BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – Before the arrival of Roman Abramovich in the Premier League and the advent of Chelsea as a third force in English football, games between Arsenal and Manchester United were as feisty as things got at the top of the Premier League.
Not any more. Arsenal's defeat at Old Trafford on Saturday was as meek as they come; Sir Alex Ferguson's bewilderment that United had won only 2-1 was understandable. The days of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira squaring up in the tunnel, of Cesc Fabregas throwing pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson, of Martin Keown mocking Ruud van Nistelrooy for missing a penalty, of Gary Neville clattering Jose Antonio Reyes, feel an awful long time ago.
Last season's 8-2 defeat had a shock value but there were mitigating factors, with Arsenal depleted. In the first half at least, before a late capitulation, it was competitive. On Saturday, Arsenal was second-best from start to finish. Thomas Vermaelen made two dreadful individual errors, the first of which cost Arsenal the first goal after three minutes. Andre Santos had a nightmare at left-back, beaten again and again by Antonio Valencia as Lukas Podolski, anonymous from an attacking point of view, offered no support. Jack Wilshere was sent off after collecting a second yellow card for the sort of lunging tackle he should have eliminated from his game.
But this felt about more than individual errors; this was about the whole culture of the club, something the away fans hinted at by singing "We want our Arsenal back" and "Ivan Gazidis, what the **** do you do?" Gazidis, as chief executive, has become the face of a regime whose behaviour is increasingly baffling.
When Arsenal left their beloved Highbury stadium in 2006 it was to move from a ground with a capacity of 38,400 to an Emirates with a capacity of 63,300. The aim was to raise revenues. Yes, it came at an initial cost of £390million ($625m) and there was an acceptance there would have to be short-term retrenchment, but the expectation was that with the extra corporate and commercial revenues produced, in addition to the sale of apartments on the old Highbury site, Arsenal would soon have financial muscle to flex.
Arsenal does make money. Last year the club pulled in £243m against a player wage-bill of £143m. The board announces every summer that there is money to spend but then the departures outweigh the arrivals. In part that's down to a strict wage structure, a refusal to bow to excessive demands from players. There is, of course, some sense to that policy; plenty of clubs have run into financial difficulty chasing an impossible dream. Trying to balance the books while competing with the oil-rich billionaires who run Chelsea and Manchester City is impossible. In difficult economic conditions, as Financial Fair Play is introduced, an attitude of caution is understandable, laudable even.
But just because a certain level of prudence may be advisable doesn't mean that Arsenal's level is. How long can a team continue to lose players of the caliber of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie and Alex Song and still stay in the top four? The stand-off over Theo Walcott's new contract fits the same pattern. At Arsenal's annual general meeting last week, Wenger suggested that finishing in the top four was the equivalent of winning a trophy: for those in the boardroom it probably is, for imagine where Arsenal would be without the Champions League revenue that brings. Gazidis refers regularly to Financial Fair Play, but his interpretation of it seems far stricter than other clubs, and the result is that Arsenal is suffering.
In an analysis in Issue Seven of the Blizzard , Zach Slaton, comparing transfer and wage expenditure, calculates that in each of the last four seasons, Arsenal has had between a 20 and 25% chance of qualifying for the Champions League. And yet each season it has done so, testament to Arsene Wenger's managerial abilities. That's the truly terrifying thing for Arsenal fans: however disappointing things feel now, without a truly outstanding coach they would be far worse.
Nine points off the top of the table, after its worst ever start to a Premier League season, even the vaguest title aspiration has gone; Arsenal's target is, once again, Champions League qualification. But the question really is what the board's long-term target is. At the AGM last week, the majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, refused to rule out the possibility of drawing a dividend. That, understandably, raised the thought that the board's main aim is to achieve regular Champions League qualification as cheaply as possible, maximizing profits. Until 1998, that would have been against the Football Association's Law 34, which required football club-companies to be run essentially as non-profit organizations, with their directors serving as 'custodians'.
As it stands, it is entirely legal. But in sport, success is surely measured in glory and trophies, not sound fiscal governance and dividends. There's something absurd even about fans chanting the name of a chief executive rather than a centre-forward. Nobody ever went home from a game thinking, "Ah well, we lost 1-0 but at least all the executive boxes were sold out."
Perhaps Kroenke is simply a poor communicator. Perhaps the board really does think that, in the long term, prudence will bring a mountain of silverware. But at the moment Arsenal looks like a club being run with an eye on the balance sheet rather than the league table.