12 January 2015

Does Arsène the Emperor wear no clothes?

Arsène still one of the best managers in football? There was a time when he unquestionably was, but even with the FA Cup ending a nine-year trophy drought, it's hard to shake the nagging feeling that this man, once one of the most innovative and transformative persons in Arsenal history, no longer cuts such a fine figure. Instead, there have been frequent periods when the shadow he casts over the club is more a pall than pedigree, and that nagging feeling seems to settle in. I've long defended the man without becoming—I hope—an AKB. However, recent news around wage bills, as opposed to transfer-fees paid, has me wondering just whether Arsène does still have what it takes to lead this club forward.

What is he smoking over there?
On its face, the news regarding player-salaries in 2013-14 should serve to confirm what many of Arsène's defenders have long claimed: his commitment to financial sanity has kept the club stable, consistently finishing in the top four and qualifying for Champions League even while being manically outspent by rivals. After all, who can contend with the spending of Man City or Chelsea or Man U? Toss in the occasional season when Liverpool or Tottenham outspend us, and it's a wonder that we have been so consistent. Consistency may not be sexy, but it's better than missing out on top-four entirely.

Taking a closer look, though, suggests that for all of Arsène's financial acumen, his managerial chops are not what they once were. After all, to finish fourth year after year with the fourth-highest wage-bill suggests that we're finishing exactly where we should finish—no higher, no lower. In other words, Arsène's impact on the squad's performance is not especially noteworthy, and that belies his reputation as a club legend. The correlation between wages and position is quite strong, but we should have reason to believe that a manager of Arsène's stature and reputation might propel the squad to at least occasionally outpace that correlation.

A useful pair of comparisons might help. Man U's wage-bill in 2013-14 was the highest in the Prem at £214.8m, but they finished a woeful seventh place. Punch one hole in that correlation between wages and position. Moyes, of course, was sacked. At the other end of things, Southampton's wage bill (for 2012-13, the latest figures available for the club) amounted to £47.1m, almost five times less than Man U's, yet they finished 8th, just a spot below. Pochettino was, er "promoted" as were various players. Man U have surely added to that wage-bill with the signings of Di Maria, Shaw, Falcao, Blind, Herrera, Rojo, and now Valdes, and yet they have the same points they had a year ago at this point. Southampton, meanwhile, may have trimmed their wage bill after the sale of players to Man U, Liverpool, and Arsenal, players whom they've replaced with signings from Hull, RB Salzburg, and FC Twente, among others. As of this post, they now sit third under new manager Ronald Koeman. Koeman seems to stand out as a manager who elevates the squad, who inspires it to perform as more than the sum of its parts. Time will tell whether this is as true in May as it is in January, but the point still holds water. For now, we at Arsenal would do well to bite our tongues instead of criticizing a squad that done pretty well against us recently, if memory serves.

And that brings us back to Arsène. For as shrewd or as penurious as he's been with transfer-fees, our wage-bill stacks up quite well against these clubs who so regularly outcompete us. Our wage-bill last season was £166.4m, trailing the Manchesters by a wide margin, but not so far behind Chelsea at £190.5m. Much as I hate to admit, there's something there to suggest that Mourinho might be more than a malevolent, Machiavellian, moldwarp. I'm going to set that aside for now rather than dwell on it.

If Arsène isn't elevating the squad above its wage-bill as Pochettino did, as Koeman is doing, and as Mourinho has done, well, that begs the larger question: is Arsène still the manager his reputation has convinced us to see him as? Yes, he's the club's most-decorated manager, so much so that a fair few fans assume that the club takes its name from his, but I'm reaching a point at which I worry that I can no longer see him as the magician who once entranced us. At what point do past achievements no longer overshadow present failings? Many of us have long since passed that point, of course, and no number of FA Cups or Community Shields will change that.

There is still time to change that, of course. The returns to fitness of Ozil and Walcott offer hope, as will the returns of Ramsey, Chambers, Welbeck, and Arteta, but will these be enough to launch us towards third place? We're currently dithering over the signing of a 17-year old whose fee will amount to less than £3m and whose wages could hardly go beyond £50k per week. Meanwhile, Man City look ready to land a Prem-proven striker for a fee of around £28m and wages that might amount to £100k per week. It feels almost like a choreographed parody of past transfer-windows.

What will it take to lay these doubts to rest? A high-profile signing or two? A string of eight or ten positive results? Truth be told, Arsène may need for this squad to advance past AS Monaco, win the FA Cup, and finish no lower than fourth, or the torch-and-pitchfork brigade will be out in full-force...