The last few seasons have been a nightmare for most Arsenal fans. It is not so much a question of failing to win trophies but rather of the constant flattering to deceive and in particular, the predictable end of season collapse. Arsenal has increasingly become a joke among the top four sides.
This is a side that always seems to set the pace early on but which inevitably runs out of steam in the final lap much like some inexperienced athlete. Almost every single season without fail, Arsenal begins the season fairly well. This is usually when there is a cornucopia of goals and the team is playing exhibition football.
As the season approaches its most defining point, the team reverts to type as the goals dry up and the exhibition football is replaced by drab displays. Arsenal fans who were earlier in the season excited about watching their team play now find themselves wishing that the season would end as soon as possible. This is usually the time when Arsenal is dutifully transformed into becoming a mere spoiler aiding teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, Leicester or Chelsea by taking points out of their closest rivals. Overnight, rival managers who earlier in the season were criticizing Arsenal now openly begin praising our ‘qualities’ in the hope that we may do them a favour.
A football pundit coined the term yoyo club to describe a team that is promoted from the championship but is swiftly relegated only to again achieve promotion after a short period back into the premier league. Arsenal has become the ultimate top four yoyo side.
This is a team that regularly leads the table but dutifully reverts to fighting for the last Champion’s league spot towards the end of the season. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of being an Arsenal fan. Spare a thought for the players in particular the likes of Walcott and Ozil.
A regular watcher of the club’s official end of season review will have been struck at how at the end of each review in the last few years, the players look genuinely distressed with the team’s usual end of season farcical collapse.
The question is what truly afflicts the club that we all love and why has it not been fixed to date? My ruminations on this matter have led me to the conclusion that Wenger and the club’s hierarchy are largely to blame for the simple reason that they have taken the goal of the club’s financial sustainability to an extreme.
Let me categorically state that I applaud Wenger and the club’s hierarchy for pursuing the noble goal of financial sustainability. The collapse of clubs across Europe and the near collapse of others most notably Borussia Dortmund, is a cautionary tale for all lovers of the game.
However, it is my contention that this noble objective has been taken to an extreme and that far from guaranteeing the club’s long term financial stability is merely contributing to the club’s current stagnation. In particular, I am convinced that the club’s dillydallying in the transfer market and general over-cautiousness is responsible for the trophy drought.
In the last few seasons a philosophy has seemingly gained ground in Arsenal. On more than one occasion, the club has resorted to holding onto cash when merely adding a few million pounds might arguably have gotten personnel that would assist the club in its pursuit of trophies.
In the process, by some bizarre logic, the club has taken great pride at its end of season profits even as it seemingly ignores its very own raison d’etre that is winning trophies and bringing joy to fans. The whole issue of financial sustainability has become the means through which Wenger and the club’s hierarchy look down upon the ordinary fan. It is almost like if financial sustainability is some esoteric concept well beyond the grasp of the ordinary Arsenal fan. Arsene truly knows I guess.
Let me again restate my position, nobody is seriously saying that Arsenal should spend 100 million on any player. But seriously why did Wenger reportedly refuse to shell out the extra 2 million pounds to land Xabi Alonso a few seasons back? Why not invest a portion of the good money that we gained from the transfers in order to make the team more competitive?
Remember when City gave us money for Adebayor and Toure? The Arsenal blogosphere was awash with excitement and prescriptions on who Wenger should buy. Why not sign a player, even if it meant adding an extra one million pounds, who might just have helped the team in its trophy pursuits?
Why risk the team’s success on the pitch on the hope that a player who had suffered repeated breakdowns in his attempts to return could somehow return in time to save the team’s season?
As a new season approaches and in a view of the defensive issues (Mertesacker being injured), why not purchase Mustafa as a means of finally sorting out the problems we have with conceding from set pieces? Is the 5 or so million pounds difference in valuation sufficient grounds not to act even if such inaction will harm the team when it matters most?
To put it simply, on many occasions at Arsenal over the last few years, the decision has been taken not to invest but rather to save the money that would arguably have helped the team over the line. The result of this unwillingness to act firmly and decisively is all too apparent in terms of the trophy drought.
A major problem with Arsenal is that Wenger constantly draws the wrong conclusions from the team’s failures. The prevailing wisdom is that Wenger has succeeded in creating a formidable side that only needs a few tweaks to go over the finish line. Wenger however, chooses to believe despite all evidence to the contrary, that his team will inevitably improve on the basis of its ‘youth’ and its ability to learn from its mistakes.
In this regard, big name signings or for that matter significant signings of any sort are not necessary. The simple reality is that Wenger and the club’s hierarchy have seemingly failed to grasp the linkage between on the field success and commercial success.
Listening to Wenger and the club’s hierarchy one inevitably gets an impression that there is a trade-off between on the field success and financial sustainability. The truth of course is that there is no such trade-off. Indeed, the converse is true; on the field success almost inevitably translates to a club making more money. The fear that we will become the next Pompey or Leeds while a good cautionary tale has become an excuse for significant inaction in the transfer window.
The point that I intend to make will be better understood by reference to a famous parable in the Bible. In the parable of the unjust steward we learn of a rich man a Master who is about to leave for a journey far away. Before leaving, the Master gives to each of his three servants a sum of money.
When the master does in fact return he is gratified to know that two of his servants invested the money they were given and that they realized an interest. The two servants proudly hand over the original sum and the interest to the master who rewards them with higher responsibilities on the basis of their vision and reliability.
However, the master is surprised by the actions of the third servant who never invested the original money but chose instead to hide it in the ground. The third servant oblivious to his error, proudly hands in the original amount of the money to the outraged master. The master decides to demote the third servant because of the servant’s lack of foresight.
