It’s Tough Being an Arsenal Fan (when you learn about the money)
Arsenal has gone thirteen years without a Title…after another ineffective Transfer Window…it looks like it’s going to be a fourteenth. When will it stop?
I don’t normally watch any match that Arsenal has with big teams, at least not live, at least not for the past ten years. That means I missed the FA Cup win (Chelsea)…and the FA Cup Semifinal (Manchester City).
But I was at my brother Ade’s house, and my younger sons were there. So I decided to suffer through it. Arsenal were playing Liverpool after a previous loss to Stoke City on a quick second half goal. Sullen, I looked across at my 12 year old and told him, “I know they’re going to lose. Score’s going to be 3–0.” Shocked, he replied, “Why do you say that?” “Because it’s Arsenal…” was my response.
A decade of disappointment will do that. But that decade also changed my focus. Gone was the excitement of following the top players in every league, of studying formations, of being drawn in by “the beautiful game.” That was replaced with Lester Freaman (and previously Mark Felt’s) suggestion to follow the money.
And that’s where this rabbit hole begins.
It’s a rabbit hole that can be applied to all professional sports but in no sport is the affect of commerce so glaring. In world futbal a team’s every move is determined by sponsorships (EPL’s $363m vs MLS’ $60m) and television (EPL’s $6.6b vs MLS’ $90m).
So how did Arsenal go from being a team of “Invincibles” to a proverbial second, third, fourth, and last year, fifth place team? What does that do to the moral of the team and fans? And how long can this frustrating form continue?
“Thierry Henry is a valuable addition to our squad. He is a young international striker who will be a great asset to Arsenal Football Club. He has good experience of both club and international football and will considerably strengthen our firepower.” Arsene Wenger, 3 August 1999
I remember the year 2004 for two reasons — one petty, one very real. The real one first. 2004 is the year my beautiful, highly intelligent, and goal scoring machine daughter was born. I usually measure events in life by her birth. The petty…2004 is the year that Arsenal completed their undefeated season as Champions of the Premier League.
I was distracted that season…see the real…but every weekend I was amazed. No defeats?!? They finished clear of Chelsea by 11 points that May. It was amazing. Thierry Henry’s 30 goal total was double Robert Pires’ 14, the closest team competitor and 8 more than his closest league competitor.
(Perspective on those 30 goals…that number has only been matched or topped twice in thirteen years)
After a team goes undefeated, one’s expectations can’t help but to be anything but high. Maybe not another season undefeated high, but at least another Title high. But that never happened.
Before we shoot into that negative space, let’s talk a bit about how it all began.
“Boring, Boring Arsenal.”
That’s how Arsenal had come to be known. This is during the “1–0 to the Arsenal” days. Thankfully, I only read about these matches in New York Times “Soccer” reports where the scores for the Premier League and LigaMX were listed in the back of the Sports section devoid of any description, just the score.
For what seemed like all of my college years, Arsenal scores were 1–0, 0–0. They were a defensive minded team, second best in the league — Google: ‘The Famous Back Four' — and their attack…the worst. This a team that had all time goal-scoring powerhouse Ian Wright. But they ain’t win nothing.
That changed when Arsene Wenger, then the coach of Monaco, recommended to his friend, Arsenal Chairman, David Dein, that he pursue a Dutch striker who was languishing in Italy. That striker was Dennis Bergkamp.
Bergkamp was always one of my faves, graceful in the way that the Dutch are, a great scorer, he joined Arsenal during Bruce Rioch’s one year in charge of the Gunners.
Rioch attempted to bring the Arse out of its long ball practice by keeping the ball on the ground. Bergkamp was perfect for that.
If you watch matches from the early 90s, that’s one of the first things that you’ll notice, the ball flying 30, 40 yards, back and forth, up and down the field. Possession was obviously of no importance.
Those long, and high passes benefitted Wrighty — he was the only one being fed — and he hated the pass all over the field game, which invariably means that he hated Rioch. Ian Wright put in for a transfer.
But it never came to that. Rioch was axed.
Enter: Arsene Wenger.
You’ll have to use your Googles to better understand all the ways that Wenger has affected English football in general and Arsenal in particular. From fitness to style of play, Wenger has forever changed the face of British Football.
