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When money talks...

Rory Smith, New York Times News Service, Feb 4 2018, 0:45 IST
BIG-MONEY DEALS: Olivier Giroud (left) moved from Arsenal to Chelsea while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang switched allegiance to Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund.

BIG-MONEY DEALS: Olivier Giroud (left) moved from Arsenal to Chelsea while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang switched allegiance to Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund.

Last Tuesday, Arsenal suffered another one of those indignities that tend to pockmark their seasons. This time, the humiliation came in the driving rain of South Wales and at the hands of Swansea City: facing a team at the bottom of the Premier League table, Arsenal dominated the game, monopolised possession and then went and lost anyway, 3-1.

For Arsenal's fans, these defeats have become wearily familiar in the last decade or so, as Arsène Wenger's two-decade reign at the club has drifted into a sort of managed decline. They have turned Arsenal into a place hard-wired to treat every disappointment as an existential crisis.

The reaction, now, is so habitual that it is almost comforting, one of the few fixed points in soccer's ever-changing landscape. There are the calls for Wenger to abandon - or be relieved of - his post with immediate effect. There are the videos, drawn from Arsenal's compelling YouTube fan channels, of despair and rage, going viral. There are the fuming calls to phone-in programmes, the cascade of former players bemoaning a great institution on its knees.

Tuesday should have been a classic of the genre. Losing at Swansea in any circumstance, for a club of Arsenal's ambition, would be a setback. Given that Arsenal have now won only three of their last 11 Premier League games, and that they sit eight points behind Chelsea for the fourth, and final, Champions League spot for next season - the bare minimum requirement for a passable campaign, by Wenger's own estimation - this defeat qualified as indicative of a deep-rooted problem.

And yet, by Wednesday morning, none of it had materialised. There were no grumblings of mutiny, no furious videos racking up the retweets, no flood of thinkpieces about where it has all gone wrong, no rending of garments or gnashing of teeth.

Instead, the mood around Arsenal was jubilant, even optimistic. Piers Morgan, the one-time conqueror of Gene Simmons and Stephen Baldwin in "The Celebrity Apprentice," has long since appointed himself as spokesman for the most disgruntled faction of Arsenal's fan base. Last week, he presented Donald Trump with an Arsenal jersey at the end of his television interview with the US president in Davos, Switzerland, and implored him to replace Wenger. (To be clear: Morgan is not involved in Arsenal's staffing decisions.) On Wednesday, though, even he seemed uncharacteristically buoyant.

The reason for Arsenal's good cheer, of course, was that at 11 am on Wednesday, the club had confirmed the $78 million signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund.

Aubameyang, a 28-year-old striker, has never kicked a ball for Arsenal. His arrival does not change the gap with Chelsea. A rational analysis might suggest there are other areas of Arsenal's team in more immediate need of reinforcement. And he left his previous club under something of a cloud after a number of disciplinary transgressions. None of that mattered, however. Nor did the dispiriting defeat on Tuesday night, or the distance between Arsenal and its supposed rivals for a place in the Premier League's top four.

There can scarcely have been a starker example of the restorative effect of a transfer, the palliative power of cold, hard cash, than seeing one hyper-stylised introductory video - Aubameyang shot in silhouette, a little strobe lighting, a bespoke hashtag - uniting Arsenal's perpetually warring fan base immediately after an embarrassing defeat.

It is neither a profound nor an original observation to suggest that there has been, in the last 10 years or so, a seismic shift in significance away from what happens in full view on the field toward what happens in the smoke and mirrors of the transfer market. By any measure, soccer's biannual transfer deadline days - currently at the end of August and January - are among its most celebrated occasions (certainly in England; elsewhere, the frenzy is not quite so pronounced). If the attraction is not quite at the level of the Champions League final, it is then at least the equal of the FA Cup.

News outlets and cable channels excitedly keep a running total of exactly how much has been spent; the rule of thumb is that the bigger the number, the better, a league's virility measured by the number of its zeros. Huge acres of airtime and newsprint are given over to rumours and whispers and breathless updates.

It all functions as social conditioning: Fans have been taught that it is important for a team to sign players, that price is a guarantee of quality, and that not doing so invites failure.

None of that was unique to this January; what made it noteworthy was that a full slate of Premier League games had been scheduled for Tuesday, the day before the market closed, and Wednesday. The matches finished an hour or so before all deals had to be completed.

The result was a rare chance to establish whether soccer - the actual sport - still takes precedence over the soap opera that surrounds it, whether the plot of the film is more important than whose name is on the bill.

The answer is, frankly, unclear. Tottenham's game against Manchester United was largely framed as a chance to see Alexis Sánchez, recently signed from Arsenal, make his Premier League debut for the visitor; Manchester City's routine win against West Bromwich Albion was notable only for the debuts handed to City's record signing, Aymeric Laporte, and West Brom's new striker, Daniel Sturridge.

At various clubs, considerable amounts of energy during the day had gone into filming the increasingly elaborate introductory videos that are the hallmark of a new signing.

Several were paraded on the field before games or at halftime, wheeled out as the spoils of conquest: Lucas Moura at Tottenham, Olivier Giroud at Chelsea, Badou Ndiaye at Stoke City.

Increasingly, the season is read as a way of establishing which players each team needs to buy. Increasingly, it is not the soccer itself that is of interest; increasingly, what matters is not who wins on the field, but who is perceived to win off it. Arsenal are still eight points out of fourth place, behind all of their main rivals and locked in turgid form. Who minds about losing soccer games, though, when you can win without even playing?

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