What happens when a club fail to land some of their primary transfer targets?
That is where Arsenal currently find themselves.
Just a few weeks ago, technical director Edu and the recruitment department were focused on the acquisitions of Gabriel Jesus, Raphinha and Lisandro Martinez.
Right now, it looks as if they will end up with one of those three.
Jesus is signed, sealed and has gone on the club’s current pre-season tour in the US. Martinez and Raphinha, however, appear to have eluded them.
Ajax and Argentina defender Martinez is edging towards a move to Manchester United, whereas the blow of failing to land Raphinha from Leeds United will be cushioned by the fact the Brazil winger has chosen Barcelona over London rivals Chelsea. As Arsenal’s pursuit of Manchester City defender Oleksandr Zinchenko shows, they are prepared to deal with setbacks.
In the cases of both Raphinha and Martinez, there are significant extenuating circumstances.
Raphinha’s preference was always Barcelona after two seasons at Elland Road and his agent Deco’s close ties at Camp Nou, having played for the club himself, always made this negotiation an uphill battle.
Arsenal only stepped up their interest when they believed Barcelona would not be able to find the funds to complete the deal. It is a surprise to many, including Leeds, that they have ultimately come through.
Martinez was open to the prospect of joining Arsenal, but United held two significant advantages.
The defender was keen on a reunion at Old Trafford with Erik ten Hag, who signed him for Ajax in the summer of 2019 and has coached him there for the past three seasons. What’s more, his preference was to play as a centre-back, whereas Arsenal envisioned using the 5ft 9in (175cm) Martinez primarily as a left-back.
So it goes.
Last summer, Arsenal signed several players for whom they were the only big club in contention.
This year, they have sought to add targets of a higher calibre — and with that comes greater competition. As scouting networks and analytics departments become increasingly sophisticated, it is no surprise that the same names appear on the shopping lists of a lot of the game’s elite clubs.
In this year’s winter window, Tottenham added Juventus duo Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur. Both players had also been followed by Arsenal; and just days from the end of January, Kulusevski’s representatives considered the Emirates Stadium his most likely destination, not the place down the road.
Last summer, the two north London clubs were both on the trails of right-backs Takehiro Tomiyasu and Emerson Royal, and ended up signing one each.
This year, Chelsea and Spurs both showed interest in Manchester City forward Jesus, only declining to enter the bidding when it emerged the player had an agreement in place with countryman Edu and former City No 2 Mikel Arteta.
Increasingly, the game’s big clubs all have similar targets in their sights — and a side in Arsenal’s position cannot claim them all.
Had Arsenal qualified for next season’s Champions League rather than falling two points short, it might well have helped their case. The decisions of Raphinha and Martinez (United aren’t in the Champions League either), however, seem to have been determined by other factors.
It’s also worth noting that in neither case did Arsenal agree a fee with the selling clubs. It’s possible they had a specific valuation in mind for each player, and the ensuing auctions took the required price beyond it.
One of the challenges Arsenal face is the calibre of reporting on football transfers these days.
It is rare now that a signing catches fans and reporters truly off-guard — in fairness to Arsenal, the recent addition of Fabio Vieira from Porto is about as close as it comes.
Years ago, we might never even have known of these pursuits. The incremental reporting of interest, talks and bids now means that when a club do not ultimately sign a player, it becomes viewed as a public failure. But that is how the football business has always been.
So, what now?
The first thing to say is that Arsenal have, of course, been here before.
Their transfer business last summer has been lauded as successful, but it required them to readjust plans.
Arsenal initially hoped to lure Jules Kounde of Sevilla to play at centre-half, but the Frenchman was unwilling to join. Instead, they turned to Brighton defender Benjamin White.
Sheffield United’s Aaron Ramsdale became their first-choice goalkeeping target, only after Arsenal realised it would be impossible to pursue a move for Brentford No 1 David Raya.
A deal with Bologna for Tomiyasu came together in the final hours of deadline day, after Arsenal had pursued interest in several alternatives, including Royal of Barcelona. Such is the nature of any transfer window — there has to be a plan, but there has to be room for improvisation too.
In most cases, Arsenal have lists of targets for each positional requirement. There will be an a, b, and c — several players who are monitored in each area of the squad that is deemed a priority.
Part of Edu’s job is to try to spin those plates — to maintain contact with each player’s camp, keeping abreast of developments, and trying to keep Arsenal’s foot in the door should ‘Plan B’ need to be activated.
It is a delicate balancing act. Agents and players tend to get a sense of when they are not the priority.
However, it’s not always as simple as just moving on to the next names down the list.
Some players have a relatively unique cocktail of qualities that makes them a particularly ideal fit for a certain manager’s plans. So it was with Raphinha and Martinez, who were the preferred candidates in their respective areas of the pitch by quite some margin.
Raphinha’s combination of Premier League experience, goal threat and relentless off-the-ball work is fairly unusual.
Arsenal also felt that Martinez was potentially a ‘unicorn’ of a left-back: someone who was a capable defender, but also could have played a valuable role helping build the play in midfield.
Finding players with those specific combinations of attributes is no easy task. It also requires Arsenal to warm up relationships again; to re-establish dialogue that may have gone cold.
There are backup plans in place.
Zinchenko is another who can operate in similar zones to Martinez, starting at left-back but moving into midfield in possession. Arteta is a long-term admirer of his former City colleague, and Arsenal have now stepped up their interest.
The specific Venn diagram of skills they desire, however, leaves them fishing in quite a small pool of players. If Arsenal cannot get Zinchenko, it’s possible they will choose to persist with their existing left-back options of Kieran Tierney and Nuno Tavares. Alex Grimaldo of Benfica is not currently a target.
In attack, they are also likely to activate ‘Plan B’ — especially if, as expected, Nicolas Pepe leaves this summer.
Pepe has changed agent in anticipation of securing a move, and his departure would leave Arsenal a little light in wide attacking areas.
The expectation is that Arsenal would push ahead with a move for an alternative target to Raphinha — although contrary to reports, Lucas Paqueta is not currently a focus. Arsenal are admirers of Lyon’s 26-year-old Brazilian, but having already signed Vieira, they have other positional priorities.
In some instances, those positional priorities can shift — lately, Arsenal have given greater consideration to strengthening their central midfield options. That is another reason a deal for Zinchenko would make sense.
Although there is naturally some disappointment at missing out on Raphinha and potentially Martinez, Arsenal are delighted to have secured Vieira and Jesus — the former City forward was their number one overall target for this summer. And last year’s transfer business shows that a bit of flexible thinking can still bring good results.
There is a long way to go yet in a window that closes at 11pm UK time on September 1 and Arsenal pride themselves on having a plan — now we’ll discover how successfully they can deviate from it.
The pursuit of Zinchenko would appear to be a good sign.
(Top image: Getty Images)