Gunners Town welcomes guest writer Hari Ramachandran, who was invited to expand on some of his comments on a previous post and has graciously done so in the following article. Thanks Hari – look forward to seeing more from you in the future.
Putting things to bed: it’s time to get behind the Arsenal
The manager’s contract has been extended, a couple of shiny new players have been signed, pre-season has begun and yet there are rumblings in the Arsenal fanbase around the owner and the manager, which inevitably will go out of control at the first sign of trouble. So I thought I’d subject you all (if you’re still there) to my torrent of thoughts, mainly so I can put it all to bed and actually look forward to a new season of football.
There are a number of things I don’t like about Stan Kroenke. At the same time, I don’t subscribe to the opinion that Alisher Usmanov is our saviour. The latter was, not long ago, the focal point of discussions among us fans after there was talk of him buying out Kroenke’s stake in the club. I heard a number of fans speaking, tweeting, ranting and pleading in favour of Usmanov’s claimed approach to running the football side of the club, likening it to the approach of a certain Roman Abramovich.
I personally am not a fan of the Chelsea owner’s methods of pouring personal wealth into the club but it’s not to say it is wrong. In fact, Chelsea’s results over the last decade or so is ample proof that more often than not, it will yield results, despite it being the less sustainable approach. Maybe my thinking is primitive and this is how modern football is supposed to work, but I still prefer a club that is run in a sustainable manner i.e. spending from available resources and making sure the books are balanced.
The methods employed by these two billionaires could not be more different. They’re also very different characters. One is clearly passionate about both football and money. The other seems only interested in money with very little active interest in the game. While Kroenke’s distance from the game, from a fan’s point of view, is rage inducing at times, it’s also worth noting that at the end of the day he is a businessman. He likely knows very well that on field performance plays a huge role in helping to increase the value of the club and therefore his stake in it. So it would be foolish to assume that he has no interest in the club doing well.
Abramovich wants his club to be the biggest and best in the world and he has done everything in his power from a financial perspective to make sure his club has the footballing resources needed to be the best. However, let’s not forget that this is a direction he chose i.e. to pour his personal wealth into the club. Now, whatever you think of Kroenke, he has every right to operate the way he has been. Arsenal’s strategy has always been to spend only money earned by the club with the near to longer term in mind. Taking this approach in itself doesn’t mean a lack of ambition, it just means it is a different approach.
Fans have more in common with Abramovich (or Usmanov) because his pouring of personal wealth into Chelsea has resulted in success. As fans, of course we want to win, to succeed. We have seen with Chelsea that pouring money into club = success. Therefore it’s only normal that we have than in common with Aramovich. We all want to win. I’d love us to win everything under the sun. I’d dearly love that. However, outside of United who have historically had enormous commercial income, the only two other clubs to have consistently done well over the last few years operate within a completely different context of unlimited funding. We’ve decided to live within our means (an admirable choice, in this day and age) but how does that alone equate to not “wanting” to win?
The accusation levelled at Kroenke, is that while he wants the club to do well, he merely wants to maintain the status quo – i.e. top four finish with no pressure on the manager to win the big prizes. I can’t help but feel that there is a lot of substance in this criticism. At the same time, since the stadium debts were paid off, it has become evident that Arsenal have started spending more in the transfer market, albeit in an incremental manner rather than splashing out in one transfer window, starting with the purchase of Mesut Özil. So it seems as if while this owner of ours is very disengaged with football, he has gradually started backing the manager in the transfer market i.e. effectively putting the footballing onus well and truly on the manager. Also given the reservations I expressed earlier about Kroenke, the ambition has to come from elsewhere if not from the owner.
In my mind, the man with that ambition is Arsene Wenger. It is difficult to argue that a man who couldn’t stop winning in the first few years of his Arsenal career has no ambition. Perhaps his methods can be criticised but to suggest he has no desire to win, is foolish. If we’re using money spent as a parameter to measure “want” or “desire” to win, we’ve gradually increased what we’ve been spending since 13/14 when the stadium debt was paid off. Yet a lot of us are disgruntled. Does that automatically make us right? If the club were to change direction every time a section of fans were disgruntled, will they ever satisfy everyone? Unlikely. We have a voice and it’s good to raise our voices through the channels we have, but it doesn’t always mean we’re right.
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Since the manager now has a new contract, it’s worth taking a closer look at whether that was the right decision, at least from the owner’s point of view. @invinciblog has commented on this already, but I wanted to add some of my own thoughts on the situation. There were some follow-up comments that suggested he used stats to fuel his own narrative and on that point I’d just like to say that there is no such thing as an objective stat. Any statistician will tell you there is an element of bias when assumptions are made in a calculation. Even a widely accepted metric like the GDP takes into account so many assumptions. If GDP was the single best indicator of a country’s progress, why is it then that a country like the US has growing inequality despite being at the top of the GDP charts? I’ll leave that there.
