Arsenal is a football club: Erect a firewall around that business model

The last two days ripped to shreds that carefully put together feel good pre-season feeling. Fans could be forgiven for gleefully rubbing their hands together at the prospect of RVP, Lukas Poldolski, and Olivier Giroud united in marauding their way through the opposition. Finally a summer that brought good cheer after so many dark, dismal ones scarred with the battles of players departing for “greener” pastures with the club powerless to stop them.
Then the ball dropped. RVP refusing to even entertain negotiations renewing his contract and questioning in a harsh and condescending way, the club’s future vision, on the basis of one season. His arrogance forced his manager’s hand and betrayed the patience and trust reposed in him by fans through years of injury and underwhelming performances. He is set to leave, yet another player failing to end his career as a Gunner.
The last time an Arsenal player had his testimonial match was 2006 when Dennis Bergkamp retired from his beloved club. That was also the year, Arsenal moved to the Emirates. In these six years past, the core of the famous 1999 Man Utd team have ended or are to end their careers in that club. Gary Neville, Edwin Van Der Saar, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Rio Ferdinand, have reaped the benefits of years of dedication to one single club. So will the 2007 class of Chelsea players who finally won this years Champions League and in the next few years could witness their Stamford Bridge farewells. This is the rawest form of player loyalty. There is no finessing it.
Footballers are mostly simple minded creatures. They understand goals scored, goals conceded, matches won, matches lost. In Sir Alex Ferguson, they have no better manager in making that language clear. At Chelsea, despite the revolving door of managers that have come and gone, Roman Abramovich’s directives have never been in doubt. There is a firewall between the football club and the business end at these clubs. There is no conflict because Sir Alex Ferguson leaves the financial aspect of Utd’s existence entirely in the hands of the Glazers. His remit is simple and the players who join Utd are told a simple truth: You’re expected to win in a winning club. That is Econ 101 for them.
Right now there is a simmering war going on in Arsenal between shareholders who have no representation and those who have. Alisher Usmanov’s letter to the board might be a perfectly calculated bit of PR opportunism following the Van Persie fiasco but there is a lot of truth in it. The Arsenal board is a collection of individuals who cashed out from the club making millions while giving up a majority of shares to an individual who operates, and that characterization is hyperbolic, largely in absentia. The club is run by a CEO who is a marketing person, interested in selling Arsenal as a business model to the Davos summit, debt laden governments, and new investors.
We always wonder about Arsene Wenger’s role? Has he been taken hostage or is he an active perpetrator in this self sustaining model? You’ve to understand he has a degree in economics and is equally adept at reading a spreadsheet and understanding company financials. Wenger’s been an activist for financial fair play rules and has talked about Arsenal in the past as a selling club without mincing words. This business model has a face and a perfect spokesperson. Without Wenger, the model would never have succeeded.
A new player arriving at the Emirates quickly internalizes that success at Arsenal is measured in entirely different terms. It’s not exactly goals scored but quite possibly debt reduction that quarterly. He looks to the manager but there is the manager at a public forum talking up how the club have been successful at funding the Emirates, have boosted income selling players, or touting another CL spot for the 14th year in a row as achievement. He realizes his association with the club might be entirely transactional. The goalposts for Arsenal’s successes have become entirely financial and explains Wenger’s mind bending revisionism (4th is the new 1st) as a way of placation to the fans.
In this shifting narrative and a ripped up firewall between the business model and performance on the pitch, it is easy for a player to never develop the sort of allegiances which were part of the Arsenal fabric when they were serious about their place in football history. That was when the shareholders actually had a stake in the club, when Wenger new to the Premiership had a point to prove, and Chelsea and City had not financially poisoned the well irrevocably for all right minded clubs. Arsenal’s reaction was to create a socialistic oasis in the most capitalistic sports league. An admirable blueprint for keeping clubs solvent became the priority. Probably not the best place for a hungry player who valued more visceral measures of success over being an emissary for financial prudence.
To play for Arsenal should be a privilege but it appears there are only two sorts of players who increasingly stay on. Those who enjoy Wenger’s loyalty and others who enjoy the club’s wages, amongst the most generous for mid tier players. It’s created a very narrow bandwidth. Tragic when you think of Wenger’s protective cocoon nurturing so many players but who seem to leave it in a fit of Shakespearean back stabbing. Arsenal would be better served if their players were armed with Corinthian democracy or inhabited a world of Bundesliga type of financial tight fistedness. But that sort of player ideologue is long gone.
What does Arsenal do to correct course? The language needs to change. Wenger has to stop selling Arsenal as some sort of 401K plan. Not in P/E ratios or lecturing fans on how they should be grateful they have the Emirates. He has to redefine success in unequivocal footballing terms. To make sure that players realize that every time they step on the pitch they are playing for one of the storied teams in English history. He has to stop protecting them and make them accountable for their mistakes. The club is more important than any of their egos. Stan Kroenke who could not be bothered previously should be hauled across trans Atlantic to watch matches and take some pride in his multi-million dollar investment. It’s not just some of the players who go missing on the pitch when Arsenal plays, its the boardroom too. A 19 point difference between Utd and Arsenal, the biggest gap between 2nd and 3rd placed sides cannot merely be explained by economics because Old Trafford has also been hit by spartan times.
Yes, all this may still not stop the Samir Nasri’s leaving for City but it will be more about greedy, self serving players lured in by a bigger paycheck and less about how Arsenal decided to get out of the business of winning titles. At the very least, it will spare us from Van Persie’s contemptuous dismissal of Arsenal’s ambitions.

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4 comments on “Arsenal is a football club: Erect a firewall around that business model
  1. Hi,
    Fascinating article. I particularly enjoyed the remark about Arsenal’s methods being better suited to the Bundesliga. I wonder if Arsenal have peaked too early in the race to become financially self-sustaining before the FFF laws are fully in affect.
    I’d really appreciate it if you could check out my blog There’s a piece about the history and philosophies of Arsène Wenger which you may find interesting.
    Keep up the good work

  2. Michael, nice write up about Arsene Wenger. He’s one of the game’s great managers but of late seems to have become deeply obsessed with the business end. He needs to get back to coaching, finding talent, and figuring out how Arsenal can get some silverware. I think Arsenal were supposed to be the blueprint for FFF but their lack of success can be treated as evidence by other clubs you need to spend.

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