Arsenal and the allure of standing still
Once again, just three matches into the season, the Arsenal football club presents pundits all over the world with that most infuriating of punditry challenges: how to analyse yet another calamitous series of Arsenal performances with anything even approaching analytical originality.
There is, and let us be frank, nothing particularly original to say about Arsenal. Not one thing. Across websites, newspapers, fan podcasts and fan YouTube channels, pundits are desperately trying to make sense of Arsenal’s season so far, and that collapse against Liverpool in particular, without resorting to cliché. Their lives would be so much more easier if there was one thing to point fingers at. If only Arsenal were faltering because of a bad formation. But it isn’t because the same formation thrashed Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Maybe Arsenal are faltering because they have a weak squad. But, in fact, Arsenal have an entirely respectable squad that is a mix of experience, potential and big price tags. It has spent some money in the last few years. This year, in fact, the club has been desperate to get rid of players and thin the roster.
Nor does the club have to deal with a “Wembley Hoodoo” like the Spurs. Arsenal now have a fantastic, if far too tranquil, home ground that they have paid for and settled into.
The incompetence on the pitch, then, is surely a symptom of a much larger malaise that plagues the club. And so is the stagnation that the club has endured over the last decade or so in the Premier League and European competitions. So what is the malaise? The logical thing to do next is point fingers at Arsene Wenger, the man who has chaperoned the club through this period of consistent inconsistency.
But this too, one can argue, is a cliché. The reason why pundits, podcasters and fans reach for clichés so often to make sense of Arsenal is simple: The club is a cliché itself. And that cliché is this: Football is a business. And there is no club in European football, arguably, that understands, embodies and enforces the lucrative stagnation this approach entails more than Arsenal.
Consider Forbes magazine’s annual listing of the world’s most valuable football teams. This June, the magazine published its 2017 listing, in which clubs were ranked on the basis of “equity plus net debt, revenues and operating income for the 2015-16 campaign”.
Manchester United topped the list with a value of $3.69 billion (around Rs23,575 crore). The nine other teams that made up the top 10 are in order: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur.
For Arsenal, the implications here are quite interesting: Arsenal are the most unsuccessful rich team in world football. No other football team in the world has accumulated so much value winning so little. On almost every metric that Forbes calculates earnings and value, Arsenal figures in the top 10, if not much higher.
Some fans might argue that these rankings are meaningless if you don’t take into account the deep pockets of the people who own and bankroll these clubs. But then consider the Forbes listing of billionaire soccer owners by net worth. Two Arsenal shareholders figure in the top 3. Alisher Usmanov and Stan Kroenke are separated by Roman Abramovich.
Even if you take these rankings and calculations with a pinch of salt, the picture it paints of Arsenal is extraordinary. In a sport in which wealth is perhaps the greatest barometer of success, Arsenal underperform to a ludicrous degree. This is a club with tremendous value, owned by some of the richest owners in world football, that has seen its valuations boom during the exact same period when its performances on the pitch have withered into the longest-running joke in top-flight football.
Why? Because Arsenal have managed to strike the perfect balance. The club, thanks to a manager who has bought into this “fourth place is a trophy” approach wholeheartedly, has learnt that it needs to do little more than keep the top line growing. It needs to invest just enough to not win trophies but to take in revenue. Could Arsenal spend much more on players? Without a doubt. Will it? No. Because as teams all around it show, the extra spending required to move up from contenders to champions is considerable. But will winning stuff mean Arsenal will make a lot more money? No. Why bother then.
This is why pundits and many fans perhaps need to stop trying to analyse Arsenal as if it is a football club. It isn’t. It is a brilliantly run business. Stagnation for a football club is a brilliant business plan for an investor.
Many football clubs are businesses. But some of them also actually want to win stuff. Arsenal don’t seem to be one of them.