Arsène Wenger’s 20-year tenure may finally be coming to an end and Arsenal will have to move forward without “Le Professeur.” I break his career into two “spells”: before moving into the Emirates and after moving into the Emirates. Wenger’s first spell was magnificent, but little did we know of what was to unfold later. And while there have been a number of theories speculating as to what has pushed Wenger’s second spell to the brink of disaster, I piece together information looking at all of Arsenal’s failures – both on the pitch and behind the scenes – in a manner that has never been done before. Here is the truth behind the Emirates era.
This Season and Arsène Wenger’s Failings
After a lackluster 2015/16 season, Arsène Wenger and Arsenal were determined to improve the squad in the summer. The transfer window began with a welcome surprise: the £35 Million acquisition of world-class holding midfielder Granit Xhaka. However, Arsenal was struggling to get any other deals done despite the clear need to sign a long-term replacement for Per Mertesacker and a top striker. Following an opening day defeat at home to Liverpool, Arsenal finally got their act together and signed £35 Million German international, Shkodran Mustafi and Deportivo de La Coruña forward Lucas Pérez. Arsenal then embarked on an unbeaten run led by Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez, Alex Iwobi and the resurgence of Theo Walcott. As per usual, things looked bright at the start of the season, but after a disjointed performance against Everton in December things have gone from bad to worse for the Gunners.
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) December 13, 2016
The match was chaotic as the Gunners struggled against the home sides’ press and in the following games, Arsenal’s inability to handle high pressure was ruthlessly exposed. Arsenal lost at the Etihad, Anfield, Stamford Bridge, and to top it off were two humiliating 5-1 defeats to Bayern Munich.
Where did it all go wrong? The underlying problem was arguably Wenger’s system. Arsenal has lacked a distinguished playing identity for years. As Anam Hassan of Arsenal Column highlighted:
Arsène Wenger has built a system reliant on the characteristics of certain key players – not necessarily robust concepts
The central midfield partnership between Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin had become vital. Santi Cazorla’s main characteristics are his ambidexterity and his ability to evade pressure. This formed a key feature of Arsène Wenger’s system. Francis Coquelin solidified Arsenal’s status as a transition based team. The speed of Francis Coquelin and Laurent Koscienly is vital within Arsenal’s system given its deficiencies.
@IlijaLek a system that is reliant on recovery speed – actions that a DM does is typically high intensity or distance, or last-ditch
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) November 24, 2015
The issue is that the system relies on extreme levels of specialization and individual quality. Arsenal simply isn’t a cohesive unit. There’s no specific playing identity. It’s a system which relies on individual characteristics. This is reflected in Arsenal’s ineffective pressing scheme, with no recognizable cohesion. There are a myriad of tactical deficiencies from slow ball oriented shifts in transition to poor midfield spacing.
This means that injuries to starters can reap huge inconsistencies within the tactical systems themselves. Take the loss of Santi Cazorla for example. Being ambidextrous and good under pressure, he’s been used to direct play from the back and dribble from trouble. The loss of Cazorla has meant that Arsenal has had huge issues with any opposition press. Everton, Preston North End, and Watford are all sides which have taken advantage of this weakness.
A big issue with this system is that Arsenal has no substitutes for some player roles, especially that of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla despite not being top quality. It was perhaps not a wise move to build the system around a now 32 Santi Cazorla. Through this, we’ve seen the struggles of Granit Xhaka, the £35 Million defensive midfielder signed from Borussia Mönchengladbach. Granit Xhaka is a rare breed of pure regista signed for a bargain price, however, he doesn’t fit Wenger’s system.
Granit Xhaka isn’t suited to Arsène Wenger’s system in the 4-2-3-1. In the double pivot, he’s been forced to play a box to box role which doesn’t suit his natural strengths. Granit Xhaka has been forced to defend wide areas in transition with a completely different angle of engagement than he’s been accustomed to at Gladbach. It’s no coincidence that he’s seen 2 reds in his short Arsenal career thus far. It’s no coincidence that a top player can struggle within such a system.
As Spielverlagerung put it:
“Even a slightly complex tactic will not work if the right players aren’t involved. To make a player fit either requires a genius (almost never), a stroke of luck (very rare), or adequate training (almost always). Looking back at England and analyzing the “State of the Art”, you realize that a lot of the training and player development is lacking.
