"We live in a strange society. If I sign a player for £400,000, before he plays people will say, ‘What is that, that is not serious for Arsenal’. If you say we signed a player for £40million they will think he is really good."
This was Arsene Wenger in February, claiming that he passed up the opportunity to buy Riyad Mahrez before the Algerian winger joined Leicester because his modest price tag would have caused Arsenal fans to turn their noses up. On first reading it seems bizarre that the manager of a club lauded for its business model would admit to rejecting good players because they’re too cheap, yet it might perhaps provide us with an insight into what Arsenal- and perhaps big clubs in general- seek to achieve with transfers. We came to accept the idea of football clubs as brands some time ago. What each brand actually seeks to achieve is perhaps more complex than we might assume.
When former Saints manager Ronald Koeman talked about 'ambition' he presumably meant the aspiration to win trophies, but it often seems as though clubs like Arsenal might aspire to something different. Indeed, Arsenal's majority shareholder Stan Kroenke has strongly implied that winning things is not the priority for him.
"If you want to win championships then you would never get involved," Kroenke told the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. "I think the best owners in sports are the guys that sort of watch both sides a bit. If you don't have a good business then you can't really afford to go out and get the best players unless you just want to rely on other sources of income." If a club is worried about whether they can afford the best players, why on earth would it disdain paying £400,000 for a pearl like Mahrez before trying to buy him a couple of years later for 100 times as much? And why do you even need to get the best players if you're not desperate to win trophies? The answer may lie with the club's fans. CEO Ivan Gazidis said in 2012 that the strategy "is based around developing Arsenal’s name and brand around the world… There’s a strong digital strategy, we have 60 million visitors to our website every year, 12 million followers on Facebook, 2 million followers on Twitter, 1 million on Weibo in China alone." When asked how Arsenal are different from Manchester United (a pertinent question- both are traditional giants, both play in red and both are currently struggling to win league titles) Gazidis replied "I think the club is consistent in upholding its values of responsible management and also, although people talk of our deficiencies in terms of performance, it is remarkably consistent in performing on the pitch". Being synonymous with responsible management and consistency doesn't sound like a particularly exciting identity for a club, and it is highly unlikely that any 12 million Facebook followers that Gazidis is so proud of chose to follow Arsenal because they strongly approved of its robust business strategy.
The statistics Gazidis wheeled out were interesting though. Despite being far from dominant on the pitch, Arsenal have continued to accrue new fans. Yet for all the bluster about "building the Arsenal brand" by "building belonging amongst fans" (largely, it seems by flogging stuff to them), it seems Wenger has a different view of what the club's supporters want. He has good cause to; the club's fans have been very vocal about their feeling that the club is too conservative in the transfer market. That the notoriously frugal as Wenger- who according to baseball visionary Billy Beane "runs his club like he's going to own the club for a hundred years" accepts the need to spend huge sums in order to placate fans is revealing.
There are subtle hints that Arsenal's media department might share Wenger's view. Their head of marketing has talked about the club's desire to "monetise social media", and a huge number of the tweets and Facebook posts about Arsenal refer to potential transfers. The club's social media department even publish gossip about it.
What could be the motivation for this? Well, if Arsenal aren't going to chase glory through trophies, they need the prestige lent by having globally recognisable names on their team sheet. There is research to support this. In Football in Neo-Liberal Times, David and Peter Kennedy describe football clubs as "quasi-capitalist", as clubs' relationships with fans "drive costs consistently above generated revenue" because they "expect their club to be always active in the player transfer market, financially committing to the best available talent". This is why the book Soccernomics, referenced in an earlier piece, refers to football as "the worst business in the world", or indeed "not a business at all". By no means is it only Arsenal that do this- even England's biggest club are it. As Soccernomics co-author Stefan Szymanski has pointed out: "Manchester United resembles brands like Coca-Cola, Marlboro cigarettes or Nescafé. Although they compete in markets crowded with superficially similar products, consumers have a strong tendency to rely on their established brand image in preference to their rivals. The owners of a strong brand have a big incentive to try to maintain that image, whereas owners of a small brand don’t have the same imperative." The biggest clubs- or brands- don't feel they can raise their profile by buying good players who the other big brands either don't want or don't know about.
This brings us to Saints- the "small brand"- whose strategy in the transfer market is to do exactly that. Nonetheless, Southampton managed to grow their brand by 89% between 2014 and 2015, and were at that point the fastest growing brand in world football. According to Brand Finance, "the club's knack for identifying talented young players at a reasonable cost and developing them into stars has enabled it to climb the Premier League".
Yet rather than stars, Saints' promotional videos focus either on fans, with players reduced to near anonymity, or on high-profile alumni, with the likes of Gareth Bale reminiscing fondly about his time at the club. "We don't just buy success," they boast, "We don't take shortcuts. We earn it." The implication is that the vulgar practice of buying established stars isn't simply something Saints can't afford, it's beneath them. The club is telling fans that they should not expect established names to be recruited, presumably in the hope that, unburdened by the expectation to buy famous players, they can get on with building a team in the most cost effective way possible.
