The way the game is played and clubs are managed at the top level has clearly changed in the past five years.
All-powerful managers like Arsene and Sir Alex have gone, replaced with inter-linking silo structures run by powerful CEO’s or Director’s of Football.
Academies are distinct but vitally integrated parts of the business expected to generate both first team players and regular profits from player sales.
Directors of football oversee recruiting and selling established and developing talent to fit the team’s desired profile and specific needs given its chosen playing style.
Scouting networks, agents and analytics are used to varying degrees to try and find nuggets and avoid dogs in a globally competitive marketplace.
Coaches like players are changed to better implement the playing strategy and are worked hard like the players and changed as ruthlessly.
The result, theoretically, is a more sustainable business model - one not exposed to prolonged upheaval when the king is changed and performance tanks financially as well as footballistically.
Chelsea were trend setters in this approach, City followed and now others have followed suit in response to the increased competition at the top of the league and the huge financial costs of missing out on the top 4 (now well over £60m pa in pure profit - or two Aubameyangs a season). (Ed’s note – this is worked out combining the cost of Aubameyang’s transfer fee and wages – approx. £90m - over a three year period).
Of course, whilst the competition between the top 6 has got more intense that has not stopped new entrants threatening the top 6’s exclusive access to European football (the Europa League is worth another Aubameyang a season to the participants or £30m pa in pure profit). Leicester (twice) and Wolves have all breached the fortress and Everton are pressing hard thanks to huge financial investment and soft sponsorships from Arsenal’s ex minority shareholders.
What is clear is that finance alone does not guarantee continued financial success.
Arsenal enjoyed spending 50% more on wages than Liverpool and up to 100% more than Spurs and still those two clubs overtook the team on the pitch and now in the money league. Both used transformational player sales, soundly re-invested to step up on the pitch (selling Suarez then Coutinho in Liverpool’s case and Modric and Bale in Spurs’) coupled with going for the right modern playing style coach and good academy development to not only overtake Arsenal on the pitch but fund new stadiums at the same time through their owners deep pockets - thus matching Arsenal’s one source of competitive advantage. Leicester are trying to follow suit with considerable success so far (using the sales of Mahrez and Maguire plus not frittering their one Champions League payday) and hiring a re-inspired Rodgers from Celtic.
Meanwhile, United and Arsenal have tried unsuccessfully to spend their way back to the top 4 with failed coaching changes and failed player purchases piling up in their wake. United’s huge legacy commercial contract advantage from SAF’s days and occasional Champions League appearances have so far helped protect them more than Arsenal - who lacked sufficient reserves and slack in their annual budget to weather three years of continued failure and now stand on the somewhat of a precipice.
So what is needed for success now?
A modern playing style, a coach to implement it, a good academy and good talent spotting to make sure you buy the right established players certainly helps. So too does owners who invest in the infrastructure (Liverpool and Spurs) or support the team through soft sponsorship (City and Everton) or openly fund losses (Abramovich pumped £250m back in to Chelsea in 2018 and was rewarded with a return to the Champions League). In all cases, owners and business managers who are savvy enough to make fast management changes at all levels as needed is a must.
So where do Arsenal stand?
Financially they are a long way short of accessible on-pitch rivals like Spurs ad Chelsea (in 2021 the gap in revenue could be E100m pa which translates straight to the playing squad).
Their academy appears as integrated as many but lacks the resources some have to throw at global young talent.
Their coaching set up and playing style thankfully looks more closely aligned now under Arteta than it has for almost 20 years.
Their recruitment and spotting skills however remain questionable under King Raul. Whatever happened to world leading data analytics? Has it been shelved and replaced with Joorabchian’s chicken bones and a few highly speculative risk signings (like Pepe)?
And what of their owner? Still absent, still slow to react to on-pitch malaise and definitely not inclined to put his hand in his pocket to help weather the storm or refinance those £250m of legacy debts which still drain the club to the tune £20m pa of cash.
What can we expect?
Continued struggle, even if by some miracle we get back in the top 4 that won’t change. The other clubs are going nowhere and it’ll be a fight to be top 6 every season. Maybe that’s enough to put Stan off and persuade him to sell up, that and the continued blocking of super league proposals and insistence by the Premier League in a fairly shared revenue model that removes the natural upside from just staying invested. But don’t hold your breath. It may take further decline next season to push him over the edge….
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