Arsenal and the Reasons for Optimism during Uncertain Times
As I sit down to pen my first ever blog about Arsenal, in fact, my first ever blog about anything, I am determined to provide something uplifting for a change. This, as it turns out, is easier said than done when writing about football at a time which has seen no games for a month and a half.
In deciding whether to commit to posting a blog, I faced internal questions that I am sure many football fans will resonate with at this time. How can I justify caring about football during a global pandemic? Why am I reading Arsenal transfer news when people are dying? Should I feel guilty about longing for the Premier League to recommence despite the obvious health risks? Of course, there are much greater concerns for society, and we must be careful to keep our sporting interests firmly in perspective at a time like this. But as fans, it can be impossible to ignore the huge football-shaped void in our lives right now. Indeed, creating this blog is probably my attempt to fill that void. (Well that and having to come back to the UK from University in Canada and having way too much free time.)
Like almost every other sector today the business of football is staring down the barrel of a new economic reality. Upon the suspension of the various leagues, football clubs saw revenue sources dry up overnight. With any potential restart of the Premier League being behind closed doors, Arsenal will miss out on the gate receipts for 4 home games. However, if we are being realistic about the scale of this pandemic, behind closed doors could become the new norm.
The financial ramifications if a majority of next season needs to be played without fans are unprecedented. For Arsenal, the folks over at the Arsenal Supporters Trust have projected a loss of around £144 million if all of next season needs to be played behind closed doors. However, in the lower leagues, where fans coming through the turnstiles account for a much higher proportion of a club’s revenue, this would have a catastrophic effect. For the Premier League, there is a £726 million ticking time bomb, in the shape of TV money, waiting to be dropped on the top twenty clubs if the season can’t run its course. If we are being honest, this money is the reason why the premier league is hell-bent on getting back up and running. Suddenly lavish transfer fees and crude wage packets seem like a thing of the past. Clubs are in survival mode, and Arsenal are no different.
It would be easy to write paragraph after paragraph of doom and gloom on the scale of the crisis Arsenal face. It’s easy to write about the fact that we currently have the 9th largest wage bill in Europe but if the league finished today, we wouldn’t even be in the Europa League. It’s easy to mention that our best player, top scorer, and captain has 1 year left on his deal and is likely to leave. It’s easy to disregard any of the supposed transfer targets Arsenal fans are raving about on twitter because the financial reality is this: the club have just asked the players to take a 12.5% pay cut to keep the club functioning, they will not then immediately go out and be able to buy Thomas Partey, Dayot Upamecano and Kai Havertz. (As much as we want them to).
Not to mention the fact that we likely brought money forward from this year to spend last summer putting all our eggs in an Unai Emery shaped basket of disaster. It’s easy to suggest that, without a Raul Sanlehi negotiating masterclass, our summer will be very subdued, with the few loan deals and free agents we bring in, (think Cedric Soares and Willian), being outnumbered by players leaving in cut-price deals.
But enough of that negativity, it comes far too easily to us Arsenal fans. This is my first blog… I wanted to try and draw some positives from the depths of lockdown induced despair. So here goes…
The first cause for optimism is the most important one. We have an exciting young manager at the helm who the whole club can rally behind. Since the moment he strolled out confidently at his unveiling press conference, Mikel Arteta has been a breath of fresh air. Unai Emery’s Arsenal tenure felt like it dragged on for eternity. The promising start quickly unraveled, giving way to a painstakingly slow demise. While at University in Vancouver, with the 8-hour time difference, I honestly found myself waking up at 7 am on a Saturday for the games and almost nodding off before the end of the first half. The football was very dull and Emery’s explanations for his tactics became draining.
Arteta gave new life to the club. His vision is clear, and his delivery is inspiring. His enthusiasm for football and his passion for the club he once captained is infectious. He gets it. But he didn’t just talk the talk, the players have clearly bought into his plan as well. Results came slowly, performances were in flashes, and there were too many draws. But his impact on the team has been clear for any regular observer to see. He obviously wants to play an exciting brand of attacking football akin to his mentor Senor Guardiola, but that cannot be achieved without a solid platform. He, therefore, has attempted to address Arsenals most persistent problem of the last decade: the leaky defence. And the results are clear from even the most basic look at the data:
Key to this has been the young coach’s ability to improve individuals and it is this trait that gives me confidence going into this difficult financial period. The error-prone David Luiz has been a rock at the back and seems to be particularly in tune with Arteta’s ideals. Granit Xhaka was giving it back to the fans while being booed off the pitch and stripped of the captaincy in November, but he’s been an ever-present in Arteta’s 11. Young Bukayo Saka has been a constant menace down the left as Mikel has created an attacking left-back role for him out of necessity. Mesut Ozil is actually working hard and some fans were even calling for a new contract for Shkodran Mustafi after a couple of solid outings… unthinkable. Arteta’s ability to coach and improve the players at his disposal will be invaluable if Arsenal are going to get through a period when they will have to be frugal in the market.
