Ah, remember the good days? When Arsene did know? Or for that matter the George Graham years. Arsenal were top dogs in London, no question about that. Spurs and Chelsea might have won the odd cup, but the league table told you who was London’s finest. The Gunners were competing for the title and every game mattered. On the back of this they moved stadium so they could make more income from Arsenal hospitality and anticipated that the increased income would allow them to continue to compete with Manchester United.
Where did it all go wrong? Well, the arrival of Roman Abramovich certainly didn't help matters, and by the time of Sheikh Mansour buying Manchester City, Arsenal were starting to slip off the radar as far as title challenges were concerned. So, face the facts, Chelsea became the most successful side in London after the Invincibles campaign, and have remained as such up until now.
But football is cyclical. Manchester United’s last title was won in 2013, and their local rivals across town have won three since then. And the tides may be shifting in London too, although it isn’t good news for Gooners. You'd think that the estimated £1 billion cost of Spurs’ new stadium might have set them back years, but the reality is that new stadiums mean more income, more than enough to cover repayments. It’s a myth that moving to the Emirates hampered Arsenal financially. Sure they were paying £18 million a year to pay off the stadium, but increase in gate money alone covered that comfortably. They made over £90 million in 2006/07, more than double the final season at Highbury. So a comfortable extra £30 million to the bottom line there. What did for Arsenal was two things – the over hasty break-up of the Invincibles and being usurped by Chelsea’s spending power.
Granted, the cost to Spurs of their new home is more than double what Arsenal had to shell out. And yet, the income from the game has risen dramatically since 2006. Spurs have been very astute, building a team from the funds made by selling the likes of Luca Modric and Gareth Bale, with good use of the transfer market and developing players from their own ranks. Critically, the work of Mauricio Pochettino has allowed them to reach a stage where they may soon enjoy their day in the sun as London’s top team, even if they still have work to do to catch Manchester City and the revived Liverpool.
The reality is that, in terms of income, reaching the Champions League final is a major boost to the club’s bank balance, and even if they were to lose to Liverpool, the season can only be regarded as one of progression. It appears as if the manager will remain to continue his work, as will most of the players with the possible exceptions of Christian Erikssen and Toby Alderweireld, who are both down to the final year of their contracts. Daniel Levy’s financial savvy will surely mean that these players either extend or are sold before next season kicks off. Were they to sell the stadium naming rights now, the asking price would certainly be greater than before they had moved in.
Chelsea are struggling now because their owner has lost interest, they face a transfer ban until next summer, Eden Hazard’s departure seems inevitable, plans to expand Stamford Bridge are currently on ice and there seem to be problems between Mauritzio Sarri and his playing staff. Granted, they might win the Europa League, but after fourteen years of success which has seen them as unquestionably London’s most successful side, their turn to take a dip seems to be close. Of course changing managers has worked for them in the past, so there is certainly no guarantee Sarri will be around next season, even though Champions League football has been secured.
And what of Arsenal? It should be remembered that Jurgen Klopp had a similarly mixed start to his Liverpool tenure. He arrived in October 2015, and his team finished that season eighth in the Premier League, whilst losing the Europa League final to, ironically, the Unai Emery managed Sevilla. A rebuilding job was necessary, and it’s taken time. It should be remembered that Klopp has yet to win silverware with the club although the culmination of his fourth season could well see him lift the trophy that has twice eluded him in finals at both Dortmund and Liverpool. To win 97 points in the Premier League and not win the title still seems unreal.
Emery has done better in the league than Klopp in his first campaign, and if he wins in Baku, then he will have returned the club to the Champions League at the first attempt. Liverpool though, were able to fund their rebuild with a supportive owner focused on footballing success, combined with the funds from the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona. The funds made from their run to the Champions League final last season would have done them no harm either.
The question for Arsenal is how much Stan Kroenke wants the team to succeed. The signs are that he seems happy for them simply to remain in the cash cow that is the Premier League, rather than invest the necessary funds to allow them to push on and become a force once more. He could easily cover the £18 million annual debt repayment without having any impact on FFP regulations, and even pay off the entire debt to release many millions in the Arsenal bank account that have to remain there as security for the loan until the final repayment is made at some time in the distant future.
Arsenal’s turn in the London football cycle will probably come again, but given their current situation, the sooner they can get back into the Champions League, and the better their recruitment and internal player development policy, the more likely it is to happen. Whether or not Unai Emery is the man to oversee the renaissance is a debate for another time, but there seems little doubt that, in comparison to Liverpool and Spurs, the club are currently hampered by an unmotivated owner.