The Arsenal Football Club Conundrum

Several weeks ago, an uncertainty entered my mind that would greatly stigmatize me as less of a Gunner fan if shared – am I really an Arsenal Football Club fan, and if so, is it really worth supporting them? I quickly discarded the thought for fear of prejudice, and proceeded on my way. Several weeks later, the question still resonated with me and I was determined to find an answer.

After a friend introduced myself to Arsenal and its prowess many years ago, I was smitten with the team led by the faces of the franchise, the ever-so graceful Thierry Henry and volatile midfield general Patrick Vieira. Many years later, I am in a state of ambivalence. To properly analyze my dilemma is to understand the interplay between my beliefs and their alignment with Arsenal’s philosophy, vision and strategic plan, starting from a macro-level analysis and then zooming on the micro aspects.

‘If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense’

I have always classified myself as an independent thinker who creates his own opinion based on facts and observations from a number of different sources. Blessed with a critical eye, I tend to stick to my convictions unless logically and intellectually proven otherwise. These combine to create a core philosophy and culture in which there are different yet highly specific components. In my years, there have been several qualities that re-affirmed my interest in the team many affectionately call the Gooners.

Most importantly, the pragmatism demonstrated by the club in the financial realm has been exemplary. Displaying a conservative approach, Arsenal Football Club, primarily led by the former Vice-Chairman David Dein, has promoted growth in small steps on the basis on fiscal stability. In a sports sphere where football clubs seemingly go into ‘administration’ or over-indulge themselves without consequence every few months, Arsenal has promoted a responsible business model as shown by the increase revenue from €224 million in 2007-2008 to €263 million in 08-09, reported by the Deloitte Sports Business Group. With this said, Arsenal’s conservatism in the market has its cost. In 2004, Arsenal signed a 15 year, £100 million deal garnering £6.7 million a year. Compared to the £20 million a year that Manchester United signed with Aon, and Liverpool signed with Standard Chartered Bank recently, the Holloway habitants are given peanuts. Nonetheless, Arsenal’s ideological views have obviously paid dividends seeing as how Forbes lists them in 2010 as the 3rd most valuable team in the world after Manchester United and Real Madrid, with an expected value of £837 million ($1.2 billion). Profit earned is rightfully assumed to be at the top of the pyramid when it comes to running a business, however, it is also is the foundation for how a football club’s philosophy is produced.

‘In Wenger We Trust’

Arsenal Football Clubs’ emphasis on financial pragmatism and stability transcended to the management levels when the worldly-intellectual Arsène Wenger was chosen as coach. The Frenchman speaks six languages, followed the Obama election closely, visited Hungary to study communism, and has a passion for politics and art. On the football stage, Wenger had had notable success at Association Sportive de Monaco and a small stint at Grampus Eight (now known as Nagoya Grampus) in Japan, but truly was untested on the larger scale. However, he bought into the monetary philosophy, and Arsenal Holdings felt he was a controllable pawn of sorts. It wouldn’t be the first club that promoted enduring stability over style. The domestic dominance of Lyon, a club that once had limited success, reached unfathomable goals with its long-term sporting director and now presidential advisor, Bernard Lacombe.

Wenger was duly noted for his observant and intellectual approach. A master’s degree in Economics from University of Strasbourg, Wenger uses statistical analysis to track the development of his players. As celebrated in Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics, Wenger collects information from the amount of kilometres his player has run to their dietary needs. As they say, information is free.

Wenger’s rational approach combined with his calm demeanour, results in a safe environment in which the players tend to be in high spirits. He places an emphasis on loyalty and supports the growth and development of the footballer. He experiments with players in different roles – as shown by placing Theo Walcott on the right wing rather than in his natural position of striker – and is not afraid let players struggle in order for them to gain a better grasp of the team philosophy. In a ruthlessly competitive environment, Wenger is one of the few managers to understand that the virtue of patience often correlates with long-term success of the player. Wenger understands that the long-term gain outvalues the short-term success of replacing the player (selling a player below their peak value after spending countless thousands as well as years to develop the athlete is impetuous).

