Arsène Wenger spent the spring dishing out more cryptic clues than the Times crossword compiler: was he staying or going? No one knew. Then we dropped out of the top four but won the FA Cup. Opinion remained divided on what Arsène should do, even on the Arsenal Board. Most fans, and some Board members, decided he should go. But Stan Kroenke decided he should stay. So Arsène decided he should stay as well, and we all settled in for two more years of the same old, same old.
Yet here we are less than three months later and it’s not the same! The team is a shambles, and off the field appears to be a shambles too. These things are related in this case, but can also happen independently – we’ve had shambles of transfer windows even when the on-the-pitch stuff seemed to be going okay.
Let’s stick with on the pitch for the moment. The fact is we had a good run. Not quite Fergie standards of never dropping out of the top three in 21 years, but never dropping out of the top four in 20 is pretty good. But all good things come to an end. Sometimes they come to an end suddenly, like a car hitting a motorway flyover, and sometimes it’s more gradual, like an old Morris Minor rusting away gently in a disused barn. I think we’re somewhere in between: a Morris Minor failing its MOT and being sent to the breakers. The signs were there last season that Arsenal were going to suffer a slump sooner rather than later. Some would argue the signs have been there a hell of a lot longer, but we were still top four, don’t forget – and second in 2016. So to a casual observer at least, things were hardly worth complaining about compared to 88 other clubs (I’m just taking the neutral’s view here). But then a whole truckload of top managers turned up and every club in the Premier League got thrust into the mega-rich bracket by TV money, so the competition got tougher – while Arsène carries on in the same old way as ever.
Arsène staying might make the slump worse. But maybe if he’d gone it would also have got worse (cf. Moyes). Or maybe if he’d gone or goes now things will immediately improve, but then get worse. Or maybe in a rosy version of this, they get better and stay better. That’s the thing about the future: it’s very hard to be precise.
Even midway through last season I’d have bet on a slump out of the top 5 within the next two seasons, regardless of Arsène staying or going. It came very quickly, but not yet disastrously. And this season may well improve, though even top four looks like Mount Everest right now. The question, in old Question of Sport style, is what happens next? Can the manager turn it round? If he can’t what will the Board do? Rephrase: what will Stan Kroenke do?
Stan Kroenke at that point becomes the key decision maker. He’s been at Arsenal for nine years now, and majority owner for the last six of those. His decision-making so far has been limited almost to a single subject: Shall I give the manager another contract? For this he needs only a very short checklist: Q1 – Is the money still rolling in? Yes. No need to take any risk; I’ll give him the contract.
But if the slump deepens, at some point – even if it’s still nearly two years away – Kroenke will be forced to react. Arsène surely (surely?) won’t want to renew again if Arsenal are still drifting (or plummeting) down, so he’ll go and Kroenke will have to appoint someone else, or trust Ivan to do it for him. The only thing you can be sure of is that he won’t want to be throwing money around unnecessarily. His sports ownership in the US strongly suggests that he’s not bothered about being the best; indeed that ambition comes well below making money. He’s even said that “if you wanted to win championships you’d never get involved”, and while my default position is never to take anything said by billionaires or the Arsenal Board as unconditionally true, actions speak louder than words and his actions back up this statement. American fans of his clubs complain of under-investment even more than Arsenal fans do.
Kroenke should be smart enough to recognise the differences between American sports businesses and British ones. British sports clubs and leagues were built from the ground up, initially run by the players and ordinary supporters, then more wealthy locals. There were strong community ties. Local leagues and then national leagues were founded on the basis that places were earned by sporting prowess, with promotion and relegation ensuring that. American sport tends to be much more of a closed shop. Teams were and are set up by wealthy owners as entertainment franchises, and the owners want a guaranteed return. Relegation is not part of the deal, and nor is winning the right to go off and play teams in other countries in a part-time competition alongside your national league. No right-thinking American owner would buy into this deal, where you’re forced to be one of the best in order to get a bigger share of the pie. But that’s what Kroenke’s got with Arsenal, and it means that if a certain level is not maintained, then first the Champions League cash disappears, then other income will start to drop if the club slides down the table.