This starts with the trainers that hire fitness experts from completely different fields and contrary theories of training and then complain about an increase in the number of injuries, to the trainers that again and again justify clearly recognizable tactical flaws with a lack of motivation, lack of aggression, or the players’ poor form – all aspects that fall within the realm of responsibility of these riled up coaches.”
Much too often, Arsenal’s on the field failings are blamed on pseudo-psychological factors or a lack of quality. The reality is that Arsenal has had a coaching problem. Arsène Wenger has become more desperate in an attempt to seek a solution, leading him to bring back the 4-3-3 on multiple occasions, particularly against Liverpool where he deployed a direct front 3. Were the Leicester team of 2015/16 or the Chelsea team of 2016/17 truly exceptional in relation to this Arsenal side? They are arguably not.
A key feature over the past few years are the pinning of Arsenal’s woes on some sort of perceived mental weakness or poor mentality when the root cause of Arsenal’s could easily be explained though basic tactical analysis. Take the away leg at Bayern Munich. The last goal was ascribed to some sort of ‘mental collapse’ when the issue could easily be ascribed to tactical deficiencies:
— Ayo (@damola3) February 25, 2017
Arsenal’s lack of positional play forced the error and became a hindrance as Chamberlain was dispossessed for the 5th. The worst of all is that for the first time I can remember, Arsenal visibly gave up during the home leg. Despite being on the end of hidings in big games in the past, no Arsenal side in living memory has given up like they did at home to Bayern Munich.
Is it coincidental that 3 generations of players have struggled in big games? Arsenal is viewed as a technical, possession-oriented team, therefore there’s a stereotype that comes with it. Arsenal is often accused of lacking ‘steel’, however, this is most likely a by-product of Arsenal’s system, or lack thereof. Arsenal’s positional structure is so poor, that any sort of press can cause the side to collapse. This creates the idea that the team can be easily ‘bullied’. As a result, traditional pundits ascribe it to mental weakness or a lack of leadership. There heavily implied relationship between size and mental strength amounts to nothing more than a logically fallacious false use of the cliché.
Hierarchal Control and Arsène Wenger’s Refusal to Let Go
The backdrop of this stretches back to the 90s. When Highbury became an all-seater stadium, its capacity fell to 38,500 leaving Arsenal unable to satisfy demand. Club defining Vice-Chairman David Dein was in favor of striking a deal with Wembley while others from the board such as Ken Friar and Danny Fiszman favored a move closer to home and felt vindicated in the context of poor European performances at Wembley.
Key figures David Dein and Danny Fiszman fell out in 2003 which began the boardroom battle after the 2 previously enjoyed a close relationship. The Dein-Fiszman feud lasted for the best part of a decade. Arsenal struggled to secure loans from the banks, even descending to the brink of a financial crisis where Arsenal nearly failed to pay players wages one week, however, a late property deal in 2004 prevented a catastrophe.
April 18th, 2007 was a huge event in Arsenal’s history. Tensions between Dein and the rest of the board boiled over as Dein was ousted. He was marched out of the offices by security and saw his company phone confiscated. The board believed that Dein conspired to initiate a takeover with Stan Kroenke which would see then purchase the shares of Granada and Nina Bracewell-Smith. Dein denied the accusation and the club’s hierarchy took a bizarre turn as they welcomed Kroenke into the boardroom rather than the Uzbeki-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov who owned a substantial stake in the club.
Dein sold his shares to Usmanov in August 2007 as they launched their own takeover attempt as board members entered a ‘lockdown agreement’ where they agreed not to sell their shares despite their astronomical increase in value. Dein’s rationale was that Arsenal needed the money of a foreign tycoon in order to compete with the financial elite. In fact, to push Dein away, the Arsenal board embraced American Stan Kroenke as Danny Fiszmann completed a deal on his deathbed in April 2011 to sell his shares to Kroenke and Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith proceeded to sell her 15.9% stake to the American. Boardroom tensions continued to prevail as Keith Edelman (managing director from 2000 to 2008) was ousted after falling out with other board members. Lord Harris was also criticized by other board members for being ‘too much of a fan’.
