One of the most hotly debated topics of Arsene Wenger’s 20-year reign at Arsenal has been his spending in the transfer market… or lack thereof.
Some view Wenger as a master at handling the club’s finances, looking for transfer bargains, selling players at high prices and constantly delivering lucrative Champions League football. Others view him as stingy, reluctant to part with the club’s money, and accuse him of helping the club’s owners to sacrifice sporting success for profits.
Wenger himself, meanwhile, often insists that he’s all too happy to spend money on the right player, but that the club must also live within its means and not spend more than it makes.
So who is right? A look back at Arsenal’s transfer spending over the past 20 years certainly shows that Wenger kept a tight grip on the club’s purse strings for a long time, but that he has become much more willing to spend big over the last four seasons.
According to TransferMarkt, Arsenal have spent a total of £687.4 million in the transfer market since the summer of 1996 — when Wenger orchestrated the purchase of Patrick Vieira even before officially taking charge of the club. In that same time, they have sold players for £444.35m, for a net spend of £243.05m.
That is, of course, not nearly as much as the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City. For example, since Sheikh Mansour took over Man City in 2008, the club have a total net spend of more than £800m on players.
However, it’s clear Arsenal are catching up.
In fact, a vast majority of Wenger’s net spend has come since 2013. Starting with the capture of Mesut Ozil for £42.4m on deadline day of that summer’s transfer window, Arsenal spent £263.7m in that period while only taking in £47.3m on outgoing players. That’s a net spend of £216.4m since the 2013-14 season — with the total figure from 1996-97 to that point just £26.6m.
A big reason for that massive increase, of course, is that Arsenal are no longer weighed down by the heavy debt they incurred when moving into the Emirates Stadium in 2006, when Wenger was repeatedly forced to sell top players like Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri while scouring the market for cheap young talents.
And, like all other Premier League clubs, Arsenal have become much richer thanks to a new multi-billion pound TV deal.
In the period between 2006-07 and 2012-13, Arsenal actually made a £40m profit on transfers — more than any other club in the league. In those same years, Man United had a net spend of £88m, Liverpool spent £124m, Chelsea splurged £233m and Man City flexed their newfound financial muscles with a net spend of £427m.
So the playing field has definitely levelled. But is Wenger now spending as much money as his rivals? Not quite.
Arsenal have surpassed Chelsea when it comes to net spend since 2013, but that’s mainly because the Blues have sold players for a total of nearly £300m.
Roman Abramovich’s club have still made purchases for a total of £422.75m in that period on the likes of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and David Luiz — beating Arsenal by nearly £160m.
And even after his most extravagant years, Wenger has still trailed well behind the two Manchester clubs when it comes to net spend.
For Manchester United, their transfer record since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 reads:
Net spend: £377.1m
And even though Manchester City were temporarily hamstrung by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, they still top the table for that period:
Net spend: £408.8m
In other words, the numbers can be used to back up most arguments about Wenger. The Frenchman certainly has a long history of prudent spending, but it’s equally clear he is willing to splash big money these days when the opportunity arises.
But for those fans wanting Arsenal to compete on equal footing with Man City and Man United in the transfer market, there is still a long way to go.