His first signing (before he was even signed or announced as Manager) was one of my favorite Gunners, Patrick Viera. Viera was the complete package — he won balls, he controlled the midfield, he distributed the ball…check what Ian Wright said about Viera:
It’s been a while since we’ve had a midfield player who looks at the front man’s run first and then looks at other options. He makes dream passes forward and he’s already put me in several times. Ian Wright
…gone were the complaints that Wright had under Rioch.
Arsene Wenger’s first full season (97/98) saw Arsenal winning the double — winning the League (by a point!) and the FA Cup (If you’on’t know anything about Futbol…winning the double is a big, damn deal).
It was my first season being able to follow televised Premier League matches too. I’m sure I have those videotaped matches packed away in storage somewhere. I was ecstatic just to see the sport, for Arsenal to win the Double, yo — I imagined it could only get better.
It’s important to point out for the sake of this writing that the iconic team that would later become The Invincibles was mostly built during the Transfer Windows. Overmars, Petit, Ljungberg, Kanu, names that are almost iconic now, joined Arsenal in 97–99 Transfer Windows.
Wenger was putting together a squad that could compete. After Manchester United ended Arsenal’s FA Cup hopes in the Semis and won the 98/99 season League Championship by a point, Wenger assessed what he needed and pursued another striker.
That 1998/99 season, that was the first season that made it impossible for me to hate Manchester United (this one is the second — damn Lukaku — damn Pogba). That was a season that saw one of the greatest strike teams come to life — that of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. They were on 442 and WSC magazine covers, they were dismantling back fours left and right.
Arsenal needed a strike force too. With Ian Wright gone, Wenger wanted someone to compliment the grace of Bergkamp and he found that in Thierry Henry.
Here’s the thing — it’s not like Arsenal won the League as soon as they signed Henry. Quite the contrary. Man U went on to win back to back Titles. The Gunners would win a Domestic Double in 2001/2…but then were second place…for the third time in four years.
2003/4 is The Invincible’s/Undefeated season and the last time that Arsenal has won a League Title.
If we flashback to that exact moment, one can see why the fans had faith in Wenger and the decisions that Arsenal were making. Arsenal won three League Titles and three FA Cups the first six years that Wenger was Manager. He was aggressive in the Transfer Window. Even the youth development looked promising (remember when Walcott and Wiltshire were wunderkind…).
That last point brings us up to when it all went to shit.
“We’re the North Bank
We’re the North Bank
We’re the North Bank, Highbury!”
Formerly known as the Laundry End, the area opposite the Clock End, became known as the North Bank in 67, back when the Premier League was 25 years away, known as the Football League, and teams played 42 matches a year. ‘We’re the North Bank’ was a chant of the youth who were thought of as ‘Thugs,’ it’s where the trouble usually happened. Arsenal finished 7th that year.
In 2017, you can get a condo in the North Bank for $650gs, The old Highbury was converted into 750 apartments (with 550 underground parking spaces) by Allies and Morrison with the pitch turned into a 2.5 acre garden, a project overseen by Arsenal Managing Director, Keith Edelman.
We now enter….The Money Aspect
Remember that Wire episode — Season 1, where Lester Freamon has the team looking up DNB Enterprises paper work — the one where he says, “follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers, but you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.”
Arsenal’s past ten years of mediocrity lead to me doing just that.
But the statement would be more like, “follow players, you get fans and entertainment, follow the money, and…etc etc.”
If you don’t want to know how Futbol really works, keep scrolling until you see the picture of Lacazette. But if you want to know why Wenger is still at Arsenal, if you want to know what’s going on in world sports in general…stick around.
When David Dein brought Arsene Wenger on as Manager, he was looking to make changes. Manchester United was not only beating Arsenal on the pitch, Man U was beating the Gunners at becoming an International team. They had the grounds (Old Trafford, second only to Wembley in size) and as far back as the early 1900s had the epithet ‘Moneybags United.’ There are case studies and thinkpieces dedicated to the growth and success of the Red Devils.
The only way for Arsenal or any club to compete was to expand Arsenal Stadium. That would require the demolition of 25 neighboring homes but the Islington Stadium Communities Alliance, a coalition of 16 local organizations, wasn’t haven’t it.
See, it don’t work like that in the U.S. If a stadium is to be built, the team will buy any surrounding property — Friendship Baptist Church and Mount Vernon Baptist Church, historic Black churches both took payments to relocate and make way for Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta — but if you don’t take the buyout, the team will enlist the local government and they will Eminent Domain your ass off that property.
