Arsenal – are we slipping down the table because of Arsene Wenger or is it because of the decisions by the money men? by BARRY TERRY
We have just had two morale boosting victories away to AC Milan and at home to Watford. Prior to this we had experienced a dreadful run of play accompanied by a huge reaction from the press and fans which featured much criticism of the players and particularly the Manager. This is a familiar pattern over the years whenever we hit a bad patch and cascade down the dreaded, negative spiral. The theme of much of the press and media commentary is the failure of both the team and the manager to meet the expectations of the fans. Increasingly the call is ‘Arsene Out’!
Is this reaction and its conclusion fully justified – is it fair? I know when you painfully watch the Arsenal suffer a tonking, it seems perfectly rational behaviour to criticise the players and the manager – but when we do this, are we looking at the real cause of the problem? Is it just the events on the pitch that we need to look at or should we pause and look a little deeper in our quest to properly explain what we see?
I believe we need to take a step back and adopt a different perspective to understand events Arsenal. My thesis is that football and the context in which it is played has changed out of all recognition since our Highbury days and in response we need to fundamentally adjust the way we assess the team’s performances. I believe over the last decade or so Arsenal FC has undergone a huge transition and it’s not just in an architectural or a geographic sense with the short move from Highbury to the Emirates that the transition is defined.
Arsenal FC is now Arsenal PLC. An EPL football club is not just concerned with playing football – it’s also concerned about making and managing huge amounts of money. The Arsenal is much more than a football club – we are now a global Corporation. Gone are the days when Arsene ruled the roost over a small number of staff and we could steal a march on our rivals by recruiting talented players from France and encouraging our team to live much healthier lifestyles.
When he arrived at Highbury, the number of employees was measured in tens, now it’s in hundreds. Over the last 3 years the number of people employed has doubled and a new management structure is fast emerging to reflect our global business status. Arsenal are not alone in experiencing this transition – every club in the EPL is experiencing this – some more than others – with Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea leading the revolution. In this new world I think we need to ask the question how is success being measured for the Arsenal? Is it how much money or profit is made or is it how many trophies are won? Which of these two objectives is what really matters to the people who own and run this club? What shapes football competitiveness today and how do Arsenal shape up relative to their rivals in the EPL?
I know what we fans think and want but is that the same goal as the money people in a football club? I want to pose the questions here – have the people who run Arsenal football club got the same priorities as us fans? As Arsenal has transitioned from FC to global Corporation have the money people taken over to the cost of what the football fan wants. More crudely, is money making now more important than football success? Do fans and pundits when expressing their verdicts about the performance of the team and manager take into account financial considerations like how much their rivals invest in their team relative to the Arsenal?
These are very important questions because when things go wrong on the field of play and we (fans and pundits) formulate our opinions – we do so through the prism of what we see on the field of play – the performance of the players and the manager – and largely ignore the role and activities of the money making people who behind the scenes play a huge part in determining what happens on the pitch. We are more concerned with the emotional now of the match rather than any financial analyses. This point is important because this limit on our perspective may lead to us drawing the wrong conclusions as to why Arsenal are not winning as many games as we would like and who in the club is to ‘blame’ for these ‘failures’.
Why do I think like this? The first step I made in seeking an explanation as to why things were going wrong – was to decide to ‘follow the money’ rather than just looking at the football itself. When I did this, I was shocked to learn how far behind Arsenal are from the other top teams in the EPL in terms of how much money they invest in the assembly of their squad – see below. This realisation made me stop and think – hang on – even the mighty Arsenal are not competing on a level playing field!
Money spent on present playing squad (2017/17)
Manchester City £775M
Manchester United £712M
Note how this order broadly matches the position of each club in the EPL. There is good reason to believe there is a correlation between player investment and success. Of course we can point to the anomalies to this theory with Spurs investing less than us but being higher in the table – but they have Kane and Ali et al who cost nothing which skews the figures. And we could also add the success of Leicester a couple of seasons back, who similarly had very valuable payers – Vardy, Mahrez and Kante – who cost very little. And there is the recent failure of Everton to buy success. However, by and large those clubs who invest the most in their playing squads usually get the reward of gaining a higher League table position.
I was staggered when I discovered that Guardiola had spent £448M on new players in his first 19 months in charge at City. That’s a huge investment. Is it any wonder City are the best team in the League? If we matched City and invested another £420M to improve the current Arsenal squad – what sort of team would we have and how would we get on in the league? It would buy us a world class – goalie, full back, centre half, midfielder and striker and still have change left over! Just imagine that!
Next I looked at how much money EPL clubs make and learned that Arsenal are the 3rd most successful earner in the EPL and 6th in the world in terms of annual revenues. Within this revenue the Arsenal earn the highest match day receipts in the EPL and remarkably in the world!
Revenues League Table (2016/17)
Man U £581M
Man City £453M
West Ham £183M
According to Forbes we are the 3rd richest Club in the EPL and the 6th richest in the world.
Forbes list of Wealthiest Clubs (2016)
Man U £2.86BN
Man City £1.61BN
West Ham £491M
The Soccerex Football Finance 100 (see table below) which measures clubs wealth by – playing assets, fixed assets, money in the bank, potential owner investment and debt – places Arsenal as the 2nd richest Club in the world (and the EPL) behind only Manchester City.