Boardroom dynamics changed to such an extent that Wenger had gone from a hands on board to a new American shareholder and a hierarchy of aging directors. In January 2009, Ivan Gazidis took the role of Arsenal CEO. He was brought in to aid Wenger on footballing issues such as transfers and contract negotiations. Undoubtedly, this would have seen a huge influence given the lack of footballing nous on the board following the shakeup. Within a couple of years, Wenger was able to arguably able to gain virtually full control over the club and the hierarchy.
Ivan Gazidis is a top footballing man who was the former deputy commissioner to the MLS. He oversaw all aspects of MLS competition, including negotiation of the transfer and employment contracts of all the players in the league, managing stadium events, security issues and player, coaching and refereeing matters. He secured the contracts of over 1,000 players in the MLS and built the MLS brand over his 14 years in the role.
A major acquisition under Gazidis was US based sports analytics company StatsDNA:
“The company is an expert in the field of sports data performance analysis, which is a rapidly developing area and one that I, and others, believe will be critical to Arsenal’s competitive position,” Gazidis said. “The insights produced by the company are widely used across our football operations – in scouting and talent identification, in game preparation, in post-match analysis and in gaining tactical insights.”
Gazidis was well ahead of the curve. The club’s first acquisition in May 2016 was Borussia Mönchengladbach regista Granit Xhaka. After being watched 30 times by scouts last season, he was signed over N’Golo Kanté. The confusion about this signing is that Granit Xhaka appears to contrast Francis Coquelin’s profile, unlike N’Golo Kanté. Despite being one of the top registas in the game, he’s struggled to fit Arsenal’s system as he’s been deployed as a box to box midfielder. The confusion heightened when he was used as a rotation player at the start of the season, sitting on the bench for Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. He neither possesses the speed or defensive ability to form the one man press that Coquelin can.
In the past, Arsène Wenger would have provided a list of transfer targets to David Dein and managing director Keith Edelman. He has traditionally had control over transfer targets, however, the oddities of the transfer point out the substantial influence of Ivan Gazidis. Xhaka profiled well statistically, especially which his high long ball completion. Wenger has appeared in two minds over Xhaka’s natural role. In September, he described the Swiss international as a ‘box-to-box’ player. “I prefer him as a box-to-box player. He has the engine to have an impact with his runs”. However, two months later, he appeared to contradict himself. “Granit is more a deep playmaker, I think, than a box-to-box player. He does not get in the final third of the opposition half a lot. He is more a player who has a fantastic pass to play through the lines. He gets the ball from the defenders and finds the higher midfielders. His strength is what we call the ‘moderate-value pass’ – the passes that come from deep midfield to high midfield.”
The lack of clarity surrounding his role suggests that Gazidis was indeed likely involved. We saw small hints in June when he publicly asserted the club’s financial backing for recruitment. A month later, Arsène Wenger commented on Gazidis’ desire to sign players:
‘I work every day with Ivan, believe me he is highly motivated to bring players in,’ said Wenger ahead of Arsenal’s friendly with Chivas de Guadalajara.
‘Sometimes I have to calm him down. I believe as well this is a period where everybody wants to dream, and transfers bring dreams.
‘But we live in a realistic world and part of our job is as well to rate the players we have inside the club. One of the values of our club is to give chances to players who deserve it.’
The evidence on the whole suggests that Gazidis has a size-able influence on the recruitment policy and likely signed Granit Xhaka over Arsène Wenger’s top transfer target, N’Golo Kanté. It is perhaps to the frustration of Wenger that he didn’t get the player which better fit his system. This is possibly why he was publicly critical of Xhaka’s red cards, however, this was odd from a manager who generally protects his players publicly. Xhaka was subsequently omitted from the first team amidst a period of fixture congestion despite the Achilles problems of Santi Cazorla which threatened his long-term career. Could this be out of bitterness? Maybe so. Wenger has traditionally held a free reign over transfer targets. Xhaka’s apparent punishment had a disastrous side effect as Santi Cazorla saw his Achilles injury aggravated which has appeared to have finished his career. This has proven disastrous to Wenger’s system. His ambidexterity and ability to dribble from pressure were the characteristics which built the foundations of Wenger’s system.
