Small disclaimer: nothing that is said in this article is in any way intended to negatively frame, blame or ‘come after’ any individual or group — it is an analysis of a faceless mechanism using examples from real life.
The transfer window can be one of the most exciting times in the football calendar.
Stories fly around, fans debate their clubs’ business and huge deals go from small rumours on the fringes of the internet to reality. Some of the most hilarious & memorable moments of my Arsenal supporting life have been in relation to the transfer window — anyone who remembers this will know the sort of things I’m talking about.
But the transfer window is a business; not just the deals themselves and the astronomical amounts of money involved, but the coverage and discussion around them too. And with business comes profit and loss.
Arsenal have a huge global fanbase, with supporters’ clubs in North America, all across Africa, Asia and beyond. In 2013, the BBC produced a report estimating the global Arsenal fan base at around 113 million people, the third highest in England, and in the last decade or so with the popularity of the Premier League increasing abroad, that number is likely to have gone up. Even now with Arsenal’s less salubrious footballing fortunes, they are still in the Top 10 for the most “followed” football clubs in the world on social media. Arsenal’s fan base is big, but the most important part is that it’s highly engaged. Ask Arsenal Twitter to vote for something, and they will do so in their droves. It’s no secret, and editors, bloggers, writers, etc. know this, and tailor their copy and imagery to exploit it.
To drive profit, the pyramid of content creation including podcasts, blogs, newspapers and more from Sky & BT right down to online fan media are all optimised to drive engagement. Clicks, taps & swipes online to drive ad impressions follow the same principles of the heyday of physical print. Studies tell us we are most engaged when we are angry, so headlines are often tailored to be the most salacious or emotional angle on the story possible.
When we’re engaged, we’re worth more to those producing that content.
Take this one about Lacazette’s departure from Arsenal as an example. Lacazette’s contract is expiring anyway, but this headline frames the story so we feel as though he is so desperate to leave Arsenal that he is willing to take a significant pay cut, the implication being that Arsenal is a bad place to be. Fans resent that sentiment, and will either share this article in disgust or click the link to see further – either way, the publication writing it wins.
However, I don’t think one should cast aspersions. Without that ad income, without people buying newspapers, signing up to mailing lists, clicking on links, the whole financial model crumbles — so in a saturated space, you have to do everything possible to stand out and drive engagement. In the end, people take from it what they will. Even the title of this article, with its tongue firmly in cheek, is optimised to get you to click on it. If I titled this “Arsenal and the Media”, it wouldn’t drive half as much engagement, and unfortunately if you want your articles read it’s part of the game now. On the end of every pen and behind every keyboard is just another person trying to put food on the table for themselves and their family. We are all victims of this mechanism — no one individual drives it.
So casting aside any lingering moral judgements, the part that interests me most is how this phenomenon divides fanbases and drives narrative, even when based on total fabrication. Sometimes fans will chastise their club for not signing players they were never credibly linked with in the first place, and years down the line still hold resentment for ‘fumbling the bag’ on a certain deal that may not have even happened.
We have to remember how little we know about the actual inner workings of the clubs we love. Even though we have a lot of credible reporters and are able to cross examine or reference certain things, the internal relationships, the business operations and what the clubs plans may be are a gap in our knowledge where educated guesswork goes. And in that little space, we can get used for profit by those who pretend to know… both as a club and individuals.
A few mornings ago I logged on to Twitter, and I saw rumours that Arsenal were interested in Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong. I am a big fan of the player, so of course, I was happy to hear our name linked with such quality, and I decided to do some digging to see how credible the link was.
The report seemed to stem from an article in The Daily Mirror, on their website. I scanned their tweets from that day — nothing about de Jong and Arsenal. So I decided to do an advanced search, from the account @MirrorFootball with the words ‘de Jong Arsenal’ from that specific day, to see if I was missing something. Nothing. So I tried just ‘de Jong Arsenal’, and I found an article about de Jong from 31st May titled “Frenkie de Jong’s Arsenal dream comes to light as Barcelona star breaks silence on Man Utd links”. Maybe there was something in there.
