Monday, August 4, 2014

Forward, Upward, or on Some Generally Positive Trajectory

There's something newly bold about the Arsenal.

My recent piece "Suddenly, This Summer" assessed the club's current position and paid particular attention to manager Arsène Wenger's public stance and the strategic importance of signing the young defender Calum Chambers from Southampton. Another way to analyze the club's direction is to reexamine the factors I identified in August 2013's "Platform or Plateau."

Supports of the platform

What has reinforced or undermined the sources of Arsenal's progress over the past year?
  1. The club's own financial strength. The advantages continue to accrue. Although updated figures won't be available until late September's annual report, the Puma kit sponsorship and the blockbuster Premier League television deal have expanded the club's coffers, while costs of Arsenal PLC overall have declined. The Arsenal Supporters Trust has estimated that the result is a £140 million cash balance, the bulk of which might be deployed to fund transfers.
  2. The different level of transfer target. Success. The term now should be acquisition, because the club isn't just targeting world-class performers; it's landing them. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez are top talents in their positions brought in from Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively. The persistent links to Real Madrid's Sami Khedira are further evidence that Arsenal is a serious contender for the world's best players.
  3. Unrest elsewhere. A missed opportunity. Manchester United was decidedly weaker in 2013-14, and neither moneybags Manchester City or Chelsea proved a juggernaut in the league. In that context, Arsenal's fourth-place league finish represented a failure to capitalize on the situation.
  4. Continuity in Arsenal's management and playing squad. Reinforced. Wenger has agreed to extend his stay for three years, while the changes in the player development staff have been methodical and promising. In raw numbers, there's been considerable turnover among players, but only the Bosman transfer of right back Bacary Sagna has had a meaningful effect on the first team. There's a strong case to be made -- and 7amkickoff makes it on Arseblog -- that quality improves with the arrival of Sagna's replacement Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle. The integration of Debuchy and Sánchez will be a major factor in the team's performance in 2014-15.
  5. The winning mentality of this squad. We won the FA Cup.
  6. The exits of unwanted players. More additions by subtractions. Although most of this summer's departures have been from the youth ranks, cutting ties with Niklas Bendtner and Park Chu-Young has had a material impact on the reserve squad and the financials. Their salaries might well offset part of what the club will be paying Sánchez.
  7. The impact of Financial Fair Play (FFP). Mixed results. UEFA, European football's governing body, did punish Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, among others, for failing to meet financial requirements. The sanctions reduced their squad sizes for the upcoming Champions League competition and levied multimillion-euro fines. The squad restrictions may not matter much, though, especially because specific instructions on home-grown players appear not to be harsh. (See sports law expert Daniel Geey's explanation here.) Meanwhile, the fines aren't material amounts for these clubs or even definitive. Indeed, PSG continues to spend like mad, breaking the record transfer fee for a defender to acquire David Luiz from Chelsea. That same transaction shows Chelsea's different reaction to FFP; it has stopped, at least for now, indiscriminate spending.

Conditions on the plateau 

How have the five forces suggesting stasis played out over the past year?
  1. The existing distance between Arsenal and the top of the table. Narrowed but persisted. The team amassed 79 points in the 2013-14 league campaign, its highest total since 2007-08, and finished just six points behind champions Manchester City. Not since that 2007-08 season has the team finished closer to the top in points. And yet. Against leading competition, the team's performances were again found lacking. Arsenal secured only 13 of 36 possible points (W3, D4, L5) against other clubs in last season's top seven and only three of those points came away from home, the 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane.
  2. The risk-averse transfer approach. Loosened. This has been one of my biggest concerns, partially because skittishness about transfers has affected the quality of play but even more because it's risked damage to the Arsenal brand. I'm less concerned now. The purchases of Özil and Sánchez indicate looser purse strings; the clearest sign, though, is the risk the club took to pay as much as £16 million for Chambers. As a result, mitigating transfer risk no longer appears to be a guiding policy in building the team or in running the business.
  3. Lack of experience in transfers at the high level. Dealt with. Acquiring Özil and Sánchez from the two Spanish giants shows that CEO Ivan Gazidis, Wenger, and chief negotiator Dick Law can close deals on world-class talent with top clubs.
  4. Uncertain enforcement of FFP. Continues. UEFA did not expel any clubs from European competition. Still, Manchester City agreed to sanctions without contest because they must have concluded that the potential of a ban was real. Neither City nor Chelsea has continued its transfer profligacy, suggesting that at least the English clubs are now taking compliance seriously. Wenger has observed that this development tightens the Premier League title chase and enhances Arsenal's chances.
  5. The composition of the Arsenal board. Barely changed. The retirement of longtime director and former chairman Peter Hill-Wood and the arrival of Josh Kroenke, son of majority owner Stan Kroenke, have reduced the board's average age and introduced some youth. Still, the board is small, white, and male, so it continues to represent the Arsenal fan base poorly, while it's just as unlikely to benefit from differences of opinion. 

What progress looks like

A review of these 12 factors points to the conclusion that the club has made progress and is on a promising trajectory. That's not to say conditions are perfect, that success is inevitable, or that every result and bit of news will be positive. Life doesn't work that way, especially in professional sport, which could be the most publicly competitive environment there is.

What can reasonably be said is that the Arsenal's fundamental position is as strong as it has been in a decade and that the prospect of highly entertaining football is real and immediate. I'm not sure a reasonable person can ask for more.

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