LONDON — The announcement that Arsenal had agreed a 12.5 percent pay cut with their playing staff initially appeared to be a victory for everyone involved. Here was an example of a group of highly-paid and much-storied footballers, routinely maligned for existing in a bubble of exorbitant wealth, recognising the reality of the world and making an economic sacrifice for the greater good during exceptional times.
In doing so, the Gunners became the first Premier League club to confirm a salary reduction as opposed to a deferral, setting an example to others by demonstrating both the severity of the financial damage this coronavirus pandemic will likely inflict and an admirable collective willingness to face that challenge. By saving a maximum of around £20 million over the next 12 months — their salaries are repaid in full if they qualify for the Champions League or 7.5 percent is returned in reaching the Europa League — the club’s non-playing staff were less likely to be furloughed.
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And yet, the negotiations also shone a light on the internal tensions in the Arsenal squad that pose one of the biggest sporting tests to head coach Mikel Arteta as he rebuilds this team.
Contract negotiations have long been an issue for the Gunners. It’s why the club sought to bring additional expertise on board, including former Team Sky lawyer Huss Fahmy and Raul Sanllehi from Barcelona. Yet despite the goal of injecting greater diligence and ruthlessness into their operations, the Gunners conducted their pay-cut conversations against a backdrop of uncertainty surrounding the futures of several influential players.
Upon taking the helm after chief executive Ivan Gazidis’ departure for AC Milan at the end of 2018, Arsenal head of football Sanllehi and managing director Vinai Venkatesham underlined how they wanted to establish fresh business practices following the end of Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign and a large-scale restructuring. “Internally, we are calling this period ‘The New Chapter,’ which I think says a lot,” Sanllehi claimed in November 2018. That sea change had multiple components, chief among them a need to improve the club’s methodology around contract negotiations, having lost an array of talent on unfavourable terms. In 2019, Aaron Ramsey joined a painfully long list at the end of last season after the club withdrew a longstanding offer to end what they privately vowed would be the last stalemate of its kind.
“You should try to always avoid going into the last year of a contract for many different reasons, from the club’s side and also for the player,” Sanllehi said. “We will try to get clarity earlier.”
Yet a cloudy picture persists and more than a year later, that search for clarity continues. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette are among a number of players facing uncertain futures, the metaphorical clock ticking and speculation growing over exactly the sort of cut-price departure Arsenal wanted to avoid. Aubameyang and Saka are out of contract in 2021, Lacazette in 2022.
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A partial explanation for the delay in tying players down can be found in the upheaval caused by Unai Emery’s departure in November. The Spaniard’s tenure unravelled to an alarming extent but the club were so reluctant to sack him that there was no immediate replacement lined up. The club opted to give club legend and assistant first-team coach Freddie Ljungberg a chance to prove himself. The Swede had an excellent relationship with Arsenal’s young players from his work as U-23 manager but failed to address the tactical issues that contributed to Emery’s departure. Having held an interest in Arteta when Wenger departed, the Gunners opted to appoint the Spaniard in mid-December.
But as the coronavirus spread across the globe, causing mass disruption to daily life and presenting unprecedented challenges, discussions inside the club turned to cashflow and Arsenal found themselves in the awkward position of having to simultaneously present competing arguments to certain players. The spirit of those conversations was awkward: We need you to take a pay cut to safeguard the club’s future, but also believe us when we say we’re in a position to compete for trophies in future… so why not sign a new long-term contract?
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The most obvious example of a player caught at the crossroads is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who will have one year remaining on his existing contract whenever the current season ends. The striker turns 31 in June and his next contract will probably be the last big deal of his top-flight career. He’s in a strong negotiating position, having shared the Premier League Golden Boot with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane last season before backing that up with 17 goals this term, second in the standings behind Leicester’s Jamie Vardy.
Aubameyang’s haul is especially impressive given the team’s broader struggles under Emery. The Gunners’ all-time record goalscorer, Thierry Henry, echoed the sentiments of many supporters when reflecting in December: “Without the goals of Aubameyang I don’t know where we would have been right now.”
No other Arsenal player is in double figures, with Lacazette next best on seven league goals and Nicolas Pepe with four. To underline Aubameyang’s talismanic effect on the squad, Aubameyang was given the captain’s armband when Granit Xhaka was demoted…
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