Saka, Martinelli and Saliba’s Arsenal contract extensions: Why is it taking so long?

In early November, Gabriel Martinelli told a press conference he was so willing to sign a new deal at Arsenal that the club “just need to get a pen”. And yet, seven weeks on, there has not yet been any announcement about a new contract for the Brazil international.

Martinelli’s situation is not unique. At the end of August, Bukayo Saka stated that he shared manager Mikel Arteta’s confidence he would agree to a new deal at the Emirates Stadium. Yet for Arsenal fans, an increasingly anxious wait continues.

There is more. William Saliba is another in ongoing talks to extend his contract; Aaron Ramsdale has begun discussions over revised terms to reflect his status as No 1 goalkeeper. There are contract issues to attend to beyond the first team, as well: Arsenal are expected to this week activate a two-year option on promising midfielder Charlie Patino, to prevent the 19-year-old’s deal expiring at the end of the season. On the academy side, Arsenal face competition for the signatures of promising youngsters Ethan Nwaneri and Myles Anthony Lewis-Skelly.

Inevitably, supporters wonder: what’s taking so long? In most of these instances, it’s believed Arsenal want to keep the player, and the individual is happy to stay. So why the delay?

The first thing to say is that the club is not negotiating directly with the player. Martinelli can say what he likes to the media, but when he comes to the details of his contract, he won’t be the one doing the talking. The player can actually be fairly removed from the process, with his representative in dialogue with sporting director Edu or head of football operations Richard Garlick.

When a significant first-team contract is being renegotiated, the likelihood is that some sort of face-to-face conversation between player and club representatives will take place. Usually, the player will meet with Arteta and/or Edu to discuss their respective expectations and assess intentions. This is an important part of the process: it’s where buy-in is created. Wages and contract length are rarely part of these conversations. If there is a consensus that club and player wish to continue to work together, it indicates a willingness from both parties to compromise when the negotiations reach crunch point.

There is an informal wooing process that is almost entirely separate from the hard numbers. Arsenal’s task here is to make every player, at every level, feel like a priority. That is a difficult balancing act, when they have only so much time and staff resource. A gesture like inviting Nwaneri and Lewis-Skelly on the mid-season first-team training camp can go a long way. A word from Arteta—if he makes the time—carries even more weight. First-team players like Saka and Martinelli will be well aware of their place in the manager’s plans. Others may need more convincing there is a clear pathway for them.


Nwaneri during a training session at London Colney in September (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Once those informal conversations have taken place, there is still a long way to go — even if the player has indicated a clear willingness to stay. The numbers, the terms, and the details of the contract are all yet to be sorted. This process will be handled by the player’s representative.

The job of the agent is to get the player the best deal he possibly can. The job of Arsenal’s staff is to get the club the best deal they possibly can. Inevitably, this invites brinkmanship. Speak to people in football, and they will tell you that sometimes the delays are a vital part of the negotiations. Neither party wants to look too keen, too desperate, too willing. A missed phone call or a couple of days of radio silence can be effective power plays — for both sides.

As much as the club is trying to keep the player, it’s important to remember that the agent is trying to keep them too. There are only a finite number of contract renegotiations a footballer will have in their career. These provide the key opportunity for the agent to demonstrate his value, and convince the player they should continue working together. It is a balancing act for the representative — allow talks to drag on too long, and players can become disgruntled.

For a young player like Saliba, there is effectively a sliding scale in place. The longer the club want him to commit for, the more they have to pay. This is effectively the reverse of what tends to happen with older players, where the length of contract is more desirable than the basic pay. One of the reasons Saliba’s contract remains unsigned for now is that Arsenal are not offering a wage his representatives consider commensurate with the long deal the club want to tie him to — and so talks go on.

Even once personal terms are agreed, there is the thorny issue of agent fees to consider. It is not unheard of for the player’s terms to be agreed in their entirety, but the contract signing to be delayed as club and agent haggle over commission. This is an important part of the negotiations that should not be overlooked.

The perception is that Arsenal should be in a hurry to get these deals done, but there are two factors that offer them some security. First off, in many cases they have contract options: Martinelli’s contract runs until 2024, but Arsenal have the option to trigger a further two years. That makes the situation markedly less urgent from their perspective. Saliba and Saka’s contracts run no longer than 2024, even with extensions, which makes their situations more pressing.

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Martinelli has been on World Cup duty with Brazil (Photo: Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Even then, Arsenal are afforded some measure of protection by the transfer window calendar. Clubs know that they can’t lose a player outside of January or the summer, and this means that negotiations between those windows can drag. It’s partly human nature to work to deadlines: on the final day of the window, a contract can be hammered out in a matter of hours. Outside of that, it tends to drift.

It’s also worth pointing out that every week a club stalls on increasing a player’s pay, is a week where they save money. If they are confident an agreement will be reached, it’s more expensive to get there quickly.

There are other practical considerations that can slow negotiations, as when Martinelli, Saliba and Saka were all selected for the World Cup in Qatar.

While this needn’t necessarily provide an obstacle to talks — many agents traveled to the region for the tournament and Arsenal held a training camp based in Dubai which senior personnel attended — there was a collective desire not to disrupt the focus of players during the tournament . Agents were also aware good displays in Qatar could strengthen their hand — Saka’s stock arguably rose considerably during the World Cup. Now that the players are back with Arsenal, it’s expected talks will accelerate.

Many of these issues are quite general — they’ll be familiar at every club. But is there something that means Arsenal move slower than most? There are three parts to squad-building: recruitment, retention and selling. Some in football feel that, while Arsenal have proven themselves effective recruiters, when it comes to the other two elements there is still room for improvement.

Dealing with Arsenal can be a more protracted — and sometimes more frustrating — experience than haggling with certain other Premier League clubs.

The primary reason for this is process: any contract offer Arsenal intends to make must be approved by the board before it can be put to a player or their representative. This is ostensibly a positive thing: it means there is oversight on football business from those that govern the club. It can, however, slow things down. There are other clubs where chief executives are given greater license to be flexible with figures.

No one at Arsenal seems particularly panicked by their ongoing contract talks. They appear to feel, particularly in the cases of first-team stars like Saka, Saliba, Martinelli and Ramsdale, that there is enough goodwill to see these negotiations through to a positive conclusion. Ultimately, any deal will be a compromise between the club’s preference and the player’s demands.

But the World Cup is now over, the transfer window is almost open, and the clock is ticking. An agent would not be doing his job if he was not at least prepared to listen to offers from elsewhere. As long as these deals remain unsigned, fans will worry.

When it comes to player retention, Arsenal have a considerable to-do list. It’s time to start ticking some more items off.

(Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

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