It is possible that the Xhaka signing was a by-product of Gazidis planning for the future. Based on what I’ve heard, Gazidis has shown his football knowledge through various presentations and is fully aware of issues within the team. This doesn’t appear to be the first time that he’s pushed, Wenger. In 2014, Ivan Gazidis pushed for the purchase of a central defender following the sale of Thomas Vermaelen, however, none could be found which satisfied the needs of Arsène Wenger. The pressure was further heaped onto the manager and hierarchy following the ensuing centre-back crisis where Nacho Monreal at times, was forced to play at centre-back.
A key feature of the Gazidis era has been Arsenal’s ongoing quest to add a top striker from 2013. This began with the realization of the reality that Olivier Giroud wouldn’t cut it as Arsenal’s number 1 striker. Arsenal was briefed of Luiz Suárez’s availability by Liverpool as the player wanted to move to a club with a realistic chance of competing at the highest level following Liverpool’s failure to win the champions league. However, the club could only convince Arsène Wenger to bid up to £40,000,001. This bid alienated Liverpool’s hierarchy and led to the famous John W Henry quote, “What are they smoking at the Emirates?”. In fact, preceding this transfer saga, Arsenal were set to sign 29-year-old Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuaín in a bargain £23 Million deal, however, a dispute over a late price hike scuppered the deal. This is because Wenger was opposed to the late price hike as a point of principle, leading to Napoli signing him on the cheap.
These were perhaps Arsène Wenger’s two biggest mistakes. Without Wenger’s influence, Arsenal would have likely signed Gonzalo Higuaín and would not have made the mistake of the disastrous £40,000,001 bid for Luis Suárez. In fact, many times a year, Ivan Gazidis will highlight that Arsenal are more than capable of spending huge amounts of money. It all began when he boasted about the club’s ‘financial firepower’ in 2013, but to the disappointment of Arsenal fans, Arsène Wegner has been reluctant to use this new influx of cash.
The Contractual Issues
Arsenal has been embroiled in many contractual sagas over the years, the latest being those of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, however, the latter’s is more intriguing. One thing that’s changed throughout the years is the emergence of various factions within the dressing room. These are split based upon nationality. For example, you have the British core (Chamberlain, Ramsey Jenkinson etc.), the German group (Özil, Mustafi, Xhaka etc.) and the Spanish group (Alexis, Cazorla, Lucas). However, players such as Héctor Bellerín are close with multiple groups (Spanish and English). There have been many attempts to unify the dressing room, however, Alexis has recently put a spanner in the works following a training ground bust-up, leading to the Chilean being dropped against Liverpool. There were concerns over his selective bouts of effort and general disregard for teammates and tactical instructions.
All of this occurred amidst his contract negotiations and it looks all but certain that he’ll see the door. As some have pointed out, it seems all too coincidental how quickly the news came out across various outlets. Despite this poor behavior, most clubs are able to manage their star players such as the occasion when Luis Suárez infamously tried to force a move away from Liverpool. As some suspect, it may be an attempt to make the sale more palatable among fans upon the realization of his likely departure. This is driven by Arsenal’s failure to challenge for the biggest trophies at the highest level during his stint in North London. This may be why Arséne Wenger benched Alexis Sánchez against Liverpool; to invoke a reaction from the supporters.
This has small shades of the Robin Van Persie sale. Robin Van Persie wanted a statement from the club to prove that it could challenge for the Premier League. He even produced a list of players that he wanted the club to sign. This infuriated Wenger as the club secured the early signings of Lucas Podolski and Santi Cazorla. These players even trained with Van Persie on the pre-season training camp. It became as much a financial decision as a footballing one as Arsenal budgeted on a £70 Million swing of saved wages, bonuses and transfer fees. Arsenal made no further attempt to keep him and subsequently sold him to a Manchester United side which paid close to the asking price and Van Persie was willing to join. Ignoring the narrative of ‘the little boy inside’, it appears that the Van Persie transfer saga had far more to it than a player hell-bent on betraying his former club.
