Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Cracks in the Arsenal Brand

Arsenal's early season struggles have brought out the well worn and often angry portrayals of manager Arsène Wenger's tactical cluelessness, his transfer ineptitude, his awkward man-management, and his geriatric stubbornness.

The suspect evidence supporting these characterizations and the logical fallacy of the Arsenal=Arsène equation only seem to intensify the appeal of these arguments. It's gotten to the point that unthinking perceptions are reshaping the Arsenal brand; as a result, the club is facing a deeper issue than the manager's performance or the team's lackluster form.

What makes a football brand

In a largely problematic account of Arsenal's 2013-14 season ("Arsène and Arsenal: The Quest to Rediscover Past Glories"), Alex Fynn presents a strong foundation in brand theory. Brands aren't just logos or taglines, explains Fynn, but are collections and expressions of the rational and emotional attributes associated with an organization.

These attributes give brands distinctive personalities, such as Volvo's "Crisp and Safe" and Apple's "Cool and Innovative," which shape the main characters in those organizations' stories. The dramatic or comedic pull of these stories, along with the personalities and values they express, attract like-minded individuals.

Even more than other sports, football engenders strong brands, Fynn points out, because the dramatic impact is so great. One late moment of brilliance or bad fortune can overturn a result that seemed a foregone conclusion for 89 minutes. That's unmatched dramatic potential.

The geographic, historical, and cultural identifications of football clubs also make them sturdy vessels for brands, and clubs and their supporters can easily identify themselves in opposition to the "other" created by rivalries.

Elements of the Arsenal brand

Although Arsenal's brand benefits from clear differentiation with Tottenham, Chelsea, and Manchester United, the club has reaped its biggest reputational reward by honing its own personality. I would define this as "Refined, Successful, and Sensible." (See "The Brand's the Thing" and "Whiffing on Risk" for additional thoughts.)

At the foundation of these personality traits lie the club's historical values:
  • A distinctive balance between English football tradition and innovation
  • Adherence to standards of conduct that denote "class"
  • Consistent success at the highest level of the sport

Arsenal promises those who have identified with it that it will live out these values and behave in accordance with its underlying personality. Breaking that promise could make supporters and sponsors question their loyalty, with major cultural and financial consequences.


Just three months ago, Arsenal appeared to be reaffirming its core personality and values, with world-class acquisitions joining the club soon after an FA Cup triumph. The speed and irrationality of the shift in perceptions should trouble CEO Ivan Gazidis and other club executives, because they suggest that a different, much less positive, brand story is replacing the advantageous one.

Here's how it's happening: First, the promise of potential success appears to be an empty one. It's extremely unlikely that the club will win the Premier League or the Champions League this season. That's the standard of success the club has established for itself, and it will once again fall short.

Instead, as Andrew Mangan pointed out on the November 7 Arsecast, we are witnessing a routine of top-four league finishes and exits after the round of 16 of the Champions League.

This pattern of performance lessens the excitement because it's so predictable. Add that to the team's inability to win matches against the top domestic competition, and you'll struggle to find compelling drama.

Second, the club's image as an innovator is getting weaker. With the same manager for 18 years, no matter how sincerely he might profess new ideas or his focus on the future, Arsenal is always going to appear hidebound. (One reason I think so many supporters were excited about the appointment of Shad Forsythe as head of athletic performance enhancement is that it hinted at the club's innovative best.)

The third brand problem is that the personality trait "Sensible" is being undermined by a perception that identical weaknesses cause the same results year in, year out. Facts and reasonable analysis to the contrary, "defensive frailty" is Arsenal's downfall. It doesn't matter that the major problem in 2013-14 might well have been a lack of speed and in 2012-13 a lack of creativity. The story is already written.

The persistence and immediacy of this narrative are strong evidence that Arsenal's brand has shifted.


If this analysis is right, a succession of good results won't move the brand back onto favorable ground. Only a major achievement, a Premier League title or a Champions League trophy, will be sufficient for that.

Major sponsors seem comfortable with this scenario. The lucrative deals with Emirates Airlines for shirt and stadium sponsorship and Puma for playing gear indicate that those companies continue to see considerable advantage in aligning with Arsenal. How secondary and regional sponsors weigh the Arsenal brand will be crucial to higher commercial revenue.

Meanwhile, supporters have communicated mixed messages about their loyalty to the brand. The increase in season ticket prices, coming as it did as the brand was shifting, sparked vocal criticism. What appeared an attempt to capitalize on the FA Cup success and hope for the future has instead made longtime match goers question their commitment to an organization whose brand promises are shaky.

Despite the reaction, the waiting list for Arsenal season tickets remains long. What proportion of season ticket holders in years to come will be new? How many ticket holders will leave their seats empty? And how will those developments affect the stadium atmosphere, which is part of what any sports organization sells to sponsors, broadcasters, and fans?

These are potentially much more troubling questions for the club than are any about the manager's transfer, team setup, or personnel decisions. They aren't as dramatic or obvious, but structural questions rarely are.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Assessing Arsenal Ten Matches In

Each Premier League campaign has its own dynamics. We can search for patterns, correlations, and precedents, but ultimately every series of 38 matches that begins in August and ends in May takes its own independent shape. That makes the 10-match milepost an arbitrary measuring point.