If you don’t know what Eminent Domain is it’s “[t]he inherent power of a governmental entity to take privately owned property, esp[ecially] land, and convert it to public use, subject to reasonable compensation for the taking.” That means the team just has laws (really codes…but we won’t get too technical) passed, like Arlington, Texas’ Resolution №04–358, that allowed the city to seize the property of anyone not willing to negotiate.
This is Umerica, Jack. Ain’t no community alliance stopping big business from building shit.
Dein and Wenger on the other hand had to jump through all-types of hoops. They even considered making Wembley home (It’s interesting that now, Tottenham is playing there as their stadium is completed but back then it was outrageous). When that was unsuccessful, the Gunners were left with no choice but to build a stadium.
“We are building a stadium, so I will get young players in early so I do not find myself exposed on the transfer market without the money to compete with the others.” Arsene Wenger, 24 August 2009
It could be called a tale of two leagues.
Bayern and Arsenal both decided that they needed new stadiums in 1997. They both had similar timelines of advancement from picking a site to laying the foundation. The expectant opening date was the same as well. And that’s were the similarities end.
I don’t see it mentioned often but I think the sale of Paul Merson was the first sign of what was to come. Merson was sold, Arsenal lost four out of the next six matches. This was the first time that the press and fans questioned Wenger’s decisions — they believed he sold Arsenal’s playmaker. But there was something else at play.
Bayern was able to complete the Allianz Arena on time, while The Emirates was delayed by a year when media company Granada (keep that name in mind) attempted to wiggle out of its $38 million dollar contract. Arsenal’s exorbitant ticket prices are dedicated to paying off their loans, Bayern paid off their loans in 2014 with its ‘Record Revenue.’ Bayern have won fifteen (15) league titles since deciding to build a new stadium…and Arsenal…yeah.
Bayern haven’t missed a beat. They were winning at the Olympiastadion, they’re winning at Allianz. Again, the Bundesliga and the Premier League are practically analogs to each other. They may be competing for the top Leagues in Europe (Premier League leads in revenue by a billy+) but Bayern is the only large team in Germany.
No one else in the Bundesliga cracks the top 50 of Forbes’ Most Valuable Team list — Arsenal is competing against 3 (Man U, #3, Man City #35, & Chelsea, #46) — two of which, Man City & Chelsea, grew in a way that no German team can — foreign investors.
Not just any o’ foreign investors either. Roman Abramovich bought a team (Chelsea) and wanted to win, spending $100 million on players within two months of his purchase. Similarly, ADUG, headed by Sheikh Mansour was interested in making Man City a competitive team…and since their takeover of the team in 08, they have become that.
Wherein we enter the meat of the Arsenal problem.
Kroenke is the majority stake holder in Arsenal, controlling 63% of purchasing stocks and if one were simply to look at the other teams he controls (The Rapids, The Nuggets, & The Rams) it would become evident — Kroenke doesn’t give two shits for any of his teams.
Look at the contrast. Sheikh Mansour bankrolled New York City’s second soccer team, New York City FC, and three years later they are sitting in second on the MLS Table. Kroenke’s Colorado Rapids? If the MLS were any other league, their pitiful 22 points on 26 games would have them relegated and labeled a disgrace; most of their seasons have sucked also.
As I talked about here, I’m an Atlanta United fan. I might say a proud Atlanta United fan, and just based on this, the inaugural season alone, it’s evident that the owner, Arthur Blank, cares about the team.
The Supporter Clubs have access to the board, Blank mentions the team at every opportunity, and made it just as comfortable for United fans as he did for Falcon fans when tours were given for the new, state of the art Mercedes Benz Stadium.
As a result, Atlanta United looks to do what few expansion teams have done before — qualify for the MLS playoffs.
But Kroenke…he don’t care.
Arsenal’s cracks started to show when Patrick Viera’s successor Cesc Fabregas took a paycut to leave Arsenal for Barcelona back in 2011.
At Arsenal, there were finals and semi-finals but we always lacked that little extra push to win something. That was hard to take. It was not that we didn’t win titles, it was that we kept going through the same routine, the same things happening to us and us messing up.