Perhaps little is ascribed to the socialist pay structure of which Arsène Wenger strictly adheres to; a belief of a political nature which is applied to the club ethos. It appears that Arsène’s political tendencies have affected the club’s wage structure. In fact, Wenger describes it as a “socialist model”. He then talked about how he believes that the communist model doesn’t work economically but produced other interesting quotes:
“The capitalist model in the West also looks to be unsustainable. You cannot ignore individual intersts, but I believe the world evolves slowly. The last 30 years have brought a minimum amount of money in the West; the next step politically would be a maximum amount of money earned by everybody”
This appears to be the primary motivation behind Arsenal’s ‘socialist’ wage structure where there’s a small gap between the smallest earners and the largest earners. This proved to be a hindrance in the barren years where player quality progressively saw a decline. ou now saw players such as Johan Djourou, Denílson and Abou Diaby earning in excess of 60k, 70k, 80k per week. This explains the lack of sales in recent years in which just £30 Million worth of sales has occurred in the past 3 years. A far cry from the £60 Million Chelsea raised from the sale of Oscar in one transfer window. The most fitting example being when Carl Jenkinson’s £45,000 per week wages proved to be a stumbling block over a January move to Palace. Unfortunately, this has meant that the top earners such as Özil and Alexis have struggled to reach breakthroughs with the Arsenal hierarchy, leading to Arsène Wenger pushing the chance to win trophies as the main factors for Özil and Alexis to sign on. Don’t forget that Gazidis claimed that Arsenal could easily pay up to 200k per week in 2013 when the club had much smaller revenue streams. It appears that the contracts of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez have dragged on as a result of a wage dispute, driven by the principles of his wage structure.
Injuries, Injuries, and More Injuries
On December 19, 2012, Arsenal announced the contract extensions of the infamous British core. Ranging from 21-19 years of age, full internationals Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere looked set to have a bright future. Approximately 4.5 years later, the British core is arguably all surplus to requirements. Many have seen a little progression and some have even declined. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain couldn’t even manage 50 league starts by the age of 23. They all have one factor in common, they’ve all been hampered by injuries.
Could this be a coincidence? This isn’t the only core of players to be significantly impacted by injury. Injuries are a common theme of the post-stadium era. Cesc Fàbregas, Robin Van Persie, and Thomas Vermaelen are a small sample from a catalog of names to be blighted by injury. Let’s not forget that Arsène Wenger was a revolutionary, as he embraced the advances in sports science and medicine, even once sending Tony Adams to have his wisdom teeth removed in France to solve a long-running back problem.
There’s been a very recent revelation on the injury record of Jack Wilshere. Dr. Craig Roberts, head of medical services at Bournemouth told TGG that his team had been working very closely with Arsenal in order to reduce his risk of injury. In fact, since joining Bournemouth, Wilshere has been injury free barring an ankle strain against Man City on February 13 which didn’t result in any missed fixtures.
In fact, Roberts released the secret behind his injury problems:
Roberts told TGG: “Jack has had a lot of overuse type injuries over the years. He’s had some traumatic ones as well, which every player can get, but he’s a player who is prone to break down if the load is too high.
“For us, particularly given that he hadn’t played a lot leading up to joining us, we were very very strict in terms of the amount of training he would do in the week leading up to a game.
“There is a lot of new interesting data coming out in terms of looking at acute verse chronic load and matching up how much you can do this week based on what you have been doing for the last four weeks.
“We were very strict on what he could and couldn’t do. Jack didn’t like it, because he just wanted to get out and train and play.
“But until we were able to build up the load that he could tolerate, we had to be very careful in terms of what we did.
There are a myriad of overuse injuries. In fact, Wilshere had 10 separate injuries in the 13/14 season, 7 of them being on his ankle or foot. This suggests that Jack Wilshere is the victim of coaches with little clue of periodization. This isn’t an isolated case. There have been one too many instances of coincidentally bad injury problems. This stands out as an anomaly in the league, especially considering Arsenal’s vast resources and squad depth.
Looking at the injury record of the rest of this British core, this looks to be no coincidence. Excluding Ramsey’s leg break, Jack Wilshere (901 days), Kieran Gibbs (462 days), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (496 days) and Aaron Ramsey (373 days) have collectively missed a whopping 430 games over their Arsenal careers. In fact, it could be argued that injuries were a leading cause of Arsenal’s trophy drought and the club’s decline. There are few doubts that the careers of players such as Tomáš Rosický and Abou Diaby’s might have seen different turns without their famous injury woes.