Wenger’s strong beliefs in patience and understanding derives not only being economically responsible, but also from his desired style of play. “I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art,” states Wenger. An attack-minded yet fluid style in which the ball is primarily kept on the ground through an assortment of short and medium passes. The players are comfortable on the ball with superb composure yet are expected to be multidimensional. The physical components include a low-centre of gravity, strong balance, good quickness and agility. Complimenting this is an artistic flair in dribbling, intelligent decision making, creative in space and an eye for the precise pass (Samir Nasri and Tomáš Rosický are fine examples of this). The defensive style is more subtle, but focuses on the collective. This team style revolves around group play in which team chemistry is the focal point. Arsenal’s training often includes two-on-twos and three-on-threes. This approach is a far cry from celebrated Manchester United first team coach and Dutchman René Meulensteen whom states “do one thing very, very well.”

Creating a Culture

Arsenal’s style has evolved from the days of Vieira and Sylvain Wiltord where the play was much more direct with play often conducted through the middle in which creating chances were just as important as maintaining possession. This current style of play is excellent to the development of the young athlete. It polishes their skills and creates more opportunities for them to succeed, whether they are in various positions or different tactical situations (1 on 1, counter-attack etc). This shaping of the athlete is exuded in the youth policy in which young players develop or expand on certain facets of their game without consequence. “Young players need freedom of expression to develop as creative players,” Wenger states, “they should be encouraged to try skills without fear of failure.”

Wenger’s strongly believes in political and economic efficiency, though his affection with youth players results in him being looked upon as a ‘father figure.’ His track record of remarkable successes focuses on buying young players, developing them into talented and an integral part of the Arsenal team and contrary to public opinion, motivating them to stay at Arsenal despite differences. If all else fails, allow them to depart (and not coincidently, when they are on the decline) – all for a healthy fee. Some of these incredible transfers include purchasing a young Nicolas Anelka for £500,000 from PSG in 1997 and two years later selling for £22.3 million to Real Madrid. Buying Dutch winger Marc Overmars for £5.5 million and three seasons later allowing him to depart for £22.3 million to FC Barcelona. Purchasing Vieira for £3.5 million and 3 Premiership crowns as well as 4 FA Cups later selling him to Juventus. Swooping for Emmanuel Adebayor for just £3 million and selling him to Manchester City for a reported £25 million. Lastly, buying club legend Thierry Henry for £10 million, converting him from winger to striker and 174 Premiership goals later selling him for £16 million on his decline of form.

The emphasis on team camaraderie creates an enjoyable experience for all players while motivating them to aspire for more. Wenger’s wide-ranging interests underline his belief that there is more to life then football. He promotes thinking from a wide range of perspectives – and his first team squad represents this. There are players from eighteen different countries including the powerhouses of France, Spain, Brazil and England to lesser known national footballing countries of Belgium, Poland, Cameroon and Denmark.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”

On many facets, Arsenal have demonstrated an informed understanding of what it takes to succeed as a football club at the highest level. The 2009-2010’s season of spirit in which the North Londoners are constantly posing a threat as a title-holder only re-affirms these values. However, with these tremendous qualities, it is easy to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings displayed by Wenger & Co. Nevertheless, it is not as much these faults that lead to the downfall of Arsenal, rather, it is the majority of Gunner fans’ inability to understand the philosophy of the club that reproduce this blissful ignorance. The Arsenal Way – at least in the past decade – has featured tidbits of creativity cut across conservative pragmatism. Arsenal fans across the world share their passion for the club by not merely just watching the team, but also following every tabloid, editorial, opinion and blog posts – the very high majority coming from an impatient, over-demanding and short-sighted British media that creates a domino effect.

