In most walks of life, if you can buy something for less than it's worth, it's considered a positive. If you see a painting in a second-hand shop, hand over $10 for it and it looks good in your hallway, you've done well; if it turns out to be by a noted artist and you can sell it at a profit, even better. If you find a grocery shop that sells vegetables a little bit cheaper than at the supermarket down the road, you shop there. Cheap is good. But soccer, especially in the transfer window, is a game of bluff and counter-bluff, when image is at least as important as the reality, and value seems something that is only considered long after the fact.
The transfer window has become like some bizarre reality show. Transfer deadline day, with its ticking clock, rumors of players and agents being spotted in unlikely locations, rushed medicals and last-gasp deals is a strangely compelling live-action soap opera, the action crammed into a single day. At first there seemed a level of irony to it, this artificial adjunct to the actual business of playing the game but now transfer deadline day has become a highlight in itself. You hear fans -- not all of them, but a bewildering number -- speaking of disappointment if their club is not involved in the frenzy.
But here's the thing, the really obvious thing: if you plan your transfer policy properly, you're not left scrabbling about on deadline day. You've already bought the players you want, allowing them the maximum possible time to settle in. Look at, say, Tottenham, which habitually waits until the last minute, as its chairman Daniel Levy squeezes every last penny out of deals. It's admirable in some ways but it also means Tottenham habitually starts the season poorly: last season it took just two points from its first three games; the year before it lost 3-0 to Manchester United and 5-1 to Manchester City in its first two matches; and the year before that its first four games yielded only five points.
But it's not just deadline day when the desire to be involved asserts itself. Some fans, certainly of the big clubs, also seem to demand a big transfer, a large fee, as though to persuade themselves that theirs is a big club. When Manchester United signed Shinji Kagawa for £18 million last season, there was significant grumbling, less about the player signed or about whether he was worth that figure (to which the answer would probably be: yes, in terms of potential; no, in terms of what he actually delivered last season) than about the fact he wasn't a £30m+ megastar.
Now, of course, there are times when a club needs to spend big to assert itself. Paris St-Germain and Monaco have made astonishing, record-breaking signings deliberately to make a noise, to raise the world's awareness that they exist and that they are serious players, just as a nouveau riche businessman may buy a flashy sports car to announce that he has arrived. Signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Radamel Falcao were statements of intent that were to an extent reinforced by the high fees.
That has always been the case but what is strange now is when a club like Arsenal, for so long a model of prudence, is suddenly desperate not just to spend but to spend big -- as though the frustrations of fans playing the highest prices in the Premier League but without a trophy in eight years have finally reached a critical point. Something, the logic, seems to run, must be done, and that something, now that Arsene Wenger has accepted economic reality and abandoned his policy of developing youth and hoping commitment to the cause will keep them at the Emirates, is buying big.
Even players seem to have been caught by the bug. "The club have said they are going to be very ambitious in the market and have got the financial resources to get big players," said Mikel Arteta last week. "I think it's about time. When you compare us to the other top English clubs and the money they have paid, we are very far apart. The value of this club is the class and what it means is very difficult to match. Now, financially, they are very strong so maybe we will be more aggressive in the transfer market. There has never been a tradition at Arsenal to pay crazy, crazy money. I am excited. They made it public that they are going to go big and the sort of players they have been linked with makes me happy. It creates a good atmosphere and we need to do something because the other teams are doing it, and I think we will."
But making public your intention to "go big" simply inflates fees and expectations. Arsenal have registered interest in Wayne Rooney, made a bid for Luis Suarez and seemed to have reached agreement for Gonzalo Higuain. Rooney's future remains unclear, it's far from certain Suarez would want to join another English club and Real Madrid seem to be playing Arsenal off against Napoli for Higuain. So far Arsenal has signed only Yaya Sanogo, a France youth international of the type it has been signing for years.
Arsenal's squad is decent. After a summer of flux at United, City and Chelsea, it probably only needs two or three signings to be able to mount a realistic challenge for the title. But the problem is that by announcing its intentions so boldly, it now desperately needs signings if the season is not to begin amid an atmosphere of despondency and mounting fan anger. It has talked itself into a position where it needs to spend a lot of money on somebody, almost irrespective of who that player is. And that makes it vulnerable to selling clubs.