Arsène Wenger’s Extension – Alternate Theories
The pressure on Arsène Wenger is greater than ever as it appears that his 21-year stint at Arsenal is coming to an end. His contract has become a hot topic of contention. Most of the football world, including Arsène’s own friends, appear to be in the dark. As a result, I felt a deep interest regarding the premises behind his decision. On August 10, 2016, Arsène Wenger spoke about his future when he hinted that this season is won or bust, “My contract runs until the end of the season. What I do after will depend on how the season goes.” He’d previously claimed a Spring deadline in December, “I’ve always said that I will judge where I stand in the Spring and make my decision then”. After suffering a humiliating 10-2 on aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich and being cut 5 points adrift of the top 4 in April, it appears that Arsène Wenger’s tenure should come to an end by his own admission; the idea that his contract will “depend on how the season goes”. However, Wenger hinted at a delay in his decision making at the start of March, “This decision is not necessarily linked with two weeks out of 20 years. I don’t feel I box myself in a corner.”
This suggests that Wenger has an intent to say, especially as he’s recently spoken about reinventing himself:
“I am a specialist in masochism,” he said, smiling. “I believe as well that this job allowed me to get to the next level as a human being; to develop my strengths in what makes a human being great. To get the best out of people. That is absolutely fantastic.
“You have disappointments – with people, with results. But it is as well a fantastic opportunity in life to go for what is really great in human beings; to get yourself to the next level always, to improve, to invent yourself, to push your limits further up and not to have an average life.
“It is very demanding but, as well, very interesting if you really face the challenge by accepting the reality, in an objective way, of what you have to do to get better.”
Arsène Wenger seems to possess the same burning desire to continue and succeed at Arsenal that he did from the say he set foot in London Colney. It is no secret that Arsène possesses very little in terms of a life outside of football. He isn’t like the great Sir Alex Ferguson who possesses a herd of horses and a social life. Football is Arsène’s life to such an extreme that he didn’t even furnish his house his house at Monaco. Football is his life, hence his murmurings in the media about remaining in football, “No matter what happens, I will manage next season, whether it’s here or somewhere else, I am not sure”. It appears that Arsène Wenger is determined to continue at Arsenal to maintain his lifestyle, hence he describes himself as a “specialist in masochism”. It is arguable that Wenger’s judgment isn’t as “lucid and objective” as he claims. Some may say that this is borne from delusion. The earlier referenced quotes on Arsenal’s stars being influenced by trophies seems to back up this claim. Arsène genuinely believes that he can compete at the highest level of football.
The contractual situation is difficult for the Arsenal board. Based on what I’ve heard about Gazidis and others who have watched his presentations, he’s fully aware of problems at AFC. Such is the control of which Wenger has over the hierarchy that Gazidis has a touch decision to make. Does he keep the extension on he table or force Wenger out? There’s a degree of sentimentality over this decision after all that Wenger has done for the club and the reality that Wenger is ultimately responsible for Gazidis being at the club.
Such control is enjoyed by Wenger that the delay of his decision is having a detrimental effect on next season’s planning. According to The Times, the club has attempted to enter preliminary negotiations, however, the lack of clarity over next season’s manager is causing talks to break down. Agents with a long history of working with the club have allegedly approached several players in Europe in order to set up summer transfers, however, they’ve been told to come back when the managerial situation becomes clearer. It’s clear that the Arsenal hierarchy is totally unsure on the manager’s future and that Wenger has a free reign to dictate the terms of his extension.
It is arguable that the only fundamental mistake made by Stan Kroenke was to hand Arsène Wenger such power over the club’s hierarchy. Ivan Gazidis, a man who’s job title undoubtedly had influence from Wenger acts as a middleman between the two. This gives the manager virtually unlimited power. This makes Chairman Sir Chips Keswick’s claim that “decisions will be made by us mutually” ever less convincing.
The Truth Behind the Barren Years
The barren years are a victim of two separate narratives. The use of which is reserved differs among Arsenal’s divided fanbase. The idea that Arsène’s stingy or that the club was financially restricted. Despite there being elements of truth to this narrative, it deflects from the main factor. The story beings in the pre-Emirates era. Such was the dedication of Arsène Wenger that he signed a new contract in October 2004. This wasn’t any extension. One bank wouldn’t release funds until Arsène signed a new contract and so Arsenal was able to secure one of the finest grounds in the country.