It is these fans’ belligerent blind patriotism to a club that masks the deep-rooted problems. Wenger’s wide-varying interests combined with a multicultural squad illustrate his belief in having an educated-cum-cultured perspective on football. Despite this, Gunner fans across the world insist on short term quick fixes that minor adjustments need to be made to secure the title in the ‘best league in the world.’ Purchasing a player, change of formation, injuries ravaging the squad (though temporarily) etc will repair all of Arsenal’s problems, including a historically weak mentality. However, it can be stated that to determine a team’s value, you have to look at how they perform versus the crème de la récolte, and Arsenal’s results are not the most flattering this past season. Two losses to Manchester United (the second of which was over by half) as well as two losses to their cross-town rivals Chelsea (the first of which was over in the 23rd minute), signal a deeper problem then fans allude to. Furthermore, shocking results such as Sunderland loss and West Ham United draw (in which the Hammers scored two goals in the final 14 minutes) only add a layer of problems that unsuspectingly get swept under the carpet. Wenger’s failure in competing with the best is often a mask for Arsenal’s long-standing deficiencies. “Chelsea are more experienced – they are 29, we are 23” is his flavour-of-the-day line against the Blues. Unsurprisingly, his besotted followers barley strike a counter-argument. However, one player made quite possibly the most precise statement of Arsenal’s deep-rooted problems in the past few years. This came from none other than el capitano, Francesc “Cesc” Fàbregas.

“As a team, we need to be stronger,” the Arsenal midfielder declared. “We can’t hide behind people saying we are too young or we have injuries. We just have to compete. People say you must learn from your mistakes, but you learn how to play football when you are 12, 13, 14, 15. You don’t learn these things when you are 25…That is why I do not believe age is an excuse.

“In the past few years, we have been doing very well, but whenever it comes to important moments, maybe we haven’t been up where we need to be. We have always tried to play our football, but the goals we have conceded lately have come from defensive mistakes.

“We can keep playing the same style of football, but it is the mentality that will determine whether you win trophies or not. We need an extra edge in these big games. We want to do well and get better and better, that is for sure.”

Wenger’s response? An inherent contradiction. “When we lost against Chelsea and Manchester United here, and I must say it was in a convincing way, everybody got a little bit carried away, and you have to go a bit overboard.” Consistent losses versus the best teams and it’s the fans fault? Wenger is so good at cover-ups, he should work for L’Oréal. Then again, youth is on their side.

“But we have a young team and if we want to have a future then we have to show mental quality and not give up, no matter what happens.

“Beautiful Football”

Fàbregas’s reference to a weak mentality may be visibily accurate, but it may not hold enough weight… because the Gunners play ‘beautiful football.’ An aesthetically-pleasing style is often what entertains the crowd, and FC Barcelona’s internationally-renown clever style have brought fortune and fame to the Catalans. Nonetheless, it doesn’t necessarily contribute to the one category that matters – wins. Pedro Garcia-del-Barrio and Stefan Szymanski’s “Goal! Profit Maximization Versus Win Maximization in Soccer” furthers the notion that winning professional games often lead to an increase in generated revenue and the potential to be a mega-brand. Arsenal are a major club pioneered by their clustered success, and revitalized by their artistic style of play. Despite this, they have failed to register a mark on the international radar of European success where Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid C.F, AC Milan, Liverpool FC, Juventus FC and others current inhabit. The Gooners greatest Champions League triumph was reaching the finals in 2005-2006 before losing to Barça (despite breaking the record for the most consecutive clean sheets with ten). Statistically, that puts them tied for 24th since the European Cup originated in 1955-56. It seems Arsenal has progressed, but has failed to get ‘over the hump.’ Thankfully, the players (and the fans) haven’t noticed.

