Spurs' Gareth Bale (or Arsenal's Robin van Persie?), the current system will send the best players to the biggest clubs. The rich get richer; the poor get the picture. Whether FFP has the teeth to address this remains to be seen.

On one hand, I am excited at our activity in this summer's transfer-window. I would lovelovelovelovelove to see Higuain join us and would lose my mind if Rooney does the same. On the other, I look forward to a system, perhaps under FFP, that would bring about a bit of parity through which clubs, regardless of size, can keep their best. It might be a little self-serving, but we've already proven that we can live within our means and win, falling behind only those who live beyond theirs. In other words, once the kugelsortierer is level rather than pitched, Arsenal might just end up as the club best-positioned to win the Prem.

Say what you will about our signings and ambitions over the last few years—we're looking lively in the transfer-market for the first time in ages. Not only are we looking to maximize our position under the current system, we're positioning ourselves astutely for the restrictions to come.

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