Arsene Wenger was a master of knowing when to let a player leave.
Whether it was a keen instinct for a player’s potential or a shrewd sense of value, the Frenchman often made good returns on players most of us would happily have held on to.
Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Thierry Henry, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Patrick Vieira, Matthieu Flamini, and Robin Van Persie are just a handful of big names most of us would have been unhappy to see leave when they did and yet, on reflection, we rarely missed them once they had departed.
There is a fine line to be trodden between selling too soon and selling too late and it was something Arsene seemed to just get right. In the latter years of his tenure and since then, we have struggled badly to recoup funds for players we have played a lot of money for and, in this COVID-ravaged football landscape, that difficulty has become increasingly acute.
This all to say, then, that when a good offer comes in, we have to take it. I’m talking about Newcastle United’s reported bid of more than £20million for Joe Willock. By any measure, it is a good offer and one, in reality, we are going to have to accept gratefully.
The truth is this: we couldn’t muster a bid of more than £12million for a 28-year-old, trophy-winning international captain, a man who has been our club captain and the linchpin of our side under a succession of managers.
If someone wants to come in a pay double that amount for a 21-year-old academy graduate who has limited experience of senior football and who never really consistently shone in red and white, we would be mad to turn it down.
Many fans are upset at the idea of losing ‘one of our own’ for a price they deem a mere pittance and I understand that but we simply have to be realistic. Joe Willock isn’t Jack Grealish. In the fullness of time, he may turn out to be just as impactful and important as the Manchester City man but, at this moment in time, he just isn’t.
Going into his loan at St James’s Park last season, Willock would probably have attracted bids of about £5-£7million. A successful run of games later, his value has rocketed to three or four times that. It’s possible that he’ll never be worth as much again. Selling him now is tough to take but it is the right decision.
If you still have doubts, look no further than Ainsley Maitland-Niles, another academy graduate who attracted bids of circa £17million last summer after a strong run of games in our FA Cup-winning season. On that occasion, we opted to hold on to our man and, just 12 months on, and with a mediocre loan spell at West Brom under his belt, we’d be lucky to get £10million. I suspect a lesson has been learned on this occasion and, without European football this season, it was likely that Willock’s first team opportunities would have been limited.
It is a move that, in the fullness of time, we may come to regret. Like Emi Martinez, Joe may go on to shine at his new club and add millions to his value but cases of that happening are infrequent at best.
If nothing else, you have to be congnisant of the fact that the manager’s rebuild of the squad is and will continue to cost a lot of money. In a market where we simply cannot offload any of our deadwood, we have to look at balancing our books somehow. If that means the potential for a few regrets, so be it. That’s football.
Holding on to players in the hope they will all make it through to the first team and be world-beating superstars is fanciful. That we have welcomed Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe into the fold in the last 12-18 months is an achievement in and of itself but let’s not forget there have been multitudes of players who have shown similar promise who just haven’t made it. That will always be the case.
Knowing when to buy is key to running a successful operation but every bit as important for a self-sustaining operation like ours is knowing when to sell. Now, with his value at its peak, is the right time to sell Joe Willock.