And he went on to say:
I gave everything for Arsenal but it didn’t show in the [trophy] cabinet because I only won one FA Cup. Cesc Fabregas
A year later, Robin Van Persie bounced for Man U saying this:
As announced earlier this year I had a meeting with the Boss and Mr. Gazidis after the season. This was a meeting about the club’s future strategy and their policy. Financial terms or a contract have not been discussed, since that is not my priority at all.
Here’s the key part:
I personally have had a great season but my goal has been to win trophies with the team and to bring the club back to its glory days.
The next year Van Persie copped a trophy.
Before David Dein was ousted, he made it a point to inform the board…damn near beg the board to take on foreign investors…other than Kroenke. But the board didn’t agree. Kroenke came into the picture because Granada sold their 10% stake to him. Afraid that Alisher Usmanov (who has 30% shares…and no votes) would take over the club, the board rallied behind Kroenke to take over the team adding him to the board.
Three years later (2011), Kroenke bought more shares bringing his total to the present 63%
While all of this was going on, Arsenal was complacently huddled in the top four. Seldom competing for a title, imploding in the Champions Leagues, selling it’s top players (to cover that bond…remember that), and sadly not doing anything to fix the many holes in the team. Usmanov, who at least seems to care about the club said this:
The acquisition was financed with debt, which would be repaid through match-day revenues among other sources. There is another way of doing it: when shareholders buy all of the assets and contribute them to the club. As a result, these debt-free assets may generate income for the club. It is always up to the shareholders to choose which model to adopt.
The board and main shareholders chose the debt option at the time, which led to Arsenal going almost 10 years without winning a domestic title or the Champions League. The first trophy only arrived in the 10th year. As a result of this choice, they were selling players and were unable to buy top players.
And those “young players” from that 09 quote…none of them panned out. Those players, the “British Core” (Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshire, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and good o Theo Walcott) have been talked about excessively over the past five years. But the implosion of players like Wilshire have definitely garnered more attention.
Just recently, Wilshire, already demoralized by being placed on the U23 squad…at 25 was caught throwing something like a punch at Man City’s Matt Smith for a harsh tackle. This caused an athlete brawl (which is mostly shoving and mean mugging) and Wilshire was (obviously) sent off.
Of course the other headline grabber and part of why I started writing this was The Ox’s (Oxlade-Chamberlain) move to Liverpool. One can’t help but feel demoralized when a player not only leaves the team but when they do it for a bitter rival. That has to signal to you that something is incredibly wrong.
(Incredibly wrong is how I’ve viewed Theo Walcott for years now. At 28, he’s on the tail-end of a striker’s career and although he’s broken that 100 goal mark, Walcott still underwhelms…sigh)
“My plan is to keep all of the players we have and then to add maybe, if possible, two new players to the squad. We will spend big (again) because we had restricted finances because we had built the stadium and had to pay that back….” Arsene Wenger, 15 January 2013
I caught myself getting excited.
Back in July, I saw the news that Arsenal had signed Alexandre Lacazette. I posted the above photo on Instagram with one word — finally.
After saying it for four years, ‘the debt is under control,’ or ‘the stadium is paid off,’ Lacazette was brought in for a record fee — $68 million. That was fulfilling the “we will spend big (again)” part.
Arsenal beat Chelsea (again) for the FA Community Shield. Looking good. They conceded 3 (silly) goals to Leicester for the season opener and had to come from behind to win, but they were scoring goals. Promising.
Then just as quickly as I had built up hope. Stoke City. Right after the halftime break, Jese Rodriguez did what everyone does, blazed past the defense on a counter attack, making it look easy. Arsenal ain’t score a goal.
Immediately, the fans and pundits began saying what’s been said for the past ten years — Arsenal needs a Center Back and a strong Center Mid Fielder — and there are many to be had.
Transfer Window was still open. No real words on Wenger looking but we knew he had to. There’s still promise. Still a glimmer of hope. Then they put up the team sheet for the match against Liverpool…
When I saw Lacazette was on the bench, my first thought was “here we go again.” And sure enough…
Ok. Maybe that was a good thing. The Gunners were exposed and Wenger was working it out to see what deficiencies he was going to address. He was going to ‘spend big (again).’
I checked the Transfer news every morning and evening. I signed up to the Guardian’s FB Messenger Transfer notices. Watched. Looked. Nothing.