The real reason behind Arsenal’s tightening period is long-term commercial deals signed to establish Arsenal’s credit worthiness. They enabled the club to sell long-term bonds which managed to reduce interest payments. The issue with long-term commercial deals is that despite being relatively high at the time of the deal, they devalue over time. Arsenal saw their commercial revenue streams fall behind Europe’s elite. Arsenal’s kit deal with Nike was worth a measly £8 Million per annum until 2013 and the Emirates deal a measly £150 Millon over 10 years. These deals were the largest undertaken in English football, however, to put this into perspective, Manchester United’s £14 Million per annum AIG deal agreed in 2006 were as big as Arsenal’s shirt, kit and stadium sponsorship combined. From 2004, Arsène saw huge spending restrictions where he was theoretically only able to spend £15 Million net per season at most, however, this changed when cash flow was eased. The club secured bonds which reduced interest payments by £15-20 Million per week and Arsenal secured long-term commercial deals. Upon knowing this, Arsène Wenger naturally became less ambitious with his transfer activity despite the lack of hierarchal pressure from the Arsenal board in terms of spending habits.
Arsenal’s majority shareholder Stan Kroenke is often criticized and he’s often accused of lacking the ambition to win trophies. This was particularly active after an MIT sports analytics conference from 2016:
“For me, being an individual owner, I have to have some sort of reality involved.
“If you want to win championships then you would never get involved. I think the best owners in sports are the guys that sort of watch both sides a bit. If you don’t have a good business then you can’t really afford to go out and get the best players unless you just want to rely on other sources of income.
“Over there [in the Premier League] it was sort of like ‘well, we’ve got guys from the Middle East, the oil price is over $100, they can spend anything they want’.
“But the problem I saw with all of that; those people can lose interest. It doesn’t mean that they will, but I sort of threw that out there: ‘What happens when the Middle Eastern family, this thing’s costing a lot of money and they decide to go home?’ I said what really happens in those situations is the fans get hurt because the players get picked up and paid if they’re good, the front office gets other jobs.”
This is commonly taken out of context but Stan Kroenke raises a good point. The modern football club needs to be self-sufficient to win trophies in the long-run. As seen with Malaga and AC Monaco, the effects of a sugar daddy leaving a club can be disastrous. Chelsea and Man City have been signing commercial deals to establish themselves with the European financial elite. Gone are the days when they needed to be pumped up by a foreign sugar daddy. They are now well-established brands with a global reach. Spending power is a game of commercial revenue. In fact, it could be argued that the stadium provides Arsenal with the financial stability of a superclub. Having the highest match day revenues in Europe gives Arsenal leeway from their lagging commercial revenue streams. These massively outweigh the costs of servicing debt annually.
Kroenke also acknowledges his limitations in terms of football knowledge. Hence, he takes a hands-off approach and lets the rest of the hierarchy run the club. Perhaps, his biggest mistake was giving Wenger such a control over the hierarchy. Given the status of Gazidis, Arsenal arguably has a principle-agent problem where Arsène is accountable to a man he essentially brought to the club. It is within Kroenke’s self-interest to win trophies and he undoubtedly knows this. It is trophies that give a club commercial success and Arsenal can only spend the currency of past successes for so long. It is commercial revenue streams that represent the size of your brand and fundamentally determine the value of AFC’s shares.
What I Think…
Proceeding the 1-2 loss against Everton in December, Arsenal were left 6 points behind league leaders Chelsea with games away to City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs set to be played. It was then that I suspected that the team was relegated to a top 4 battle. As teams discovered our vulnerability to the high press, exacerbated by the loss of Santi Cazorla, Arsenal has been on the ends of poor results such as a 3-3 draw to Bournemouth and a 2-1 home loss to Watford. It was the Watford game which confirmed one of my largest fears; Champions league qualification was an unlikely feat. Given Arsenal’s tactical deficiencies, I had very little confidence in Arsenal gaining many points away to sides like Liverpool, Chelsea, Southampton and Spurs and even home matches against sides like United and Manchester City in the last 15 games.
I felt that the end of the season would be a disaster. Forgetting the state of being inevitably knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich, every big defeat towards the end of the season would be met by greater fan uproar which may peak at White Hart Lane on April 18 upon the realisation that Arsenal won’t make the Champions League consolidate Arsenal’s slide down the table. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez would leave to top it all off and Wenger would eventually leave through a wave of public pressure, leaving a huge project for the board and Arsène’s successor.
