The English FA Cup has been handed out, the Serie A season is over and the transfer window is heating up. It's Monday, so Gab Marcotti reacts to the weekend's biggest moments.
Jump to: Aubameyang's Arsenal future | Conte moaning again at Inter | Chelsea stuck with Kepa? | Praise for Immobile | Arthur's ugly Barca exit | Why Newcastle takeover failed | Infantino in trouble? | Napoli superb with Osimhen deal
What's next for Aubameyang, Arsenal after FA Cup win?
Mikel Arteta's first trophy as Arsenal manager is significant to the degree that silverware matters to many, and it buys you time and sporting capital. Claiming the FA Cup isn't a game-changer, per se -- Arsene Wenger won three FA Cups in his last five seasons at the club and plenty still wanted him gone -- but it at least allows you to swerve around the puerile (yet ubiquitous) "he's won nothing" argument.
Far more significant was Arsenal's performance, not just in the 2-1 come-from-behind win over Chelsea, but also against Manchester City in the semifinal. They looked like a mature, well-coached team that adjusted to the opposition during the match and exploited the opposition's weakness while maximising their own strengths.
Speaking on the Gab & Juls Show, Stewart Robson highlighted the way Ainsley Maitland-Niles dragged Reece James inside as Alexandre Lacazette dropped deeper, leaving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (who scored both goals) in space against Cesar Azpilicueta. That sort of movement allowed Granit Xhaka or David Luiz to find him with diagonal balls from deep and, of course, that led to the Arsenal penalty. It takes a tactically adept coach to spot these opportunities, and it takes a good man-manager to get the players to buy into and execute them.
Then attention turned sharply to the match-winner's future at the club. Arteta seemed bullish when asked about Aubameyang's contract, certainly more so than Aubameyang himself. I'm not sure there's too much to read into it: Arteta was celebrating his first trophy and he wasn't going to pull the Debbie Downer routine. What's evident though is that there's a number at which keeping Aubameyang makes sense and a number at which it doesn't, and the Mesut Ozil case speaks volumes in that regard.
What you imagine is happening -- or, at least, what should be happening -- is that Arteta is drawing up his plans for the future together with Edu and Raul Sanllehi. Arsenal don't have unlimited funds, and they won't have Champions League football. If keeping Aubameyang after his contract expires in 2021 (when he'll be 32) means committing to a three-year deal and a raise, it will have knock-on consequences given he's already among the club's highest-paid players.
Arteta isn't building for 2020-21; he's presumably building beyond that, and there are numerous areas of the pitch to strengthen. There are also a host of other forward/winger types already at the club: from Nicolas Pepe to Alexandre Lacazette, from Gabriel Martinelli to Bukayo Saka to Eddie Nketiah. There's only so many minutes to dole out and, what's more, Arsenal will have to make a decision on Lacazette's contract (he turns 30 in May and his deal is up in 2022) in the next year or so, as well.
As effective as Aubameyang and Lacazette have both been, I'm not sure it makes sense to keep both when you're in rebuilding mode. But it need not be a binary choice -- sell one, extend the other -- either. The effects of COVID-19 on club revenues suggest this will be a tricky transfer window. A more hard-nosed, roll-of-the-dice approach might be for Arsenal to stick to their guns and take a chance on Aubameyang leaving on a free transfer next summer. He'll certainly be motivated to continue performing if he has free agency in his sights, so you should get a solid season out of him.
The risk is losing him for nothing in 2021. The alternative is selling him now for what might be a depressed price or locking yourself into a long-term deal that might not look so clever in two years' time -- and might mean you have to sell Lacazette.
It's a tough call, but whatever Arsenal decide, the priority must be the long-term, not the short-term. The mindset can't be Champions League qualification next year; it has to be competing for the league in two or three seasons' time.
Antonio Conte challenging his bosses again at Inter. Why now?
Here we go again. Like Juventus in 2014, when he complained that he was "being asked to eat out in a €100 a meal restaurant with just 10 Euros in his pocket." Or with Italy at Euro 2016, when he railed continuously about not getting enough support from the federation. Or at Chelsea in 2018, when he said he was "a serial winner" and that if the club wanted to continue working with him, he "wasn't going to change."