Soccerex Football Finance 100 (2018) – Richest Teams in the EPL
Clearly, Arsenal are an extremely rich club – one of the richest in world football – and are making shed loads of dosh in annual revenues and the question that immediately hits me is why aren’t we using this wealth to invest more money into our playing squad to match the levels of our competitors in the EPL? Given this discrepancy between our disappointing performance on the pitch and our huge wealth – could it be that we are prioritising the making of money from football over the making of success on the field of play? Have we become more Arsenal PLC than Arsenal FC? Or, is there an alternative explanation?
We see evidence of the making of money taking priority over the making of football success for the fans at the Arsenal in recent times with the introduction of preseason tours to far flung parts of the world to promote the brand, with no acknowledgement of the need for proper squad preparation for the coming season. We saw it in the restricted transfer policy throughout the paying for the Emirates stadium period. We see it in the excessive prices of season tickets (and dreadful coffee) and the bungs to the owners for consultancy fees! We see it in the lack of democracy and fan involvement in the running of the club. It all feeds the image of private greed and the pursuit of profit being more important than the football good of the club and its loyal supporters.
Who is responsible for this situation? Is it Arsene, or Ivan, the Board or Stan who is making this call? At the moment it is certainly Arsene who is taking all the blame for the lack of football success – my question is – rather than focusing on the immediacy of what happens on the field of play and blaming the players and Arsene – shouldn’t we be looking at what goes on in the USA and in the boardroom with the people who control the financial decisions about the investment in our players squad and ask when our major competitors are investing so much – why aren’t Arsenal doing the same and investing more in players?
If Arsenal are to become more competitive then the priorities need to change. For a number of years (the building of new stadium) we have had to be financially prudent which started the process of Arsenal becoming under invested in their playing squad relative to others. Following the paying off of much of the Stadium liabilities – we have managed to make some recent significant player purchases like Lacazette (see below for transfers during the summer of 2017) – and then the record signing of Aubameyang in 2018 – but when we look at what our rivals have spent to build their current playing squads and their greater competiveness – our efforts to invest amount to being too little, too late – we are still miles behind!
Money spent on transfers (Over the Summer – 2017)
Man City £221M
Man U £145M
Our level of player investment is still way behind that of our rivals and because of this I argue our level of competitiveness must still lag far behind the top teams in the EPL. Our gradual decline out of the top 4 needs to be seen in this context. Given this handicap it serves no useful purpose to constantly blame Arsene Wenger (or any alternative future manager) when we falter on the pitch – a view which is so easy to adopt given Wenger is the public face of the club – it’s a view that completely misses the point! In fact to do so is a distraction which prevents us from seeing the real cause of our problems – the decisions made by the men who control the money. Perhaps this is intentional – are the money men happy to let Arsene take all the flak – have they hung him out to dry?
Wenger can only seek to get the most out of the players at his disposal – and given the present player investment gulf between us and our rivals – he and the players have if anything possibly over achieved. This state of affairs is not sustainable if we are to become real title contenders again. A continuing gradual decline is what awaits us unless there is a radical change in the Clubs financial policy in the transfer market.
If we are serious about becoming successful on the pitch then looking solely at what happens on the pitch as though it all happens in a financial vacuum is not enough – the solution to becoming more competitive is not to sack the manager or complain about the players attitudes or refereeing decisions but to increase the clubs investment in the playing staff and give the manager (whoever it is) the necessary tools to do the job.
This plea for greater player investment begs the questions as to who we are and who we want to be. Do we want to be a club like City, United and Chelsea that buys in it’s entire first team squad ‘off the shelf’ or do we want to be a club which seeks also to grow it’s own players bringing players through the youth teams and up to the top? Do we want to be a team of bought in talent of Ozils and Lacazettes or do we want to leave room for the coming up through the ranks experienced by the likes of Jack Wilshere and Hector Bellerin?
If it’s the latter then we need to consider how important it is that this is a part of our club philosophy; similarly how important is it to seek to entertain as well as win and accept that the pursuit of these two principals could have a negative impact on our competitiveness and our ability to win trophies. City under Guardiola has shown the way – it is possible to buy success and entertain – but what hope does an Academy player have getting into the first team at City? Does this principal matter to an Arsenal fan – do we value seeing a Maitland Niles playing in the first team with 3 more youngsters (Nelson, Willock and Nketiah) on the bench or do we want an entire squad made up of very expensive signings?
No doubt one day when Arsene has gone we might read in his biography about what really went on behind the scenes but I wonder – his love for the club is more important than his ego – so maybe we never will learn the full story. For now let’s stop our knee jerk reactions to disappointment and look a little deeper for our solutions. Lets put things in perspective when we watch a game and appreciate we are outgunned financially by our rivals and it’s not a level playing field when we compete for the title and even a top 4 position. We really need to revise our expectations – otherwise we will be forever disappointed. We also need to appreciate that the manager operates at a considerable competitive disadvantage because our rivals have invested far greater sums than we do in buying star players and that restriction should temper how we judge his and the teams performances.
For me – Arsene Wenger will always be the man. Why? Because I love his philosophy and the way he seeks to play the game. There is great value in these qualities which transcend mere money. The game of football should not be all about winning or losing in the way that someone like Mourinho sees football – it’s also about seeking to play in an entertaining way. It’s about being a football Club that has an ethos which allows for and encourages the progression of Academy players to the first team. Because he has maintained these principals in this world of zillions of money swishing around football and all the pressures and corruptions of the games values and principles that this money brings – I will always admire and respect our Manager. To compete as well as we have against rivals who have invested far greater sums in players than we have and have eschewed the development of Academy players makes his achievements all the more remarkable.
My fear is that with the eventual departure of Arsene Wenger and the continuing transition from football Club to global Corporation – we will loose these precious principals forever and we will all be the poorer for it!