Chelsea and Man Utd have shown that with solid foundations you can get away with one bad season, but you have to bounce back. Perhaps Chelsea and Man Utd would get away with four or five bad seasons in as row, perhaps even with relegation (though that’s extremely unlikely to happen) on the basis that they would just keep throwing enough money at the problem that eventually it would solve itself. But Stan Kroenke is not Roman Abramovich, and he’s not even the Glazers, who have the global marketing appeal of Man Utd to rely on through lean years. Stan Kroenke is not a ‘throw money at it’ kind of guy. If Arsenal have a bad season he’ll look at the bank balance first. He’ll evaluate any paper loss on his investment, he’ll look at likely income for the next couple of seasons and then he’ll probably sit tight. He’ll probably appoint whoever he thinks can keep Arsenal in the Premier League.
It’s hard work getting into the Champions League places and staying there, but the Premier League TV deals are so vast at the moment that you can get most of the potential money just by being in the top division – and from Stan’s point of view, how hard can that be? Not too hard for a club of Arsenal’s size, you’d think. Been there nearly 100 years already. Appoint someone who seems to know what they’re doing at that level, say Allardyce or Pulis, pay them £3m (we’ve saved about £6m a year already!) and we’re all fine.
And thus, for the remaining years of Stan Kroenke’s tenure at least, Arsenal become at best what Everton have been for 30 years: a fairly safe top division club with very little hope of winning anything. At worst they become a Newcastle: a big club who can’t even guarantee a place at the top table.
The slight irony is that Everton, under Arsenal’s former shareholder Farhad Moshiri, can conceivably replace Arsenal in the elite group. That at least is their ambition. Meanwhile Stan Kroenke’s ambition is to watch his asset sheet balances grow, and he doesn’t much care about anything else.
9 thoughts on “Arsenal: The Road To Mediocrity”
This is the sad and incredibly dispiriting, for a fan of the club, truth. Stan Kroenke isn’t interested in Arsenal at all. If he could get a better return on his investment by owning a professional road cycling team, he’d sell his Arsenal holdings in a second. Football isn’t his concern. He has been a disaster for the club and Arsène has, inexplicably aided and abetted him all the way. The writing has been on the wall for so long the paint has started to fade and the words are becoming illegible.
If things continue like this, we are going to end up as a mid-table club that occasionally looks like it might get a place in the Europa League, but equally might get dragged into a relegation battle, for season after season, with no hope of a return to the top echelon.
If CL football and all the wealth that it brings is on offer (albeit it’s not quite so alluring now given the PL tv money) and we’re not getting it routinely will he really sit tight though? I doubt it personally. Yes, he’s interested in the balance sheet but he will want to maximise revenues to protect the value of his investment. He bought a club that was reaping the rewards of the CL, why would he be happy to accept a status quo that doesn’t offer that same reward? Also, the players are an investment too and if they’re unhappy with Wenger/no CL football again and consequentially underperforming then their market value will likely decrease too.
I think Enos is a pragmatist – he likes old Arsene and probably thought that he’d deserved the right to turn things around and he will know that, in having agreed to that, he’s p!ssed a few other employees off. He’ll know the situation is different and he’ll be expecting a turnaround to justify him sticking his balls on the line for Arsene. I personally think another 5th or 6th place finish will result in Wenger being sacked unless we really want to avoid paying the £8-10m it’ll take to pay off his final year (which is probably much less than what we could lose if we kept him, so I think that’s unlikely). Nothing will happen before May though, barring a really silly collapse which, let’s face it, is probably unlikely – we’re a mess but we’re not that bad and it’s not in the players’ interests to down tools in a World Cup year.
For me the more interesting thing is Gazidis’ future. Does he sit tight, pick up his pay cheque and do the difficult job of being the public face of the club or does he recognise that he’s been massively undermined and walk away as soon as another attractive job comes along (because, let’s face it, why would he quit without another job lined up?). Another job could appear anytime, i’m sure he’s had his feelers out. And, if he walks next week, what does that mean for Wenger? Is there really a Chief Exec out there who would convince Kroenke that continuing without CL revenue is sensible when it’s so within our reach? Until this summer Gazidis had Wenger’s back, Arsene might realise that sometimes it’s better the devil you know.