The problem with Wenger and the club’s hierarchy is that like the third servant in the parable, they have chosen a policy for the most part of hoarding that which they should in fact be investing. Yet, come the end of the season, they proudly point to the fact that they did not spend what they had even as others celebrate at the returns they have gained as their investment translates into trophies and long term into better commercial revenue.
This is a very different philosophy from that which drove Arsenal to leave Highbury for the Emirates. The foresight that animated the club back then has seemingly been replaced by myopia and lack of vision on the part of the club’s hierarchy. The beautiful stadium that should play host to world class players befitting its status has instead become a place where a significant number of substandard players practice their art.
The simple fact is that success on the pitch more often than not, begets success in the club’s finances. This is a lesson that seems to have been lost to Wenger and the club’s hierarchy. In the first place, as most fans are no doubt aware, winning a trophy leads to increase in revenue from cash rewards that come from winning a trophy.
When Wenger penny pinches, Arsenal misses out on the trophies that would also bring extra revenue for the club. Indeed, when Arsenal periodically suffers a catastrophic fall in form towards the end of the season typically finishing in fourth that has a direct bearing on the club’s finances. This is because part of the money given to clubs is in fact distributed on the basis of the league position.
When Wenger penny pinches and Arsenal exit the champion’s league early say in the second round once again there is a hit on the club’s finances. UEFA distributes cash to clubs in the Champion’s League depending on how many games they win and also depending on how far they progress in the competition.
Indeed Wenger deserves credit for ensuring that the club qualifies for Europe’s elite competition on a regular basis. Where however he has erred is not giving his team the necessary resources to win the competition. A few good signings especially in defence may just make the difference in terms of ever winning the competition.
As things stand, it is almost like if Arsenal takes pride in qualifying for a competition that it has little chance of winning. Making it into the competition is admirable, but it is not everything. The riches of the competition are directly related to progress in the competition. Winning the competition itself yields a club somewhere in the range of 40 million Euros which does not include a share of the TV revenue.
Then there is the issue of commercial revenue. It does not take a rocket scientist to see the direct linkage between success on the pitch in terms of trophies and the amount of commercial revenue accruing to a club. Knowledgeable Arsenal fans may be aware that one of Arsenal’s biggest challenges at the moment is the very small amount of commercial revenue that the club is getting when compared to its competitors such as Manchester United and Liverpool.
Arsenal’s commercial revenue for 2009-2010 stood at 40 million pounds which is way behind the commercial juggernauts that are Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester United but also surprisingly behind the lesser lights of Schalke 04, Hamburg, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. To be fair, Arsenal’s smaller commercial revenue is to a large extent the result of deals that were concluded several years back as part of the financing for the Emirates stadium. It has been suggested that the club should reach an agreement with the sponsors for these deals to be bought out. However there is one major challenge going forward.
How can Arsenal get deals as good those given to some of its competitors if it has not won a trophy in many seasons? Furthermore, keep in mind that some of the best commercial deals are in fact performance related which would mean that even if the team did get some of these deals then it might not be able to fully exploit them on account of its performances on the pitch.
Indeed Arsenal does not have the luxury of a great history of trophies that might serve to draw in the kind of rewarding deals that the likes of Liverpool gained few seasons back from Standard Chartered Bank. Liverpool shirt sponsorship deal was one of the most lucrative and it was expected to generate as much as 80 million pounds over four years for the club.
By contrast, Arsenal’s shirt sponsorship deal which ended in 2013/2014 was for 8 years and cost 48 million pounds. Go figure. Liverpool also concluded a very commercially rewarding deal for kits with Warrior sports.
Clubs like Liverpool and AC-Milan may undergo a trophy drought for several years but they are very strong brands on account of their trophy laden history which serves to assist them in getting better commercial deals. Arsenal which lacks their historical pedigree but which is further burdened by the underachievement of the last few seasons can not therefore realistically expect similar kind of deals.
On the other hand, had Arsenal won a couple of trophies over the last few years then it might conceivably seek to get even better deals than the likes of Liverpool.
More investment in the playing staff and the resulting trophies will have a direct bearing on the club’s ability to negotiate for rewarding commercial contracts. Furthermore, a good trophy haul instantly draws new fans especially from the vibrant Far East market which has a direct impact on merchandizing and commercial revenue.
Arsenal’s decision to woo such markets by playing there in preseason is welcome but the question is how this policy will have any meaning if the trophy drought persists. One can only imagine the number of young football fans all over the world who ordinarily may have gravitated towards Arsenal but who on account of our trophy drought are now increasingly choosing to support our rivals.
Finally, there is also the issue of linkages between playing personnel, trophies and commercial revenue. When a team is willing to make the right signings including the occasional marquee signing who might help it to win trophies then it creates greater momentum for commercial revenue while at the same time drawing in more world class players.
Let me give an example, the on the field success of Manchester United makes them more attractive to world class players than Arsenal. So for example, if Arsenal were to bid for a player and Manchester United to also express interest, then the player, despite growing up as an Arsenal fan, is more likely to choose Manchester United because he has greater chances of winning a trophy.
That player may in fact contribute to Manchester United clinching say the Champion’s league in which case the resulting revenue will be further ploughed into new signings.
When he became majority shareholder, Stanley Kroenke, promised that he would use his experience in growing the Arsenal brand worldwide. It seems obvious to me that for the Arsenal brand to once again grow, then, Arsenal must win trophies and in order for that to take place the team must be willing to make signings even if the signings are seen as being a little inflated.
What should guide us is not only the present but also the medium to long term. Financial sustainability is admirable but it does not preclude success on the pitch. A tweak in the philosophy at Arsenal is necessary now more than ever.