“Passion doesn’t look beyond the moment of its existence”

Wenger’s loyalty to his squad is reciprocated by them, but there often can be a disconnect between the fans and the players they support (for the time being). Wenger’s patience with Emmanuel Eboué and Nicklas Bendtner has provided dividends ten-fold. Bendtner, who arrived at the Emirates at just 16, has showed flashes of brilliance even prior to this season. He is highly rated internationally and has been nothing short of a sensation for Denmark, yet he has often not demonstrated the same form for Arsenal. Contrary to popular opinion, Bendtner’s inconsistency has less to do with desire, as it has to do with finding the right position and formation for him. At 6’2, Bendtner has the height to be a target-man, yet his penchant for dribbling in wide space in the final third is more natural for a 4-3-3 Winger or a 4-4-1-1 Supporting Striker. The man with #52 on his back likes having the ball and his confidence rarely wanes. Even with these superb qualities, Bendtner has been the target of frustration and jeers from fans for his unpredictable form – at just 22. Recently, he has been in scintillating form netting a hat trick in the Champions League against Porto, and sealing Arsenal’s 2-1 victory against Hull City with a 90th minute strike. “It shows you how football can change very quickly,” said Wenger. Is he talking about the player’s form or the fans’ support?

Emmanuel Eboué has proved to be a versatile player at both fullback and midfielder positions in a variety of formations. His dynamic style combines well with a number of players (arguably best with former Gunner Adebayor), and this is the reason up-and-coming team Fiorentina pressed hard to purchase him. However, Arsenal fans want to forget one moment. On December 7th, 2008, after recovering from a six week injury, Eboué battled against Wigan. He was understandingly struggling to adapt, and it resulted in Arsenal fans Arsenal fans cheering his every mistake, and making the loudest applause when he was substituted despite being visibly upset.

Neil Ashton at the Daily Mail wrote “Eboue was not even that bad” and I for one agree. Many Arsenal fans will be quick to dismiss this as an isolated incident, but this is in character with their absurd if not unfounded expectations of players. While this is not the first case of jeering a player, Wenger preaches patience and the development of his players. Arsenal fans did not catch that speech. This episode is one of the foremost reasons why I am embarrassed to be an Arsenal fan. Emotions aside, Chris McGrath at The Independent connects this occurrence with a broader meaning. “Paying to watch Premier League football is an increasingly precarious luxury. But whatever they contribute to Eboué’s wages, the real problem is that these people feel the world owes them a living.”

Swiss international Philippe Senderos similarly faces a confidence issue. In 2005, at age 20, Senderos was one of the hottest centre back prospects in the world. The robust defender was slowly being featured in Arsenal’s Starting XI, highlighted by injury woes to William Gallas. His rise to prominence continued by playing a pivotal role for the Swiss national team, including scoring a goal in World Cup 2006. Yet after several disappointing club showings – including a very poor performance against Didier Drogba, arguably the world’s best striker – he was berated by fans and in the media. A once poised Senderos, looked in tatters as was frequently met with the absurd accusation that he ‘was not good enough for Arsenal.’ Now loaned at Everton, the player who once was famed for his aerial power, has failed to re-gain his confidence and his career seems to be spiralling out of control. However, to say he is not talented enough is incongruent with the fact that Senderos has been capped over thirty times for the Swiss National team, before the age of 24.

Similarly puzzling concerns on over-the-hill players like Mikaël Silvestre and particularly 35-year old Sol Campbell speak to the bizarre inability of the club to find quality. Silvestre was a 4th-string Centre Back with the Red Devils while Campbell was a one-game superstar for powerhouse Notts County (all in the name of “rebuilding”). These are short-term fixes and even they can be argued as fixes. One other player who despite tremendous skill, but his position in the squad is debatable is Tomáš Rosický. “The Little Mozart” has remarkable vision, a soft touch and is an excellent passer, but his history has been hampered by long spells of injuries. In May 2009 he returned to training after eighteen months in the physiotherapy clinic only to injure his hamstring and subsequently re-visit the clinic for six weeks. It is quite apparent that Rosický’s ability has declined from the class that he was once. However, what is more damaging is the inability to rely on Rosický if needed. At the back of many Arsenal fans’ mind is the countdown till when Rosický is injured again.

