OT: Arsenal’s Backup Brigade

London club Arsenal is changing the way that clubs around the world sign players and build a team. Photo courtesy of Mike Hewitt.

CALEB DENORME | SPORTS REPORTER | cdenorme@gmail.com

Overtime, or “OT,” is an opinion column series where the Collegian takes national sports headlines and gives them a Butler-centric angle.

In modern-day soccer, talented players are getting more and more expensive each day. Argentine Enzo Fernandez recently sealed his move to Chelsea from Portuguese club Benfica for a whopping $131 million. Neymar, once at Barcelona, set the transfer record with a move to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 worth $264 million. This has become the norm in the soccer world, buying top-shelf players for extreme prices and hoping they change the state of the club single-handedly. 

This is not the case for Premier League club Arsenal, who currently leads the Premier League and continues to look better every week. Over the past few years, Arsenal has been amassing a team that has been under the radar until now by choosing to sign quality players who were backups on other teams.

For example, the Gunners went out this past summer and signed 25-year-old Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus for a mere $54 million. Another signing was attacking midfielder Martin Ødegaard from Real Madrid for around $42 million. Ukrainian defender Oleksandr Zinchenko was also a backup signed from Manchester City for around $42 million as well. 

Do not misunderstand it, these are top players playing at giant clubs, but they were down on the pecking order and did not get the chance to start consistently. Since coming to Arsenal, they have been able to start regularly, and they are showing out on the pitch.

In the 14 games he played before sustaining a knee injury, Jesus had five goals and six assists. Ødegaard on the other hand played in 18 matches so far and has contributed eight goals and six assists from his midfield position. On the defensive side, Zinchenko played in 12 games, and six of them were shutouts. Above all, Arsenal sits atop the Premier League halfway through the season.

Now what is the significance of Arsenal’s performance and why is their rise so impressive? The answer to that question is that they are creating a change in the philosophy of soccer. Clubs go out and spend hundreds of millions of dollars backed by wealthy owners and hope that their talent meshes on the pitch. Chelsea, another club located in London, has spent around $700 million on players since American Todd Boehly took over as owner in late May of last year. They currently sit 10th in the Premier League table.

Senior pharmacy student Afam Nzekwe said that the high spending way that soccer is today is a dangerous game.

“It’s a slippery slope as to where the investment comes from,” Nzekwe said. “It’s all about what’s right for your team, and what’s ethically right because ethics at the end of the day are how the world should run. My opinion is as long as the owners of your club are trying to make you the most successful team in the world, what more can you ask for?”

Arsenal has changed the way that teams think about building a squad, and it all begins with their manager Mikel Arteta. Arteta is somewhat of a backup himself, working as Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola’s assistant manager until he was hired by Arsenal in December 2019. Since his hiring, Arsenal has not spent more than $70 million on a single player. Arteta focused on building an all-around strong team, rather than splashing the cash on a superstar.

Sophomore marketing major Johnathan Laczynski buys into Arteta’s philosophy and states that a team is needed to win, not individual players.

“If you can’t find that star player, then definitely you need a full unit,” Laczynski said. “If you have all the parts of the field locked down, it’s a piece of cake. Their chemistry and everything is working perfectly for them right now.”

The Gunners have had considerable help from players who have come from their youth academies such as England international Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith Rowe. They also have had an ascension by winger Gabriel Martinelli, who was signed for a mere $8.5 million dollars in 2019. These past investments are paying dividends now, which is another reason why Arsenal doesn’t have to spend big in the transfer window.

The fact still remains that Arsenal is led by former backups. Ødegaard has become a captain for the squad, and the team’s play shows that they follow the example of their captain. They play a beautiful brand of quick passing offensive soccer, but when the ball is turned over, they don’t shy away from putting in the dirty work.

This mentality is ingrained in every athlete who has been a backup in their life. First-year exploratory natural science major Tanner Hampton shared that backups always have the will to work hard. Hampton was a backup linebacker his freshman year of high school before starting the next three years.

“I want to show everybody that I should be playing,” Hampton said. “You just keep improving yourself and getting better because you want to play…so you’re going to play as hard as you can.”

Playing as hard as you can landed Ødegaard, Jesus and Zinchenko a fresh start and a chance to prove that they belonged in professional soccer. So far, they are taking advantage of that chance this season to the tune of 16 wins, two draws and two losses to Manchester United and Everton. 

Laczynski noted that Arsenal’s recent signings are showing out and continuing to prove they belong among the elite.

“I think they’re definitely playing with a chip on their shoulders and trying to prove their worth,” Laczynski said. “When they’re in a team like Manchester City where they’re not able to perform like they want to, they are restricted. They get [signed] to a team [like Arsenal] and they can go out and do what they know they can do.”

With still half of the season to go, Arsenal has a five-point lead over Manchester City who sits in second place. The title race is far from over, but the Gunners’ well-rounded squad has their eyes on the Premier League title, and the former backups are continuing to silence doubters with their play.



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