Just one further thing on Mikel. Even the most experienced coaches will never have encountered anything like the Covid-19 pandemic but our young head coach has dealt with it in exemplary fashion. He was the first high profile positive test in football, and he did the right thing and isolated himself. His regular updates and interviews have given us more insight into how the club is operating in lockdown. And he even convinced half a squad of reluctant players to do the right thing and take a pay cut. All signs of a real leader.
The second cause for optimism is Arsenal’s current crop of young players. This season has seen Academy graduates Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock receiving significant game time as part of Arsenal’s first-team squad. On top of that, Emile Smith-Rowe finally seems to have brushed off his injury problems, becoming the main man while on loan at Championship strugglers Huddersfield. To have 5 talented academy graduates all poised to become first-team regulars puts Arsenal in an increasingly fortunate position as the extent of football’s financial crisis becomes clearer.
Furthermore, 18-year-old Gabriel Martinelli, a £6 million acquisition from Brazil’s fourth division, has had a scintillating first season in English football. The kid has natural goal-scoring instincts and when Jurgen Klopp described him as the “talent of the century”, there were not many people calling him out for exaggeration. This lad could be special. Centre back has notoriously been one area where Arsenal have struggled to have any success in the market in recent years. In Wenger’s last 10 years we endured some shocking defensive signings. Sebastian Squillaci anyone? Mikel Silverstre? But the signing of 18-year-old William Saliba last summer felt different. And he has done little to damage his burgeoning reputation on loan back at St Etienne. A good friend of mine lives in nearby Lyon and he says St Etienne supporters, who have witnessed Saliba’s rapid development on the pitch, rave about his quality. Have we finally found that missing piece in the team?
To have a group of young talents like this ready to come into the team will make Arsenal the envy of many a club during these uncertain times. We haven’t even touched on Matteo Guendouzi, who despite being erratic at times clearly has a lot of talent that can be nurtured. Many of those who are in the know expect this transfer window to be very different than recent times, with clubs looking to balance the books by offloading players on big wages and exploiting the loan market and free agency. Arsenal, in many ways, are better positioned to weather the storm than most.
This brings me on to my final cause for optimism. Arsenal, strangely enough, should use the economic downturn as an opportunity. Bear with me on this. We know that Arsenal’s wage bill is far too high, Josh Kroenke admitted it himself, it’s no secret. We have a core of young talents coming through and an exciting young head coach. Let’s use this as an opportunity to fundamentally restructure the playing squad.
Get rid of the players on £100k+ a week contracts who are not part of the long-term vision. I’m talking Sokratis, Mustafi, Kolasinac, Mhkitaryan etc. If we can hold onto one of the front two it would be great, but if not so be it. It’s a tough ask to shift Ozil and his £350,000 per week wage packet, but worst case scenario he stays one more season and eases Smith-Rowe into the 10 role for the long-term, who’s very highly regarded at the club.
We could effectively use the financial constraints imposed on us to cut the wage bill down in one summer to a manageable level, a process that could have taken 3 or 4 windows otherwise. From there, we give the youth their chance and allow Arteta to build and design a squad of players over the next few years from the ground up. Supplement his squad with more signings in the Martinelli and Saliba mould, rather than some of the ageing players on big wages we’ve seen arrive.
The Premier League are using “Operation Restart” to get football back up and running. Perhaps Arsenal should enact their own version: “Operation Rebuild”.
As mentioned, this is my first blog post of any kind so any feedback in the comments would be hugely appreciated. Would love to get some conversation going in the comment section as well so be sure to drop any thoughts down below whether you agree or disagree.
Thanks for reading guys, stay tuned for more content soon.
Editor's Note - Unbelievably, this is Tom's first ever blog about his beloved Arsenal, which he asked me to read on his newly launched site - https://onsidearsenal.com. We invited Tom to become a writer for Gunners Town while he boosts his profile and builds his Twitter following (@OnsideArsenal) and he accepted our offer! Wooho! Welcome to Gunners Town, Tom !