The Mighty Transition: Why Arsenal Haven’t Won Anything In 7 Years by Ix Techau
How We Got Here
In 1993, Highbury became an all-seater stadium, reducing its capacity from 57,000 to roughly 38,500, with even less capacity for Champions League fixtures. This meant a huge reduction in ticket sales, and the club could only watch as tens of thousands of supporters were unable to attend matches. With the season ticket waiting list growing rapidly every year, the club decided to look at alternatives.
In 1999, the club announced the plans of building a new 60,000+ capacity stadium, initially intended to open in 2003. Even if the average ticket price would only be around £10, the increased capacity would mean an extra £6.5m per year, so the financial boost was huge. In reality the average ticket price is more than four times higher, meaning an estimated £20m-£30m extra revenue per year in comparison to Highbury.
But it also meant having to spend money to make money, £470m in total to be exact, and even though large chunks of the cost was made back through sponsorship deals, player sales and clever investments like the Highbury Square development, a big portion of the debt remained.
While all this was going on, Arsene Wenger had arrived at the club with a somewhat unique mindset when it came to transfers. Always a financially sensible man, it went against his philosophy to buy expensive ready-made Premier League stars, and instead realised he could buy younger or overlooked talent from abroad, without lowering the quality of the team. Players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Kolo Toure, Fredrik Ljungberg, Robert Pires, etc, were all products of this ideology.
With Wenger’s nose for bargain players, and the increasingly tight budgets from building a new stadium, the club decided to create a long-term plan for the future of the club. The plan was to create a financially stable situation where new players would mostly come from within the club, as opposed to being bought into it. With a good academy in place, the squad would ideally be filled with young players coming through the ranks as soon as older players needed to be replaced.
2002-2003: The First Wave
Slightly before the Invincibles were tearing up the Premier League, Wenger and the board were putting together their 10-year plan of turning Arsenal into a self-sustaining modern club that shouldn’t have to rely on buying expensive players to compete at the highest level. The first stage of the plan was to get a crop of 16-18 year olds into the club that would take over for when the current first team was in decline. The first wave of this new generation included Cesc Fabregas (16), Johan Djourou (16), Gael Clichy (18) and Nicklas Bendtner (16) – and also included the signing of 9-year old Emmanuel Frimpong and Jack Wilshere.
A couple of years later even more teenagers were brought into the club in a second wave, like Alex Song (18), Theo Walcott (17), Abou Diaby (19), Carlos Vela (16), Vito Mannone (17) and Denilson (18). With these players in the academy, Arsenal finally had a strong foundation for the future. But the problem was that the gap between the experienced older players and the new era youngsters was too big, and a period of inconsistency started shortly after the Invincibles season.
Arsenal celebrated winning the Premier League in 2004, with players like Vieira, Henry, Keown, Pires and Bergkamp When Jose Mourinho took over Chelsea, he changed the dynamic of the Premier League – what had been viewed as a two-horse race was now a three-horse race, and with Liverpool slowly becoming a threat again, the competitive level of the domestic league increased tenfold in a couple of years. And with the loss of players like Dennis Bergkamp, Martin Keown, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira within a three year period – and the move to a new stadium in that timeframe as well – the new wave of players were too young to carry the expectations of the club on their shoulders.
The ideal set-up at a top club is to have a sensible balance between older/experienced and younger/energetic players. The older players will usher the younger ones into the philosophy of the club, and bear the majority of the responsibilities on the pitch while the younger ones learn and develop their talents. Without the older players in this system, the younger players are exposed for their flaws, and carry too much responsibility.
Somewhat unexpectedly the transition was forced upon Wenger sooner than what was planned, and as the club wouldn’t start becoming self-sustained until the third or even fourth wave of youngsters started coming through the club structure, instability ensued. In the next part we look at what effect this has had in recent years.