Even so, it is a point, a round number a little more than a quarter of the way through the season. Arsenal has played more than half the teams in the league, so it's illustrative if not definitive to look at developments thus far.

The message from the overall numbers

A fair expectation at the start of any sporting campaign is for a team to make progress on its previous season. That was a reasonable objective for Arsenal as it set out on its 2014-15 Premier League effort, particularly because the FA Cup triumph, world-class summer signings, and a full season's acclimatization for star playmaker Mesut Özil seemed to have the club on a positive trajectory. (See my preseason assessment, "The Arsenal: Forward, Upward, or on Some Generally Positive Trajectory.")

In a broad-brush analysis, the first 10 matches don't show movement upward. The 2013-14 squad produced 25 points in its first 10 matches, while the 2014-15 version has tallied just 17.

The opposition has been tougher this season, with the competition having averaged 12.7 points from the first 10 matches, compared with 10.9 points in 2013-14. The median figures, which discount the outliers, tell a slightly different story, 11 points vs. 10.5, indicating that the schedule has been only a bit more difficult.

The results from comparable fixtures between the two campaigns aren't as promising, either. Only the draw at Everton marked an improvement on last season's performances, while home draws against Tottenham and Hull City and the away draw against newly promoted Leicester City leave Arsenal five points off its returns from parallel matches in 2013-14.

As a result, over the remaining 28 matches, Arsenal will have to match its wins of 2013-14 and pick up points from draws or losses--such as West Bromwich Albion away, Stoke away, and Aston Villa at home--to reach at least 79 points again.

The positives from relative numbers

Because each season is distinctive, though, Arsenal may not have to amass 79 points to achieve a higher final position in the league table. It all depends on the competition.

At this point, the top of the league is not as congested as it was in 2013-14. Chelsea leads the way with 26 points, and four other clubs have 17 points or more. In 2013-14, Arsenal's 25 points topped the table after 10 matches, while seven others had at least 17 points. That more tightly packed group of early leaders produced the most accomplished top four in points terms in Premier League history.

Let's look at 2010-11, the last season to follow a World Cup, for a different example. That year, Manchester United won the league with 80 points; Arsenal finished fourth with just 68 points, two fewer than both Chelsea and Manchester City. Tottenham were fifth at 62.

The start of that season bears some similarity to the first 10 matches of the current campaign. At the same point, just four teams stood at 17 points or higher, Arsenal among them with 20, putting them in second place. (All standings from tables on premierleague.com.)

Telling statistics

In that competitive setting, one set of in-game statistical measures stands out.

According to whoscored.com, Arsenal has taken the second highest number of shots per game (17.3) through the first ten matches and the third highest shots on goal per game (5.6). However, it's only sixth in goals scored, with 18.

That is, Arsenal has scored on just 10 percent of its shots. Meanwhile, its opponents have produced 11 goals from 74 shots, or 15 percent.

This discrepancy points toward the most prominent statistical difference in Arsenal's offense between 2013-14 overall and this season so far, the number of shots it has taken outside the penalty area. That average figure increased from 5.0 last season to 8.4 in the first ten matches of 2014-15, the highest in the league by 13 percent. None of those shots has gone in.

Indeed, manager Arsène Wenger's own assessment, shared on Arsenal Player before Arsenal faced Burnley in the 10th match of the season, emphasized the point. "On the efficiency front, we can do better," he said, "because if you look at the chances we have created and we have given away, I think we have created many chances, and our finishing was not at the expected level. And we gave very few chances away, but the chances we have given away are of quality, and that's what you want to do better."

If the manager can convey his seriousness about better efficiency to the players, we may see fewer of the ineffective shots from distance going forward.

The qualitative story

Statistics can help us understand performance trends, but fans' interest has more to do with qualitative judgments. In essence, we're assessing if the club is producing entertainment value: Is the team performing attractively as a whole, and are players delivering individually?

The answer to the first question has to be "not yet." With a few exceptions, such as the first 20 minutes against Manchester City and the last 20 against Burnley, the team's performances have left something to be desired.

I'm not inclined to identify a cause or causes because that would produce simplistic and misleading analysis.

What can be said is that injuries to several important players, defenders Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny, captain Mikel Arteta, center forward Oliver Giroud, as well as Özil, haven't helped. Tactical shifting may have played a role, too, although I hesitate to conclude that an established approach would have improved the attractiveness or the results.

As for the second question, Alexis has been the standout performer, netting seven goals in his first 10 league matches. Other high-profile summer acquisitions, striker Danny Welbeck and defender Calum Chambers, have also had more solid performances than poor ones. The quality of the new boys overall has therefore been a plus.

Most returning players haven't quite met the standards they set last season, but more telling is the sense that the whole is less than the sum of the parts at the moment.

All the components might add up eventually; that would boost the enjoyment and entertainment we supporters receive. It would also solidify a place closer to the top of the table, even if the raw numbers fall short of last season's. That's something to hold onto amidst legitimate current concerns.