Investigating Arsene Wenger’s claim that over three signings is too many
Arsene Wenger says any manager signing more than three new players in one transfer window risks destabilising his team – but does history back up the former Arsenal manager?
Even ahead of his final season in charge at Emirates Stadium, with the club looking to get back into the Champions League, Wenger told fans to expect “a maximum of three” new signings ahead of the season.
He ended up making only two – Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolašinac – and the fact Arsenal fared even worse that campaign, finishing sixth, could certainly be offered as evidence that Wenger’s philosophy was flawed.
His reasoning for not making too many changes, however, is understandable.
Speaking in December 2015, he said: “Firstly [the demand for new signings] is most of the time to calm anxiety for the fans. It is reassuring to have a big name come in and, secondly, the media put you under pressure to get a new name.
“But let’s not forget that football is as well about cohesion, about stability. That goes a little bit against the demand of what people want, but I still think success is linked with talent and cohesion.
“You need competition, and competition exists if the numbers are not too short or not too big. When the number is too big, there is no competition anymore and it goes against the interests of the team.
“If a player is No.26 in the squad, he needs three players to die before he has a real chance to play. That has an impact when he comes in every morning. He is down and he takes something away from the team.
“When the number is too short, he thinks: ‘No matter how I am, I play.’ And that is not good either.”
Wenger certainly has a point about supporters, who often call for six or seven new signings over the course of one summer and are left disappointed by their clubs, who rarely make so many changes.
Two of the reasons for that are undoubtedly down to finances and the pure logistics of trying to buy and sell so many players in one window, but Wenger is certainly not alone in his belief that you can make too many signings.
Sir Alex Ferguson operated a similar policy while in charge of Manchester United, rarely making too many alterations to his squad in any one transfer window, and though some believe that approach has cost the club since his retirement, the Red Devils were the last team to retain the Premier League title back in 2008-09.
Going into that season Ferguson signed only one player – Dimitar Berbatov.
Even going into his last season in charge, with Manchester City having won two of the previous three titles, Ferguson bought only Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, Alex Buttner and Nick Powell. United won the league by 11 points.
Speaking towards the end of that season, shortly before announcing his retirement, Ferguson said United need only “tweak” their squad that summer.
“We don’t want to confuse ourselves, otherwise you end up with too many players and trying to keep them all happy,” he said.
While the current United boss, Jose Mourinho, is regarded as having a vastly different transfer policy, he shares Ferguson’s view when it comes to the difficulties of dealing with an inflated squad and has yet to sign more than four players in any one window while at United.
“We prefer to bring two, three or four players,” he said in 2017, “but good players, players that feel an idea, a football that we try to play, that can improve our squad.
“We are not interested in selling six or seven and buying six or seven, (of which) only one or two are great quality or the others are the same as the ones we are selling.”
Four new summer signings, as it turns out, is exactly the average made by the last 10 teams to have won the Premier League title, discounting four back-up goalkeepers and Robert Huth, whose loan deal Leicester City made permanent in 2015.
Summer signings made by last 10 PL title winners
Man City 2017-18 – Seven (including two who were immediately loaned out)
Chelsea 2016-17 – Five (including third-choice keeper Eduardo)
Leicester 2015-16 – Seven (including Robert Huth, who’d been on loan since Jan)
Chelsea 2014-15 – Five (including the returning Didier Drogba)
Man City 2013-14 – Five
Man Utd 2012-13 – Four (including Nick Powell)
Man City 2011-12 – Six (including back-up keeper Costel Pantilimon)
Man Utd 2010-11 – Three (including Bebe)
Chelsea 2009-10 – Four (including back-up keeper Ross Turnbull)
Man Utd 2008-09 – One
It is, of course, much easier for the clubs in the upper echelons to adopt a quality over quantity approach, and fans of clubs lower down the food chain may argue there is sometimes a genuine need for mass overhaul.
However, there have been plenty of examples of clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League suffering as a result of doing too much in one transfer window.
In 2016, for example, Middlesbrough were widely tipped as the likely best performers of the three newly-promoted clubs having made 11 new signings (including two goalkeepers) while Burnley were accused of accepting relegation having signed only six new players, including a back-up goalkeeper.
Lots of signings may excite the fans, but it’s certainly not a guarantee of success.
There is no better example in that regard than Sunderland, who signed 13 new players across two windows on their way to relegation in 2017, having signed 14 the season before, 10 the season before that, and an incredible 19 the season before that.
They have suffered from a multitude of other problems, of course – and some may argue it was the quality rather than the quantity of signings that has been a bigger issue – but the consistent failures of their squad overhauls in recent years should at least act as a reminder and warning to supporters urging their clubs to get busy in the market.
Summer signings made by last 10 teams to finish bottom in PL
West Brom 2017-18 – Seven
Sunderland 2016-17 – Ten (including back-up keeper)
Aston Villa 2015-16 – Twelve (including back-up keeper)
QPR 2014-15 – Ten (including back-up keeper)
Cardiff City 2013-14 – Seven (including back-up keeper)
QPR 2012-13 – Eleven (including two keepers)
Wolves 2011-12 – Three (including back-up keeper)
West Ham 2010-11 – Eight (including back-up keeper)
Portsmouth 2009-10 – Thirteen (including back-up keeper)
West Brom 2008-09 – Nine
Looking through the list of teams to have finished bottom of the Premier League in the last 10 years, there are numerous examples of clubs who were accused in retrospect of throwing the baby out with the bath water, but clubs continue make the same mistakes, urged on by supporters.
We spoke to former Ipswich Town manager George Burley, who admits he made a mistake signing too many players in the summer of 2001 before the club were relegated.
After three consecutive years of defeats in the Championship play-offs, Burley led a largely unchanged squad to promotion to the Premier League and then, incredibly, fifth place and the UEFA Cup in their first season in the top flight.
They signed 11 players in the summer that followed and were promptly relegated.
Burley says: “You look at it as a manager and you think ‘we’re going to need a lot more heads, we’ll need to bring some players in there’.
“That building process from the previous five or six years gets a wee bit knocked because you’re bringing a lot of players in to try to improve what you’ve got and give yourself a bigger squad.
“That was probably the mistake I made: building the squad up over the previous five or six years, and then dismantling it a little bit.”
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Matt Holland, captain of that Ipswich team, told us “there was a bit of resentment in the dressing room” as players that had been key to the club’s success were replaced by new signings on big money – and he was witness to the same mistakes being made at Charlton a few years later.
The Addicks had punched above their weight under Alan Curbishley, finishing seventh in 2003-04, but when Curbishley departed at the end of the 2005-06 season they panicked. In total, 15 players were signed – by three different managers.
“Again I think there were probably too many changes in terms of personnel,” Holland says. “There were a lot of new signings that summer so to try to integrate all of those into the team at the same time was difficult.”
Wenger may be wrong that three is the magic number when it comes to first-team signings in any one transfer window. That, it appears, would seem to be four.
But as fans continue to berate their clubs for a lack of transfers, midway through July, they would do well to remember the cases of Sunderland, Ipswich, QPR and many more. More signings certainly does not mean more success.
By Mark Holmes