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.