THE HANDWRITING ON THE WALL:
The following is about an event that took place over 2500 years ago, yet it seems to fit pretty nicely to what has happened at Arsenal over the last 10 years. (taken from https://www.gotquestions.org/mene-mene-tekel-upharsin.html);
“Daniel 5 tells the story of the Babylonian ruler Belshazzar, a rich and debauched king, who gave a banquet to his court. During the drunken party, the sacred vessels from the Jewish temple, stolen by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, were used in a blasphemous manner. At the height of the festivities, a man’s disembodied hand was seen writing on the wall the mysterious words “mene mene tekel upharsin” (verse 25). The king was terrified. But no one could understand what the words meant. All attempts at interpretation by Belshazzar’s wise men failed until the prophet Daniel was called in.
Daniel was one of the captives from Judah brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was given wisdom from God to read and translate the words, which meant “numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.” Daniel told the king, “Here is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:26–28). Peres is the singular form of upharsin. The Bible never identifies what language the words were in.
The handwriting on the wall proved true. In fact, it proved fatal for the dissolute Belshazzar. Just as Daniel had said, the kingdom of Babylon was divided between the Medes and Persians, and it happened that very night. Belshazzar was slain, and his kingdom passed to Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30–31).
The appearance of mene mene tekel upharsin on the king’s wall is a reminder that whatever we sow, that we will also reap (Galatians 6:7–8). God is the Judge; He justly weighs all matters and metes out retribution in His time (Psalm 94:2). Sometimes God speaks very clearly into our lives, convicting us of sin and warning us of pending judgment (see John 16:8). It does not pay to ignore the “handwriting on the wall.”
Someone needs to tell King Kroenke that the handwriting is on the wall …
Yes, in the matter of Arsenal’s future, Arsene Wenger is a side issue. Yes, the future is difficult to predict (though without claiming to be a Daniel, I believe it will be somewhere between muddy grey and icy black.) Yes, as a last resort the majority owner will ride in on a white charger and save the day by firing Arsene. And yes, he will give his replacement the same solitary mission that he set Wenger: keep AFC in the black.
There is a solution, a fairly simple one: an Association of Season Ticket Holders. I believe they pay for about 40,000 seats. The merest whispered threat of a boycott will see Stan off like a shot.
On the next owner, Tony Pulis might not be such a bad idea. Turn the pages back to George Graham. Arsene has cuddled and comforted his players, George kicked arses.
Sorry, ‘on the next ‘manager’ not ‘owner’. George built from the back, he brought in defensive stalwarts he knew from the second division. It took him about three years to create a squad that won titles and trophies (inc two league I championships). We need someone like GG
We could also do with someone like DD. Looking back it’s become prettly clear that his guidance played a huge part in Wenger’s ‘golden’ period. Right now we a have a BoD of Kroenke yes-men – no shares, no power, no nothing–except personal kudos and a monthly dinner, brandy and cigars on the house..
Absolutely since David Dein left the club it has been heading in the wrong direction. I’m pretty much sure he had the relationship with Arsene to be able to challenge and engage with himin constructive manner. It was a winning team.
Well Phil, while it’s been a long time since I posted a comment on your site, I have not changed my mind on wenger. I have been derided by gunners for about five years or so because of my criticism of him. He was past it years ago. The game had taken on that sinister look of a large scale money laundry’s front office . Russian oligarchs (whatever the hell they are) Arab hypocrits, and crooked agents have run riot in a frenzy of greed and a need for power and adulation. Kroenke and his obsession with money and power have destroyed Arsenal and Wenger has aided and abetted him in his greed. Wenger has lost all the trust and credibility that fans ever had in him, he is an arrogant failure and has destroyed his legacy. GET OUT NOW
What I find particularly insulting is the way the Arsenal PR machine has floated the whole ‘values’ campaign alongside Kroenke’s financial management of the club. It’s a cynical way of downsizing fans’ expectations. I hope most paying fans have not bought into it. Arsenal fc has been underinvesting and underperforming for years. Wenger is complicit but it will continue after he leaves -unless Kroenke sells up.
Disagree with you, as Arsenal the brand wanes and they stop attracting sponsors looking for a global presence they will lose more revenue. The Champions league contributes to the global brand which is then monetised via sponsors. Arsene has a Seasonnto shows results are moving in the right direction. If that doesn’t happen then Stan will ask him to move on.