Arsenal Vs. The Money Machine: Counting out from ten, nine…
Yesterday, Robin van Persie announced that he will not sign a new contract at Arsenal.
Back in the midst of of late December or November, I know it was cold and I know it was wet, and I remember an article that named Arsenal as the model of how to run a football club. Now I can’t remember where I read this, because as established in the first sentence, my memory is for jokes, but the thrust of its point was this – Arsenal’s balanced wage structure and value of growing players over buying them gave them a stability over the long term. This stability would lead to long-term success, while flashier, more big-spending clubs would shine bright before fading away. Looking back at this now, I can’t help but wonder if this was written by UEFA, whose cherry picked ‘role model’ teams, championing financial restraint and growth, keep getting talked up before getting their ass handed to them. And Arsenal, who have to consider both their ever-diminishing impact on the Premier League and the fact that for the life of them they can’t seem to keep hold of world class players, might have to bring an end to the era of being holier than thou. Or risk losing everything.
Before the Champions League final, much was made of Bayern Munich’s business model. They were the people’s team, largely owned by the fans, liberated from being under the thumb of penny-pushers and petro-dollar egotists. They were the romance in football. And then there was Chelsea. A team with a captain under suspicion of racism, a team where players get their managers sacked if asked to do an extra lap, and a team owned by the shadiest of shady billionaires, Roman Abramovich. To this day, no-one quite knows where his money comes from, nor do they want to. In the battle of philosophies, UEFA would only be on one side. A victory for Bayern would show that money in football could be overhauled, that idealism could triumph over indulgence. Oops.
In the most watched and most profitable league in the world, The Barclays Premier League, Arsenal are very much the closest UEFA has to a team that shares its footballing values. A team that’s never made a £20m signing, a team that pays wages less than half of its competitors, yet qualify like clockwork for the Champions League and for most seasons, remain at least in the conversation of the title race. Arsenal are the team the world is supposed to admire for their principles and refusal to bow to the hysteria to come out on top. But the point has never struck hollower than today. Today – for the second year in a row, by the way- Arsenal face down the barrel of losing their captain and best player. To be clear, Robin van Persie is still an Arsenal player. He may well wear the shirt next season, although that seems implausible given that Gunner fans are the least forgiving around and will no doubt be sharpening their claws for August, but ostensibly, his heart is no longer in it.
It’s understandable from his perspective. He’s a world class player, and committing to Arsenal at his age would look to be writing off any dreams of winning the Champions League or even the Premier League, goals that he is good enough to achieve. That’s a big ask of a player in the modern game – a big ask. But yesterday’s news is nonetheless disaster for Arsenal. It makes them look very weak, it makes their system and values look weak. How can they seriously be competitive when their own players keep jumping ship? If RVP goes to Man City, the current favourites to sign him, then he will be the fifth player to go to Man City from The Emirates in four seasons; a sickening stat for Arsenal fans, and it leaves them in a rather hopeless situation for next season, par an immediate adaptation and near-superhuman season from new signings Giroud and Podolski. Rumblings were going around that they could challenge for the title this time. They had the two new strikers, they had Wilshere back, they had Oxlade-Chamberlain ready to explode, they would have a full strength defence. Maybe they could this time. That tender hope has been killed off now, and they must adjust their hopes to making Champions League football. Again.
All this seems unfair for the one club playing by the rules. But there’s the problem. There are no rules. Arsenal can’t just stay buckled down and wait for everyone running past them to start walking. They got away with one supremely, last season, both with the ridiculous amount of goals and subsequently points van Persie got them, and the near ludicrous meltdowns of third place rivals Chelsea and Tottenham. This can’t be counted on next season. Tottenham have got a new manager with £50m to spend, and Chelsea will probably be playing on the big boys’ playground with the two Manchester clubs. Arsenal have to do something. But I think it’s the contentment with their position that mystifies me, and has clearly angered van Persie. It’s troubling to present yourself as a team that wants to win things when Wenger himself said that coming third last season was his proudest achievement as Arsenal manager. Don’t say that, mate.
Ultimately though, UEFA’s and Arsenal’s ideology is backfiring. In attempting to follow the rules of engagement in a time of anarchy, the Gunners going from title-winning team to a team that celebrates a third place finish is their own doing. Paying players less wages than everywhere else doesn’t work, because they go everywhere else to get higher wages. Growing players instead of signing them doesn’t work if you can’t keep them when they hit their prime and should begin to pay you back. There’s no point in growing the grapes for ten years if someone else gets to drink the wine. And Man City are drinking all of Arsenal’s wine. Then marrying their daughters, then pillaging their land, and burning the place down, laughing and indulging in their riches.
I’ve had Facebook debates with Arsenal fans who swear they are doing things the right way, that claim Wenger has a long game, and those who resent the board and its profit-over-trophies philosophy. But the truth is that Arsenal have not been further away from the title in ten years than they are now. 19 points to make up, and now with it looking like they’ll start next season without RVP, they’ll probably be the only team in the top six who’ll start it worse instead of better. This is without mentioning that Theo Walcott and Alex Song, who have 1 and 2 years on their contract, respectively, have yet to sign new deals. The adrenaline shot to save themselves would be to go out and spend £25m on a star centre-forward, but what they will do is carry on like nothing’s wrong and go about their understated business as usual. Because they’re right, and that will see them have their day. Right?
Eight. Seven. Six….