Since the point about league position was covered a bit in @invinciblog’s post, I wanted to focus on our performances against the big teams and the fact that we haven’t won the league since 2003-04.
The defeats against the big teams hurt. A LOT. The Bayern result was one of the worst I’ve ever experienced, after the 8-2 against United and 6 shipped to Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea at various points.
The big defeats I think, can partly be explained with Wenger’s approach to football. He goes all in to win, irrespective of the opponent and when his teams go down a goal or two, he doesn’t opt for damage control. He instead opts to go even harder to come back and ends up conceding more ground. I’m sure those margins would be smaller if his approach was different (we probably would have lost those games anyway as in most of them we were outplayed). This is a question of philosophy and there is no right and wrong. Does anyone expect a Mourinho team to do anything other than damage control if they’re on the receiving end? No. He has his more pragmatic approach to football. Fair enough.
While these defeats were soul crushing, I also wanted to take a step back to try and take stock of the big picture.
If we compare the eight seasons from 05/06 to 12/13 and 13/14 to 16/17 (used this since we signed Ozil in 13/14, which was a sign that the purse strings loosened), our record against Chelsea and United (the only two constants among the big teams) has actually improved in terms of the % of points we’ve won from those available, albeit marginally. The improvement has been very gradual but if you look at our spending we’ve rarely spent a huge sums in one transfer window either. The squad has had incremental additions, one window after another and this is slowly more visible in the results although there is some way to go still.
I didn’t include Man City, Liverpool and Spurs in the full analysis. City only really started doing well from 2009 under Mancini. Our record is good against them but I didn’t use it since you might argue that a higher proportion of our wins against them came when they weren’t at their best in terms of their squad. Similarly Spurs have only in the last 3-4 seasons come to the fore but our overall record in both periods is decent if not spectacular. We’ve dropped off against Liverpool strangely which is the only really big surprise for me. If you do want to see the actual numbers, they’re here.
So I think if we can keep Ozil and Alexis and with the addition of Lacazette i.e. more proof of the incremental team building over the last few years, I expect these numbers to improve.
BUT WE HAVEN’T WON THE LEAGUE EVEN ONCE, you might say. Yes. An undeniable truth. Before you bring up Leicester, I think we can all acknowledge that it was an exception rather than the norm. I think we could and should have done better that season. But again, while I acknowledge we had two huge missed opportunities in 08/09 and 15/16, there are also external factors which contributed to our inability to compete better over the years.
As much as people call it an excuse, it is a fact that Arsenal had to pay off the stadium. For this, Champions League revenue was crucial. Adding to that, the endless money pits at Chelsea and Man City and United’s huge commercial income, it was about right that we were finishing in the top 4 every season. Whether you like it or not, this was a reality the club had to face.
The other big factor, more recently, was the TV deal between BT and Sky. This meant that the financial impact of not being in the CL was lessened. More teams had more money. This meant fiercer competition and a more level playing field (for everyone except Man City and Chelsea again). This also is a fact.
Both these factors could not have been predicted before they happened. I’ve not seen a single expert who claimed they knew these would happen. In the years from 05/06 to 12/13 as if the debt wasn’t enough we also had the billionaires. Without the CL money those years, it’s likely we’d have taken longer to get back to where we are and that we probably wouldn’t have signed Ozil and Alexis when we did sign them. So taking everything into account we’ve done reasonably well but yes, one or two big seasons would have been grand.
So on that basis I can understand the new contract for Wenger. It’s fair to feel really disappointed for not having won the league once or twice but I think the level of anger and outrage seen on social media is over the top, to put it mildly.
Before I’m crucified for my opinions, I’d like to admit that I am a fan of Arsene Wenger as well. I have no qualms admitting it. He does frustrate, he is stubborn etc. but there are more reasons why I admire the guy. I do at the same time appreciate his faults and I was genuinely on the fence about his stay being extended before it was. I’d have been happy to see a new person at the helm and would have supported the team anyway. However, I can see why Wenger has been given a new deal and now I’ve explained why I think that too. In any case, I intend to back the team unconditionally, to the end.
Arsenal is my hobby. I’m sure it’s yours as well. Let’s back our team when they’re on the pitch. Let’s try to enjoy our hobby while we can.
Finally, I’d just like to add that one of the things that makes sport what it is, is its uncertainty and/or unpredictability. In business and other walks of life, you can predict and forecast to certain extent. If everything about sport was as certain, then the life will have been sucked out of it. Managers and football administrators of course must strive for the certainty of winning, but alas, they will never be 100% successful. Let’s remember that the only person who came closest to achieving that certainty by not losing a single game, for one whole season at least, is the man in charge of our club.
Up the Arsenal.