Arsenal has a bigger issue than what persists on the surface. Forgetting the issue of Champions League qualification, Arsenal’s squad has hit crossroads. Arsène’s window is finally expiring as Arsenal’s squad is at its peak: Cech (34), Monreal (31), Gibbs (27), Koscielny (31), Mertesacker (32), Debuchy (30), Cazorla (32), Özil (28), Alexis (28), Walcott (28), Perez (28), Giroud (30). Not only do Arsenal face squad aging problems but the majority of the first team will require an overhaul in the next few summers with Ospina, Szczęsny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Jenkinson, Wilshere, Cazorla, Ramsey, Özil, Alexis, and Chamberlain seeing their contracts expire at the end of next season.
For any club, especially of Arsenal’s size, this is arguably scandalous. The contracts of Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil could have been sewn up in 2016 if they had met demands and Chamberlain’s situation saw no attention while the likes of Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal received contract extensions. It leaves Arsenal facing the potential loss of a 23-year-old prospect experiencing their breakout season.
Arsenal faces the very real threat of seeing its status as part of the financial elite dwindle. The club sees huge commercial deals expire in 2019, namely the Puma and Emirates deal which represent £30 Million each annually. On the pitch successes in the coming years and competition at the highest level will define these deals which are needed to help Arsenal keep its place as one of Europe’s leading ‘superclubs’. Poor squad management in Arsène Wenger’s later years and a lack of success has arguably posed a threat to Arsenal’s seat at the table of elites and has opened the door for Liverpool as the inevitable turnover ensues in North London.
What Would I do?
- Install a footballing director – The club seems to be onto this as Arsenal look likely to acquire a sporting director. The primary aim being to alleviate the load on Arsène Wenger and leave any eventual manager with a role primarily focused on coaching. The next footballing director will have the club infrastructure and StatsDNA to spare. Given Wenger’s appetite for control, quotes from 2013 suggest explicitly that Wenger is diametrically opposed to the concept of a director of football. This suggests the beginning of the end for him.
- Have faith in Gazidis – Given that he’s virtually the only footballing man on the board, he’ll be vital for the future of AFC. His background suggests that he’s up for the task. He has a club defining Summer with contracts and a squad overhaul on the horizon. I have faith that he can be the man to steer the club into the face of glory.
- Replace Alexis and Özil – Both players see their contracts expire soon and Arsenal’s inevitable failure to qualify for the Champions League will undoubtedly lead to the loss of these 2-star men. Given the issues with squad aging and a lack of Champions League football, it would be virtually impossible to build a team to dominate at the highest level within the next 2 years. Their sales should rationally be proceeded by an influx of young talent. A Borussia Dortmund type project looks appropriate to get Arsenal competing at the highest level in the long-run.
- Sign key players – Coming into the summer, Arsenal arguably required a goalkeeper, left back, central midfielder and attacker. Ignoring sales, these positions were likely on the agenda. Players like Timo Horn, Emerson Palmieri, Kieran Tierney, Naby Keïta and Julian Brandt will undoubtedly be attainable targets for Arsenal are form a young core of the team.
- Get some players to extend – Some players with limited contracts still have something to offer, namely Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere. Given the likely change in the summer, it’s within the realms of possible to still convince Chamberlain to extend than seek new challenges elsewhere. Jack Wilshere s another player which has much to offer. He’s proven his fitness record in the premier league. Given the squad aging issues, the signature of Wilshere could be vital.
- Shift unneeded players – As many are aware, the squad requires a significant overhaul in the summer. Not only is the squad aging but many should be surplus to requirements regardless. Ospina, Gibbs Mertesacker, Debuchy, Jenkinson, Szczesny, Cazorla, Campbell, Giroud, and Perez are all players that possess a redundant role in the abyss that is Arsenal’s squad. Ruthlessness in the transfer markets will now need to be in excess. Deals like the opportunity to sell a backup for £26 Million must not be rejected.
It appears that Arsène Wenger’s 21 years are finally set to come to an end. I hope that I have provided insight into the institution that is Arsenal Football Club. Undoubtedly there’s information which clubs keep in utmost secrecy but here, I have culminated this information in a manner which has never been done before. This is the real truth of the post-stadium era.