Silvestre, Campbell and even Rosický’s recent track record is almost universally questionable, but Gunner fans seamless inability to other squad players’ qualities can be mind-boggling at times. Similarly to Bendtner, Vassiriki “Abou” Diaby has shown rare moments of breathtaking talent (such as his goal versus Aston Villa), but long-standing injuries combined with more inconsistency don’t fare well with the Frenchman. I can appreciate the subtleness of talent (such is the case with the perennially underappreciated Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov), but at times Diaby seems more interested in religion, philosophy and science then he does in football. To make matter worst, fans’ comparisons to club legend Patrick Vieira are exceptionally false if not highly racialized, as the two share very few football similarities. Vieira was a hot tempered, box-to-box central midfielder who was strong in the tackle and made his presence felt. Diaby on the other hand, is interchangeable, more attack minded and often is anonymous in games. Vassiriki’s skill is lately seen as the transition player linking up the defense to the midfield (the speciality of Brazilian Felipe Melo).

Needless to say, one player in 09-10 who has made his worth felt after being considered a fringe player is Alexandre Song. After competing with Denílson and Diaby for the coveted central midfielder position alongside Fàbregas, the Cameroonian has inserted himself into the first-team squad and has never looked back. Song’s massive improvement stems from being frequently given the opportunity to play combined with reduced pressure to perform. The defensive midfielder’s style of play is simple with limited touches on the ball with a range of preferred short passes to longer more precise diagonal passes in the final third. His emergence fills a heavily-needed gap in the centre of the park (and in the minds of Arsenal fans), but the question is, is he the correct solution?

The 22 year old’s courage is admirable, but his heavy-footed and slow-paced style is not the right fit for protection of Arsenal’s fluid attack. As previously mentioned, the Gunner’s style of play focuses on team play which requires players to go forward and allow for support. As a result, Arsenal are left vulnerable to counter-attacks as there is space between the mid-line and the defending third. To stop the counter-attack, Arsenal needs a Defensive Midfielder who is energetic and can cover ground to pressure attackers and force bad angles (Real Madrid C.F’s virtually identical situation can be compared as pivotal figure Lassana Diarra frequently stops the counter-attack by pressuring the attacker and cutting off angles). A look at Arsenal’s past fixtures this year (especially against Chelsea and earlier in Champions League) shows the Gunners defending against the counter-attack with Song frequently unable to catch up and support the defenders, creating a difficult 1-on-1 scenario. Song is more of a holding midfielder who despite his stature, he is often weak in the tackle. Furthermore, he is rather clumsy and can lose the ball under pressure.

Despite my strong beliefs in demonstrating patience and loyalty with players, it is debatable whether Song even has the potential to fulfill the requirements in the crucial spot of defensive midfielder for the Gunners. Song has the unfortunate task of replacing former Gunner Mathieu Flamini, whose chemistry was sensational with Fàbregas’s chemistry, with Flamini often leading the team in most kilometers run to cover ground. To put it candidly, Song would be the 3rd best defensive midfielder on mid-table Sunderland where former Marseille captain Lorik Cana and up-and-comer Lee Cattermole dwell. Song has demonstrated many strong similarities with Fullham’s Nigerian Dickson Etuhu, but are we saying a backup on Arsenal’s cross-town enemy is potentially the future to replace stalwarts such as Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva? Goal.com put it brilliantly: “There is one key element missing from Arsenal’s midfield: steel. Alexandre Song and Abou Diaby certainly haven’t embarrassed themselves playing alongside Cesc Fabregas, but there is still room for an experienced head and a strong foot in the middle of the park.”

“The Future of Arsenal”

Ultimately, Arsenal Football Club’s financial future is optimistically predictable with revenue increasing and the club slowly closing the gap between itself and Real Madrid. On the field, it’s another story. The Arsenal Way’s artistic style has continued to attract followers, albeit many which do not fully understand the club’s vision and philosophy. Club administration need to stop relying on the Premiership Championships of 1997-98, 2001-02 and 2003-04 march onward as many of their players have done so. Arsenal’s rise to a mega-club will continue, but will its performance on the field catch up? At least one fan will be waiting to see.

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