"I wasn't recognized for the work I did and neither were my players ... and the club did not protect me, they need to learn a lot off the pitch ..." he said after Inter's 2-0 away win at Atalanta that sealed second place in Serie A. "The club and I need to be on the same wavelength ... I'd love to talk to the president about this, but he's in China ... I don't like it when people jump on our bandwagon, they need to be around all the time, instead it's just me and the players who are forced to eat [dung] (except of course, he used a different four-letter word) ... I was a lightning rod this year, but next season ..."
This schtick gets old very fast, although in the purely black-and-white world, Conte seems to inhabit, it makes sense.
He tells himself he's a serial winner and when things go wrong, it's evidently because people don't share his vision or his work ethic, or because he doesn't have enough power. And he lets the whole world know, in public, so that the club, terrified at the prospect of losing him, gives him what he needs. Especially when, as he loves to do, he couches it in hazy notions (like "winning mentality," which apparently only he possesses), touts weird conspiracies over fixture lists his club failed to spot, or beats the usual dead horse about absentee owners (Inter are owned by Suning, a Chinese company, but news flash: The people who own Liverpool don't live on Merseyside and the guys who own Manchester City don't live in Abu Dhabi).
In a normal company, embarrassing your employer like that gets you fired. But football is not a normal business, and Inter are not a normal club. Conte has two years left on his contract and is owed some $45 million in wages; Inter are unlikely to eat that salary like they did with his predecessor, Luciano Spalletti.
That's why -- but it's just a guess, with Conte you never know, we've seen him both walk out and leave money on the table (Juventus) as well as take legal action against his employers and win (Chelsea) -- I'd imagine this ends in a predictable way. Conte rants to chief executive Beppe Marotta and club president Steven Zhang, they provide assurances, he's still unhappy regardless of what they say (or what he gets) and we roll on into next season, where he either wins or doesn't. And if he doesn't, we'll get more of the same.
Once again though, you question his timing. Inter have just delivered what was their best season since Jose Mourinho left, and they have a Europa League match next Wednesday against Getafe. It's a major competition they have a shot at winning -- the sort that would turn their campaign from good to great.
Why now? Can he really not help himself? Already there are rumours linking Max Allegri to the Inter job. I doubt they'll come to fruition, but he's playing a dangerous game. And he's doing it in public.
Are Chelsea stuck with Kepa in goal?
Long-term contracts are problematic, and they become even more problematic when they're linked to massive transfer fees. Kepa Arrizabalaga cost Chelsea some €80m ($93m) two years ago and the fact that he has been dropped multiple times in favour of a 38-year-old Willy Caballero (who is on an expiring contract) down the stretch -- notably in the final Premier League game, needing a positive result to clinch a top-four finish -- suggests Frank Lampard's faith in him isn't exactly rock-solid.
Kepa's wages (and, to be fair, performances) make him very difficult to shift. His transfer fee means he has a residual value of around €57m on the books and right now, you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody willing to offer half that. So, for better or worse, it looks as if Chelsea are stuck with him.
Lampard's call here is going to be whether to replace Caballero with another veteran back-up, or bring in somebody who can challenge Kepa for the starting job. If it's the latter and he goes for a pricey top keeper like, say, Jan Oblak, it likely means writing off Kepa long-term and turning him into a Basque Winston Bogarde.
Praise for Ciro Immobile
OK, I'll admit it. I was among those who found it easier to spot Ciro Immobile's flaws rather than his strengths. When a guy has a two-year lull in mid-career -- three clubs (Torino, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund in three leagues, just 10 goals in 46 appearances -- you don't imagine him to bounce back with a record-equaling campaign. But that's what Immobile did.
His goal against Napoli equalled Gonzalo Higuain's single-season Serie A record. And he became the first player since 2009 not named Lionel (Messi), Cristiano (Ronaldo) or Luis (Suarez) -- to win the Golden Boot as Europe's top goalscorer.
The fact that Immobile averaged 22 league goals over the past three seasons before this one shows this campaign wasn't a fluke either. Rather, he's a guy who got lost, found himself and harnessed his physical and technical gifts once again. He can serve as an inspiration to other strikers.
Will we ever know what happened with Newcastle takeover?
The proposed takeover of Newcastle by a consortium led by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, PIF, was always going to be controversial. From TV rights piracy to conflicts of interest and even human rights concerns, there was a ton for the Premier League to unpack, although possibly not enough to justify taking more than four months and still not arriving at a decision.
