Seems like everyone has a theory about why Arsenal are currently so bad. But although some have tried to, you can’t point the finger in one direction and say ‘That’s the cause. Sort that out and everything will be fine.’ It’s more complicated than that because the Arsenal ‘machine’ has many moving parts. The machine will work best if everything is in harmony (and as we know, victory comes through harmony), but even without completely smooth running Arsenal really shouldn’t be anywhere near relegation. But they are. So what are Arsenal’s big issues?
Mikel Arteta – the fact is you can have a totally incompetent set up behind the scenes and still do well on the pitch if you have the right manager. That means the right manager for the group of players you have. Some managers are more adaptable than others and some players are more adaptable, but if you get the right ones together you’ll be fine. Not necessarily brilliant, but fine. You might even win a cup or two.
The FA Cup win already seems a long time ago. Arsenal have not performed well so far this season and have an inexperienced manager who has ostracised some of the squad and seemed to have got stuck in a rut of picking the same underperforming players week after week until forced to change by alleged ‘illness’ to some senior regulars. Despite the much better performance against Chelsea, there are still underlying issues on the pitch and it’s too early to tell if a corner has really been turned. Even if it has, Arteta’s inexperience means the journey is unlikely to be smooth. Every manager is a risk, and finding the right one is hard, but a manager in his first job is a bigger than average risk. You can’t get away from that.
The players – the problem here is that not enough of Arsenal’s players care. In the long run, the best players will on average tend to produce the best results, but they need to be organised into a good team and they need to want to win. When big clubs play small clubs in cup competitions, the big club usually wins, but they don’t usually give the small team a complete thrashing. There are several reasons why, but one of the most important is that the players for a small club drawn against the likes of Arsenal or Man Utd treat it as the most important match of their lives. They chase everything, throw themselves into tackles and run till they drop. This is rarely enough to win without a large dose of good luck, but in the Premier League there are much smaller margins between teams and having extra desire and making extra effort can swing a result. But you only make extra effort if you care.
Of course extra effort and ‘passion’ are unlikely to be enough on their own to get Arsenal back to challenging for the title, but with the group of players they have, being comfortably in the top half of the table should be a given. Against Chelsea on Boxing Day the extra effort of the young players who came in was evident, and game-changing. But even if selected every week, can they keep up that momentum? Again, it should easily be enough for mid-table, but not necessarily much more just yet.
The agents – Arsène never let agents have too much say in what Arsenal were doing and who was coming and going. That led to some frustration among fans who perceived the club were missing out on signings they should have been pursuing, but at least the amount of money being raked off every deal by shady hangers-on was kept in check. Since Arsène and then Ivan Gazidis left it appears to have degenerated into a free-for-all where massive purchases of somewhat underwhelming players are made with the main intention of making people outside the clubs richer. I don’t think anyone even within Arsenal knows the full extent of this and the damage it’s done, but I’m surprised Stan Kroenke has failed so badly at overseeing the club’s business, and apparently been hoodwinked so many times.
The Kroenkes – There’s a theory that if the owners were doing their job properly and overseeing what goes on, then everything would work from there, and Arsenal would be champions again – or at the very least challenging seriously. Unfortunately that’s a myth. Even if they assembled the greatest backroom team in history it would still need the players and the manager to excel in order for Arsenal to succeed at the highest level. That’s not to say Stan Kroenke is blameless; he clearly isn’t. Ultimately the buck stops with him; anything his son Josh does is a sideshow – it’s soundbites for the media, provided to keep the plebs happy, because Stan himself doesn’t want to face the press or the fans.
One problem with Kroenke is that he became convinced that the juggernaut Arsenal had become under Arsène would inevitably continue on its chosen path, too big to be pushed off course. He saw his mates the Glazers milking Man Utd, he saw the riches that the Premier League provided, and he saw a club that had been at the top for a decade before he got involved, and he thought ‘This is easy’. But English football isn’t easy. It’s too competitive and too wide-open, and clubs rise and fall. The biggest clubs make strenuous efforts these days to grab more power and try to prevent any change in the hierarchy, but they haven’t succeeded yet and as long as relegation exists there’s no guarantee.
So Kroenke needs to have a board and executive team who are at the very least competent. The board has not been fully competent since Dein and Fiszman fell out. Then Dein left and Fiszman died. Eventually Arsène (a de facto director) left, followed by Gazidis; Ken Friar stepped back due to age and even the well-meaning but ineffective Sir Chips has gone. There’s a big hole, and it’s been filled with inexperienced people. Which leads us to:
All the other executives – What do they all do? Who is making decisions? When Arsène ran the show we knew who did what. At least there was that certainty. He mostly stuck to his principles in dealings with agents and other clubs, and although he signed a few duds he kept the club running relatively smoothly. It’s well documented that Arsène hated confrontation and didn’t want to be challenged, so on football matters he surrounded himself with yes-men, which eventually led to a decline that he wasn’t going to reverse.
When that writing was on the wall, the club knew full well what Arsène did and what they would need to replace, and they had plenty of warning. Ivan made efforts to put a team in place for the day Arsène went, but instead of a smooth transition we got in-fighting and a stream of job title changes and what turned out to be short-term appointments. We have a Chief Executive not deemed experienced enough to sit on a board that doesn’t have a proper remit anyway. The blame for all this is firmly with Stan Kroenke, but unless he finds the right Chief Executive I can’t see very quick change. So I can’t see very quick change.
Money – I was surprised when Arsenal signed Thomas Partey, but that will be nothing to the surprise if they spend big in January. Summer spending was done on the basis that fans would be back into stadiums in fairly substantial numbers within a few months. Instead clubs are faced with the distinct possibility of virtually no fans all season – which for Arsenal in particular is a massive loss (25 per cent of total income is from ticket sales). The wage bill is out of control and the number of ‘assets’ with no saleability running down contracts would honestly be a disgrace to any business.
Don’t bother listening to people who are fooled by vague statements about how the Kroenkes are ‘supporting the manager’ with big spending. They’ve spent Arsenal’s money so far, not Stan’s. Spending Stan’s money is Stan’s least favourite option, to be done as a last resort to protect the value of his assets. It’s not his style to run a business any differently, and in any case he is not cash-rich, as evidenced by taking out loans to buy Arsenal shares, including Alisher Usmanov’s 30 per cent.
Kroenke did of course take over the stadium debt in summer 2020 – but on his own terms. It benefitted Arsenal (no debt restructure, no Partey), but it also gave Stan even greater control of Arsenal’s finances and the ability to syphon off whatever he likes if and when the good times return, just by adjusting the interest rates or fees for what Arsenal owe him.
Stan may not be big football fan, but if there’s one thing about Arsenal he is watching, it’s the balance sheet. The mystery to me is why he’s allowed so much money to be wasted on poorly thought-out transfers and wage deals. Tim Lewis has presumably been added to the board to stop that, but it’s very late in the day. In normal times Arsenal might be able to brush off some overspending and a few tens of millions raked off by agents, but these aren’t normal times.
In short, the money is gone until the fans come back and the wage bill is realistic – which means knocking about £80m off it.
The backroom problems aren’t going away quickly, and the money problems are going nowhere for quite a while. That means Arsenal need a manager who can consistently get the best out of all his players, or mid-table mediocrity is the best we can hope for, and relegation is still a possibility. Arsenal is in the hands of a young and inexperienced manager. We need him to learn fast.