In an NBC documentary that felt more like an infomercial, chairman Ralph Krueger compared Saints with the Green Bay Packers, but a metaphor for this could be found in the music business. Southampton aren't looking to be Universal Island; they're more like Sub Pop, a record label most famous for signing Nirvana. When Nirvana moved on to a bigger label, royalties from sales of their Nevermind that kept the label going for years afterwards. Saints have had countless Nirvanas. Yet any visit to the #SaintsFC Twitter feed during a transfer window will reveal countless frustrated fans bemoaning the club's lack of ambition and urging them to buy well known or hyped players. Why are we so anxious about our club's status? The short answer is, other people. For a longer answer though, we need to look beyond the football media that fuels the desire for glitzy signings and take a more sociological approach. Why are people generally anxious? According to the writer Alain de Botten, "We're anxious because we live in a world of snobs," De Botten is a strangely apposite point of reference here as, like Southampton Football Club, he is based in England but has roots in Switzerland. He calls the fear of judgement and humiliation by these snobs "status anxiety". In football, the snobs are the media and the fans of other clubs. We're constantly fretting about how our club is perceived by them. We want to be taken seriously.
Why though? Well, because if our club isn't taken seriously, we feel we're spending our time and money obsessing over something insignificant. We fear we'll be sneered at in the same way as people who play World of Warcraft or belong to battle reenactment groups. Wearing your team's replica shirt is cultural signposting- we don't want our shirt to be a signpost to a niche irrelevance. If our club is treated as if it might as well not exist, we- the people who love it, and who endured sleepless nights during the dire period between 2005 and 2009- feel as if we might as well not exist.
I may be projecting my own personal beliefs here, but there's no shortage of research to support them. Psychologists point to "a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project", and conclude that is self-defeating. This is, of course, irrational, and doubly so in the context of football. Ultimately, we can't control what others think of us any more than we can control what happens to our team on the pitch. That football fans feel that results- much less the buying or selling of players- are to be gloated about is one of the most enduringly preposterous aspects of the game, given that they have no tangible influence on them.
Saints have moved up the ladder of English football in six consecutive seasons. The fact that we still sell players to Liverpool shouldn't bother us when we have just finished above them. In the absence of a domestic league title, Liverpool have to make ostentatious signings to show they're worthy of being the football fashion accessory of choice for generations of Malaysians and Norwegians. Saints are merely exploiting Liverpool's need to exert the superiority of their brand. Yet according to last season's league table, despite having already sold four players to Liverpool in two seasons, it was Saints who had the superior team.
It could be argued that even this attitude is unhealthy, as it means we are assessing your own worth through a comparison with others, but in sport this is inevitable. In any case, Saints are still constantly chided- sometimes by their own fans as well as those of other teams. The commonly used pejorative is "selling club". It could be argued that almost every club in the world is a selling club; Liverpool sold Luis Suarez, United sold Christiano Ronaldo, and Arsenal sold Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri. That is a list of departures to rival Southampton's. Yet the stigma remains, because although the aforementioned teams sell, when they want to buy, it is often to Saints that they look, even though most of the players Southampton have sold in recent years have so far failed to lived up to their employers' expectations.
In recent years United have bought Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin from us. Shaw- a lump of nascent testosterone who played as though he had stolen Hermes' winged sandals- struggled at United amid concerns about his weight before suffering a sickening injury. Schneiderlin, transferred a year later, fared worse still. For Saints he seemed to dominate almost every game- Patrick Vieira reincarnated. At United he has looked bereft and undirected. Wealthier clubs keep paying Saints huge amounts of money for players that don't seem to improve their fortunes, while Saints spend the proceeds on cheap replacements or upgrades in other positions, or on new contracts for the good players who are willing to stay.
Already this summer various Premier League clubs have sought to demonstrate their ambition by buying big names or players who performed well in the recent European Championships. Saints have bought a couple of young, relatively cheap, relatively low profile players, presumably just because they're good.
Ask fans what the point of a football club should be and many will say "To win things", but only a tiny fraction of clubs can. Ask Stan Kroenke and you'll get a spiel about a brand. A better person to ask might be Olympique Lyonnais owner Jean-Michel Aulas. "We won't try to have the best team on paper in terms of brand," Aulas once said. "We will have the best team relative to our investment." Lyon were pretty successful in growing their brand during their years of dominating French football, but there we have the owner explaining that the team should be exempt from concerns over branding. Part of Lyon's success was that they had little history to speak of, were based in a relatively affluent area that wasn't football hotbed, and their supporters didn't expect big names. Southampton certainly isn't Lyon, but with few local competitors and wealthy Winchester just up the M3, it seems perfectly possible that the location and character of the city was a consideration for Markus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese when they were looking for a club for the Swiss businessman to buy. They might reasonably have hoped that the club's fans would be reasonably docile, and for the most part, we are.
This isn't to say that we shouldn't complain about our club. As we've seen, fans are unusually powerful as consumer groups go and should, when appropriate, use that power to hold decision makers to account. Let us not judge our own board by the standards of other clubs though. Spending vast sums on big name players should not be an end in itself.
As well as not confusing notions of what a football club should be, or indeed strive to be (ideally a community asset that does as well as it can without going bust), fans need to stop worrying about what other people think. As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, "Whoever attaches a lot of value to the opinions of others pays them too much honour." We need to ask ourselves; would we rather continue to be Sub Pop or, just be one of the Premier League's many Hyacinth Buckets?