Spoiler alert: there wasn’t. Instead, it’s an article with a small nod to Arsenal at the beginning, simply stating that Arsenal may be able to get ahead in the race against Manchester United by referring to some old quotes from 2019 where de Jong talks about Arsenal in a good light, comparing his football journey to Marc Overmars and talking about how he used to like the club. A further search of ‘Frenkie de Jong’ on the Daily Mirror’s website revealed this as the only article where Arsenal are mentioned. Wider mention of Frenkie de Jong from other publications only leads back to the same article; Sport.es, Barca Universal and Football London all referenced the Mirror article mentioned, SportsKeeda somehow concluded Arsenal had ‘entered the race’ to sign him, and Sky Sports discussed it live on air.
But this completely fake story didn’t stop fans battering the club. Twitter is a bad barometer of fan sentiment, but it’s still a driver of a lot of narrative and extends out to a lot of online communities. Though some saw through it, most were either mocking it or using it as a stick to beat Arsenal with — though brilliantly, there was one guy who said he’d put him at Centre Forward. United fans piled in too, using the fake interest to indicate that further development towards United is a slight on Arsenal.
More to the point — even if it was true, a club being ‘interested’ in a player means next to nothing. Clubs look at thousands upon thousands of players a year, doing detailed video and in-person scouting and data analysis. Arsène Wenger used to talk about tracking players for years before he made a move.
If I’m ‘interested’ in dating Beyonce, does that make me any closer to doing so?
It’s common knowledge that agents often see if they can get a better deal for their player by planting stories in the media about another club’s interest. Even the United interest, which feels more concrete, could all be de Jong’s camp angling for a few more zeros on his new deal at Barcelona. But another phenomenon is when Arsenal are pitted against another club, often a club seen as a contemporary rival like Spurs or Man United to manufacture “races” for players even if there isn’t one, and then once it’s built up, regardless of truth, Arsenal are painted to have ‘missed out’ on that player. It’s done here regarding Adam Hlozek — using Arsenal’s name purely to drive engagement to English fans on an international move, even if there was only a passing interest in the player reported by any credible source. And sometimes, there’s not even a kernel of truth.
This next one is even worse.
The summer of 2020 will be remembered for a long, drawn out pursuit of Lyon’s Houssem Aouar and a reported stand off with Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas over the fee. Reports re-appeared last summer but were soon quashed, and again, this summer, his name is linked again.
It was a lot of digging this time. Through Twitter I eventually found a tweet from TeamTalk saying we were leading the race for Houssem Aouar, which linked to an RMC article. The RMC article linked out to a Foot Mercato article and that Foot Mercato article quite literally says “Remember when Arsenal liked Aouar” in a paragraph about Real Betis’ interest. I even checked with a French speaker.
I did some more digging. I thought there might be something about Aouar on L’equipe because of a thumbnail I saw on a Google search. I couldn’t find it and thought it may be behind their paywall, so I ended up paying their premium subscription for 10 Euros (you’re welcome) just to check.
This is a common theme. Roundabouts of links out to other sites with no real credibility. L’equipe send you to AS who send you out to The S*n, who send you to BILD who send you back to L’equipe. An international merry-go-round, a trip around Europe with none of the sun on your back, false promises and these days, no right to live or work.
And in a funny way, we’re back to where we started too.
What drives all of this is passion. A pure love for a club, an identity, a game. The idea that a player could come in and totally transform a team’s fortunes is a tale older than even the game itself. It’s a story seen in mythology. The hero or a great warrior who turns the tide of a war. The transfer window takes that story and microdoses it, holds it above fans’ and pipets it into our open mouths from publications who need it just as much as us.
I suppose what all of this is saying is really this: when I was old enough to know better I wrote an article for an online Arsenal publication. Could have been Daily Cannon, can’t remember exactly. I basically wanted the Higuaín deal to happen so bad that I just made up that he was at London Heathrow, and about to do a medical. The editor came back to me and said that it just wasn’t true and he couldn’t upload it. My reply?
“But I want it to be.”
Don’t get caught up in the madness.
Alexander Moneypenny, @AMonFootball