02 April 2014

Let's remember the long-range vision for Arsenal

Four of the five events below led to a surge in spending on players that either dramatically transformed a club's successes. Can you guess which four?
  1. 2000: Arsenal purchases land in Ashburton Grove to build the Emirates Stadium.
  2. 2003: Roman Abramovich becomes the owner of Chelsea FC.
  3. 2005: Malcolm Glazer purchases controlling interest in Manchester United
  4. 2007: Thaksin Shinawatra becomes the owner of Manchester City.
  5. 2008: Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan takes over ownership of Manchester City.
Of course, the fifth one hamstrung the club that committed to it, all but forcing the club to sell players, at times to direct competitors and rivals, while others were buying those and other players from right under the club's nose. Just as important to notice is the sequence of events. While we're ruing our recent tumble from the top of the table, it's worth reminding ourselves that this is the beginning of something, not the end.

I'm not the first to go on about this, so I'll keep it short and to the point. Financing the Emirates Stadium, which cost nearly £400m, forced the club to mind its finances very carefully—our first obligation going forward would always be paying down the debt we took on in the first place (an annual payment of around £25m. We couldn't ever just say, "oh, instead of paying down that loan, let's buy a player or two instead and make up for it next time 'round." Ask Coventry City, for one, how it feels to have a faceless financial institution start calling the shots. If you start asking yourself why we went ahead and built the new stadium, remind yourself of Highbury's capacity when it closed: 38,419. There are only four or five clubs that stay up in the Prem with stadiums that small. Tottenham. Chelsea. Aston Villa. Everton. Credit Everton and Tottenham for their competitiveness each year with such stadiums. Would we trade stadiums—and table-positions—with Aston Villa? The Emirates very nearly doubled capacity to 60,362, which not only expands the revenue coming but also the fan-base and its depth of support.

Chelsea, of course, are another story altogether, as their stadium "only" holds 41,800 or so. However, Abramovich. We're all aware of his influence and that of Sheikh Mansour on Man City and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of the Glazers on Man U. It's worth reminding ourselves, however, or how we got ourselves into our own little jam—and how we'll get out of it. That it may not happen to the extent we hoped for this season shouldn't provoke the dismay, outrage, and outright apoplexy that I've seen. If anything, things are happening a bit earlier than they should. Calm yourselves.

I'm a bit of a liberal when it comes to politics; as such, I might be a bit soft-headed when it comes to finances and all, but I'm a firm believer in self-reliance and a certain D.I.Y. ethic. With the latter in mind, I am an unabashed admirer of the self-sustaining model that Arsène Wenger has produced. Yes, it's come about through the unfortunate and at times untimely sale of various players, some of whom we wish would have stayed. I won't go into the reasoning behind each particular sale; suffice it to say that, between our debt obligations and the more-mercenary wishes of certain players, we were often over a barrel. Can we really say that we chose to sell Cole, Fabregas, or van Persie, among others? It's perhaps more accurate in these and in other cases that we had little choice, if any, as refusing to sell a player would force us to lose him for nothing. Without claiming that the choice is this black-and-white, should we (a) sell van Persie now and pay down the stadium debt, or (b) keep him, miss a payment and risk foreclosure, and lose him for free anyway? Again, it's hardly that cut-and-dry, but the point remains.

We've lost other players for other reasons, of course. "Lack of ambition" is the most-frequently cited, and it's hard to argue against that, not when our "goal" year in and year out has been merely to finish no lower than fourth. Meanwhile, Cole and Nasri and Fabregas and van Persie have collected silverware hand over fist, and I'm sure they're as satisfied as we are glum or morose. However, remember the foundation, literal and figurative, that we've laid for ourselves. Whereas Chelsea's fortunes depend on the vicissitudes of Abramovich's portfolio and the twists and turns of Russian politics, we stand proudly on our own two feet, knowing that we depend on no one. For what it's worth, Abramovich's portfolio has taken a massive hit, falling by two-thirds according to Forbes magazine. Could that have played a role in Chelsea's "prudent" dealings in the transfer-windows this season (their deficit is a paltry £49m after the sale of Juan Mata, compared to previous seasons of  £97m, £63m £79m). Far be it from me to wish ill on another, but what happens to Chelsea should his personal fortune continue to fall or that he become the next Khodorkovsky, arrested, charged with fraud, imprisoned, and his assets seized?  There is no parallel in the case of Man City, sadly, as Sheikh Mansour's personal wealth and that of the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment is probably best-represented by the number eight on its side; that is, infinite.

However, we're after a longer-range vision, here, one that looks frustrating and inept when viewed in the moment, but look ahead to next year and to seasons to come, when this vision comes to fruition. That it's taken a longer than we hoped or that Arsène anticipated is not entirely his fault. If he or others had known that Abramovich and Mansour would come along and act soruhtlessly, the original plan might have been tailored differently—maybe a lower interest rate on the stadium loan, lower payments, a longer repayment period, what have you—in order to permit the club greater flexibility in negotiating with players and other clubs. Hindsight is, as they say, 20-02, but knowing now that the radical distortion of the transfer-market came along after the club had committed itself to that vision is a bit churlish, forgetting as it does the revolution it was built on and meant to produce.

This is not meant as some of blind hagiography, although it's starting to sound like one. Can any other manager claim to have both led his club to glory and revolutionized it going forward? Can Ferguson say so? Not with the squad he left to Moyes. Can Mourinho? Not with his three-years-and-out modus operandi. What about Benitez or DiMatteo,  Pellegrini or Mancini, or the two dozen other managers to run those clubs? Somehow, I doubt it. Arsène alone has brought this club to where it stands now, on the verge of future greatness. That the present period suffers by comparison with what came before is inevitable, as no squad or club can compete with those achievements or how they've been burnished by time. The return to glory we've hungered for may have to wait another season, but it will come. When it does, the celebrations will be exuberant and intoxicating (figuratively, if not literally). '

We're just now scratching the surface, and some of the frustration we currently feel comes as much from the anticipation of what's to come as it does from the angst over what we've endured. Rather than give in to our lesser impulses, though, let's remember Arsène himself, saying, "people will look at this period and think that we have put the club on the right track, that we have defended the right values and they will think that we were not too stupid. Let's stand behind this team."