PIF cited the "prolonged" process, as well as "global uncertainty," which made the investment "no longer commercially viable," among its reasons for pulling out last week. It might be nice if, at some point, we hear the Premier League give their reasons about why the process took so long, if only to make the speculation go away. You'd hate to think it was merely a case of slow-rolling the whole process until PIF got tired of waiting and walked away.
If you're not going to grant approval, then have the courage and transparency to explain why you're not going to grant approval. Or, at least, tell us why a process that usually takes four weeks wasn't completed in more than four months. It's the least Newcastle fans (and, frankly, Mike Ashley) deserve.
Arthur's time at Barca heading for ugly ending
Arthur's decision not to return to Barcelona to play in the Champions League infuriated club president Jose Maria Bartomeu, who says he will take disciplinary action. While Arthur will be joining Juventus after the season (with Miralem Pjanic going the other way) the two teams had agreed that each player would stick around for the final phase of the Champions League.
It should also ring alarm bells at Juventus. Arthur has had disciplinary issues before, and while you can understand him preferring to hide out in Brazil rather than returning to play, you've got to wonder about both his ambition and his sense of what a contractual obligation is. Maybe he doesn't care if he gets fined a month's wages because he's getting a big pay bump, and maybe he doesn't care about a shot at winning the Champions League this year. If that's the case you wonder if, in terms of character, he's really such a good addition for Juventus.
Transparency needed around Infantino probe
FIFA deputy general secretary Alasdair Bell held a conference call Monday morning to address the probe by a Swiss special prosecutor against president Gianni Infantino in which he termed the accusations "baseless" and "grotesque."
Infantino is accused of meeting Michael Lauber, Swiss attorney general at the time, on three occasions shortly after becoming FIFA President in 2016. Such meetings are not illegal and, in fact, Infantino says that it was his duty to meet Lauber since his predecessor, Sepp Blatter, and other FIFA officials were being investigated by both Swiss authorities and the U.S. Department of Justice at the time in the wake of the FIFA scandal. Bell noted that FIFA were the "damaged party" at the time given the shenanigans that went on under Blatter's administration; there were more than 20 investigations against the organization and it was a "criminal kleptocracy."
Under Swiss law, however, if a complaint is lodged it must, with very few exceptions, be investigated and in this case there were multiple anonymous complaints over the meetings. What's more, the fact that Lauber did not record or provide notes from the meetings has further aroused suspicions.
It's FIFA, so you always want to tread carefully. And you want to tread extra carefully when it comes to Swiss justice, which seems to be its own thing (Blatter, for example, was suspended and banned by FIFA but after five years of criminal investigation has not yet been charged by the Swiss Attorney General). That said, the whole thing seems a little odd.
If you, as an outsider, take over a scandal and corruption-ridden company, why would it be illegal for you to meet with investigators? Even if you don't buy Infantino's version of events -- that he was there to offer assistance with the investigation -- surely you need to provide some kind of theory or motive as to how he might criminally benefit from a meeting with Lauber? And why, if he had wrongdoing in mind, he was meeting him in a public place?
Napoli get a great deal with Osimhen
Details of Napoli's deal for Lille's Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen have emerged, which show just how, with a bit of adroit accounting, you can get yourself a relative bargain and still, nominally at least, set a world record transfer fee for an African player.
The headline price for Osimhen was €80m ($89m), but according to Corriere dello Sport, the price is actually €70m plus €10m in bonuses, some of which are tough to attain (like €2.5m if Napoli win the Champions League). What's more, the price is actually €50m plus four players -- goalkeeper Orestes Karnezis and three youngsters: Claudio Manzi (20), Luigi Liguori (22) and Ciro Palmieri (20) -- valued at a combined €20m.
(Karnezis is 35 and was Napoli's third keeper this year (and failed to play a single minute). The other three have only ever featured for Napoli's youth team or, in this case of Manzi, on loan in the third division.) How do you value those four at €20m? Well, because you can, and because it suits both clubs to do so.
Throw in the fact that Napoli are paying the cash portion in instalments over five years and this deal only gets better and better. Remarkable what a good accountant -- and a hard negotiator like Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis -- can do.