Hull City look like they might actually be relegated. Sixth position at Christmas and somehow heading for relegation. I think we can all agree, it must be entirely the fault of their inept manager and notorious projectile saliva expert, Phil Brown. Hull now sit in the bottom three thanks to a potentially season saving win by Newcastle over relegation threatened Middlesbrough. As I watched Newcastle fighting for their Premier League lives today, I had to wonder: how has this come to pass?
Newcastle are a big club with big history. They have a rabid fan base that packs their stadium beyond its 50,000 seat capacity for every home game. They have had famous players, are well-known around the globe, and have appeared in the prestigious and financially influential Champions League. During the 1990s Newcastle perenially threatened a place in the top four of English football. So you have to ask the question, how have they arrived at top-flight football’s deathbed? It’s down to many factors, but money is a big one. The club are strapped for cash, have stuggled with managerial instability and made unwise transfer moves. Ultimately all of these factors have conspired to make Newcastle more of a joke than a factor in English football.
Why do I bother even the slightest mention of Newcastle’s plight on this Arsenal blog? Because we must recognize that their fate could easily be ours. We aren’t the richest club in England. Until recently, we played in one of the smaller stadiums in the top-flight. We don’t have a rich benefactor to run the team without regard for profits. Essentially, our continued challenge for titles is down to our ubiquitous Champions League qualification and our manager. We have every right to be critical of Arsene Wenger if we feel he has made mistakes, but were it not for the French mastermind, the Gunners might very easily be the one’s in Newcastle’s position today.
We have been parsimonious in the transfer market but made the most of the talent we acquire. Just look at our big signing of this season. We acquired Andrei Arshavin for roughly the same money Middlesbrough used to get Alfonso Alves and a fraction of the price Liverpool paid to rent Robbie Keane. Arshavin has proved to be worth more than his asking price, while more often than not, big signings at other clubs fail to deliver the goods.
Arsenal win with unproven talent that Wenger nurtures to fullest potential. It’s a testament to Wenger’s player development that we are lamenting the departure of Matthew Flamini. Before last season, no one would have believed that Flamini was even worthy of a starting spot in midfield. By the end of last term, he had proven to be one of our key performers. Another Arsene Wenger diamond in the rough. We’ve seen them come to prominence year in and year out under Arsene Wenger. But now we are impatient because this current crop of players hasn’t quite developed at the speed we would like and they are younger than we’re used to. But let’s try to remember that more seasoned players like Eduardo and Rosicky were supposed to be a big part of this team. Cesc wasn’t supposed to miss half a season. Neither was the rest of the team for that matter.
I’m not making excuses for Arsene, but he’s really only continuing the policy he’s used for quite some time. We just aren’t seeing the results lately. But I’m not sure it’s only because of our shortcomings. Some of our failures are the result of other teams’ largesse. Let’s face it; a decade ago, Chelsea weren’t a league powerhouse. They couldn’t pay for every big name player in Europe. Manchester United were powerful, but didn’t have players with €100 million valuations. Even Liverpool were a different club. They didn’t have the money for players like Torres or the luxury of renting players for €30 million. Arsenal could compete with our big name rivals on the pitch, but also could compete with them off the pitch. While we are still competitive with those rivals on the pitch today, they are in a different stratosphere off it.
Before we condemn our current crop of players, let’s think about Chelsea’s roster for a moment. Drogba, Anelka, Essien, Ballack, Malouda, Joe Cole, Deco, Beletti, Terry, Assly Cole, Bosingwa, Carvahlo, Cech, and those are just the players I can think of off the top of my head. There’s probably not a player I just named that’s valued less than €15 million. And every one of them was bought. Not a single one was developed at Stamford Bridge. (And let’s not forget that they nearly purchased Robinho.) When Roman came to Chelsea he spent more than €100 million on transfers. Meanwhile we were barely able to scrape together the funds for a €15 million man. It is arrogant for us to assume that we should be finishing ahead of teams with such unlimited finances.
Arsene Wenger has undoubtedly spoiled us. He has taken a great club with a good tradition and turned it into a global brand. He has brought us titles and the excitement of regular Champion’s League football. But he has done it with a formula that is being increasingly marginalized by the outrageous infusion of money into English football clubs. What really worries me is that we might sooner find ourselves fighting for our Premier League lives than the title. Manchester City are about to change the landscape the way Chelsea did. Liverpool, Chelsea and United will continue to spend their way to success. Even Sp*rs and Villa have opened their checkbooks and spent vast sums to improve their teams. Without the money to spend on established top-class stars, and the willingness to buy them, it might get worse before it gets better. Without the great Arsene Wenger, how different would our fortunes be from what Newcastle are experiencing?
Maybe some of my analysis is flawed. There’s no denying that it comes from a bad place in my subconscious. I’m more depressed about our season than I can really expressed and wildly disappointed by the finish in particular. But we must keep the faith in Arsene, because we can’t build our team the way that the other big English teams have done. If he can’t find the formula to win within our budget, then no one will. And if that’s the case, then we might not find ourselves part of “the big four” for long. We might find ourselves longing for the days of fourth place finishes, rather than bitching about “only” making it to the CL semi-finals.
Perhaps I’m wrong. (It’s happened before.) But as I look at the state of football in England today, we are the only team with title ambitions that doesn’t have unlimited financial resources. What makes us so different from teams like Everton or Villa or Sp*rs? Certainly the Champions League has bolstered our finances. But apart from that, it’s the talent of our manager that keeps us within touching distance of the top. Just imagine an Arsenal with young players that don’t produce, transfer signings that can’t contribute, and a tedious long-ball style. That’s the team we could have without our French mastermind.
This has been a disappointing season, but not when you look at the business of football. From that perspective, we may be over-achieving. And let’s face it, you can’t separate the business from the football anymore. Some will point to the fact that we have one of the highest wage bills in England. There’s no denying this is true. But the wage bills pale in comparison to transfer fees. They’re not even close to comparable. Wenger has been wise to spend the money on wages because it allows us to keep players we could never afford to buy. Think about it for a moment. If you have 30 million Euros to spend, you can buy one or two decent players and hope they fit in, or you can pay the great players that you already have and know what you’re getting.
Watching Newcastle today reminded me how fortunate we are to be contenders every season. It also made me realize that we’re not entitled to expect that. Tradition and passion don’t bring titles in modern football, money does. Arsenal stand as a beacon of footballing ideals in a cynical era. Those ideals get a little tiresome when they fail to bring titles. But those ideals have protected us from the misery many other clubs have endured. And we have one man more than any other to thank for the health of our proud club: Arsene Wenger.