The Transfer Window closed and Arsenal, again, brought in no one. When I looked at the Guardian’s Transfer info, there was a list of players out vs players in plus what the Transfer balance was. There were so many players going out I couldn’t screenshot them all, only two players were in, and the Transfer balance? +£21m.
It’s something to follow an underdog team.
Ligue 1 used to be a competitive league. Although it was still (barely) one of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues, it was more of a feeding system — developing players that were sold for a high fee to bigger clubs (Ligue 1 Champions AS Monaco’s vice president Vadim Vasilyev said “We are selling club; it’s in our DNA.”). Lyon was the dominant team of the the early aughts but Bordeaux, Marseille, Monaco, & Lille won titles. Even Montpellier pulled off the miracle of winning their first title in the 2011/12 season.
As I mentioned here, I was a PSG fan during those years. They were a relatively new team (founded in 1970) and for the most part didn’t really compete. But all that changed during that 2011/12 season.
PSG was bought by a Qatar investor and the next year they won the title. And again the next season. And again…and again. Last year Monaco won convincingly by eight points. Guess what PSG did over the summer…oh, if you’re reading this, you know. PSG brought in Neymar.
Not young, coming from Brazil Neymar. No. Playing for one of the top clubs in the world, starring at Barcelona Neymar. And the fee…$260 million dollars.
$260 — million.
It was crazy when PSG brought in Zlatan Ibrahimović back in 2012. But that was only for $20 million. I was torn then. I used to hate to watch teams with the most money buy their way to titles. And here was the team I followed, the underdogs, doing just that.
So the Neymar thing really messed me up. Last day of the transfer window, another bombshell. PSG got 18 year old wunderkind Kylian Mbappe on loan with a reported $216 million fee for next summer (That night he dazzled in the France v Netherlands World Cup Qualifier).
If PSG doesn’t win the title this year and every year for the next ten years it will be because they’re allowing teams to win. It’s evident that Oryx Qatar Sports Investments…which is ultimately the nation of Qatar…are trying to create a team to play on a level as large as the Man Us and Real Madrids (PSG already accounts for 35% of Lique 1’s revenue). They want to win the Champions League. They want to be an International Team.
I should be happy. But I’m not. Which is why watching Arsenal do what it’s doing is so hard. Arsene Wenger is standing on a set of principals…maybe…but even if he’s not, he’s unable to do what all the big teams are doing…buying championships. That’s what the game is now. It has more to do with money management. This is what Wenger had to say about the price of players:
The amount of money (being spent on players) is completely disconnected to reality and the truth. No matter how well you work on the football pitch, you cannot make a player go from €15 million to €150 million. But the calculation between investment and what you can get back has gone. It’s just: can you afford to buy or not?
And this is coming from Arsene Wenger, the money manager. He’s been able to keep Arsenal in the top four throughout it all — over twenty years. There are fourteen teams in the Premier League that would kill for that. Teams like Sunderland who banked on the Stadium of Light being the mark of a new day or Leeds who banked on being in the Champions League one time too many. Mismanagement is common.
Maybe that’s why Wenger didn’t buy more players. Arsenal didn’t make the Champions League. It’s not clear how much the Gunners will miss out in revenue as a result. It is clear that Thomas Lemar (who scored two goals, one which was amazing, in France v Netherlands) rejected Wenger’s lucrative offer because of it (at least that’s what he said). This downward slide will continue until one of three things happens: Arsenal develops better youth and trusts in them, Kroenke is bought out, or Arsenal is relegated.
I know that last scenario is unlikely but it sure would shake things up. Working up from Relegation, building a strong bond and fighting spirit is what makes the sport so exciting. The occasional Leicester that inspires the people by beating the majors and winning a title is an example. But those days may be behind us. At least on a world level. We’ll see.
The MLS may appear like a small time league. But like I said, my team Atlanta United is owned by Arthur Blank…who owns the Falcons…and New York City FC is owned by Sheikh Mansour. If other teams tap into the magic that Atlanta has, selling out all their home matches, 44,000 people a pop, building a rabid following (only Seattle rivals the ATL as far as my eyes can see), then more money will be funneled in the league and the arms race will begin.
But if that happens I think I landed ok. I’m pretty sure Arthur Blank is down for that.
Being from Park Hill, I could have been a Rapids fan. That would have sucked. Kroenke don’t care nothing about his teams. I know one thing, the people on my Twitter feed won’t be subjected to my Arsenal complaints anymore.