Mention money and Arsene Wenger mounts his favourite hobby horse. The most famous University of Strasbourg economics alumni in football is never short of an opinion on football finance.
And it always comes back to one theme: corruption.
It’s a much-misunderstood word; the instant reaction is of dark dealings and backhanders but there’s so much more to it than that. Wenger rarely holds shy of hinting at nefarious antics, but he is more at home when you talk of ‘financial doping’.
To 88 of the 92 English clubs, it’s a case of pot, kettle, black; Arsenal are as guilty of the sins Wenger bemoans as anyone else. Wealthy, outspending and outpaying in the transfer market; everything in football is relative.
At his Everton pre-match press conference, Wenger observed that money is destroying European football. He said:
“Unpredictability has gone down. When you look at the five big leagues in Europe, in December we already knew four champions. That means something is not right in our game. The huge financial power of some clubs is basically destroying the competition.”
Once again, there’s a relativity to Wenger’s words. Spanish football, for example, has seen 14 occasions in the last 60 years when neither of Barcelona or Real Madrid were champions. Only once – 1980/81 through 1983/84 – has there been any spell of more than two seasons without one of the pair winning the title.
The Bundesliga is more one-sided. Since 1980, Bayern Munich are regular champions and only on four occasions have they gone more than one season without the title.
England and Italy are the exceptions to some extent. 11 of the last 12 Italian titles were won by two clubs and since Sampdoria’s 1990/91 Scudetto, 23 Serie A titles were shared between Internazionale, Juventus and Milan.
Which brings us back to the Premier League. Leicester City’s success in 2015/16 was celebrated because it broke the tedium. Since the inaugural season of the rebranded English top flight in 1992/93, there have been six clubs winning the title.
Only Leicester and Blackburn Rovers managed the feat once while Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City with their ten titles between them trail in the wake of Manchester United’s thirteen Premier League titles.
Competitiveness in European football’s big leagues is an illusion which harks back the 1970s when there were a variety of champions. Money altered the landscape, but it is disingenuous of Wenger to declare it is the real problem.
Football’s real issue is the art of squad-building is dying and Wenger is as culpable as anyone in that sense.
Not since the 1930s have Arsenal been the richest club in England yet despite that, they have challenged for the title more often than other wealthier sides.
In the Premier League era when Manchester United threatened to make the competition their own personal property, Wenger emerged to take Arsenal out of the dark ages by building squads through astute signings at senior and youth levels, to build on the quality of players inherited.
Cash, in football, has always made the king and those less wealthy relied on coaches who could build title-challenging squads on lesser budgets.
While Manchester United spent frivolously in the 1990s, Arsenal record signings through Wiltord, Reyes and Arshavin were all modest by comparison. It wasn’t until Mesut Ozil signed for £42m in 2014 that the Gunners entered the transfer big-time.
Just an Illusion
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment Wenger lost his mojo on building a squad. Arguably, he last managed that feat in 2007/08 when we were last genuine title contenders. It wasn’t expensively assembled but it was a talented squad.
The signings of Eduardo and Bacary Sagna were key to improving an already impressive group of players. Had the former not been cruelly scythed down at St Andrews, Arsenal would surely have been the worthiest of champions. Certainly, the youngest, if nothing else.
But since then, Wenger has floundered when it comes to a cohesive transfer policy. Repeatedly, Arsenal have entered the season woefully short in key areas of the pitch – usually defensive – and paid the price.
His natural conservatism with finances has held the club back on more than one occasion while the procrastination – or dithering if you want to cut to the chase – is as much of a barrier to overcome.
A man whose footballing ethos is now entirely around attacking will always struggle with defenders. When you think the last good defender we bought was an unknown 26-year-old Spanish left-back five years ago, the picture in that sense becomes clearer.
Too much isolation hasn’t been good for Arsene. Just as we supporters are guilty of locking ourselves in electronic echo chambers on social media, he did so at Arsenal with his coaching staff. The lack of new input from acolytes or yes-men damaged his perception of what constituted a balanced squad.
Going into successive seasons with only three central defenders was the warning and the bells rang as we still await the defensive midfielder the XI continues to beg for.
Last Days of Summer
Will the new team around him – Ivan’s men – bring back a coherent policy for recruitment? You’d think so; it’s what they were hired to do, but the question is how much they can impose on Wenger.
Hints of that happened in January; it was a Dortmund-themed winter and to the chagrin of many, the usurpers landed their targets. There was almost a desire in some for the Aubameyang deal to fall flat on its face; proclaiming Wenger transfer king or deflecting criticism was more important. Arsenal fans are the most bizarre creatures at times.
The question we wait to be answered is how Arsene will react to the new regime. The summer is shorter so there is no time to react to defeats as we have in the past.
Closing the Premier League window before the season kicks off demands a coherent approach to squad-building. Can Wenger – who I assume is staying for one more summer, at least – rediscover the skills he has left to become covered in cobwebs in his footballing closet?