“I didn’t buy Arsenal to win trophies.” – Arsenal majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke.
One can see why. While Manchester City are being bankrolled by Abu Dhabi to create a global brand and Chelsea have their Russian sugar daddy, Arsenal have ‘Silent’ Stan Kroenke, for whom the Premier League club is just one of several sports franchises in which he has business interests.
Kroenke is a businessman first and last. This is the Kroenke who recently moved his NFL Rams franchise from St Louis to LA and saw the franchise double in value to $2.9billion.
A businessman wants generally stability, certainty and a self-sustaining business model. In Arsène Wenger, Kroenke has the perfect CEO.
Even if Arsenal do not obtain Champions League football, they are still comfortably in the upper echelon of the Premier League both in position and status. The club may take a dip in profit but the money will keep rolling in to the coffers.
With TV revenues for the EPL at an astronomical high, the highest ticket prices in the country, stadium debt repaid and cash reserves of over £100million [as at November 2016 ], from a business perspective there is no need or desire to change.
Arguably, with a few notable exceptions such as Özil or Sanchez, the self-sustaining business model is similar to that of the Porto or Benfica’s buy low, sell high model.
For Kroenke, maybe one of the attractions in investing in the club was Wenger, who not only maintained Arsenal’s top four position but has prided himself in spotting talent cheaply and selling at a premium.
The respective transfers of Patrick Vieira, Marc Overmars, Nicholas Anelka, Nwankwo Kanu and Emmanuel Petit early in Wenger’s reign are testament to that.
Whilst Kroenke is all about business, the ordinary fan is all about football. It is an increasing conflict in the sport. Kroenke’s increased holding in Arsenal in April 2007 to 12.8% was perhaps a watershed.
The one person who was a check and balance to Wenger – David Dein – resigned, citing irreconcilable differences. That summer Henry left, citing Dein’s departure as one of the reasons for leaving.
Since Dein’s departure, Arsenal have changed, becoming an authoritarian system with Wenger assuming total control with no accountability.
This lack of accountability has been enabled by two things – the respect for what Wenger has achieved and, more recently, approval through the inertia of the majority – or at least those that count.
It seems unlikely that this inertia and lack of accountability will change. The main reason is Kroenke. With a board being nothing more than symbolic, Kroenke is the only person who could hold Wenger accountable.
He chooses not to do so because for Kroenke the glory of the game is in the balance sheet.
The list of high profile departures after Kroenke assumed total control includes Thierry Henry, Alexander Hleb, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Alex Song and Robin van Persie – all for a healthy profit, which helped pay off the stadium debt.
During this period there was arguably only one high profile signing – Mesut Özil, and this was with the stadium repayment finish line firmly in sights.
Has the lack of Dein’s counter balance and Kroenke’s inertia allowed Wenger to indulge his search for the perfection of his own footballing philosophy, overlooking the realities of what’s around him?
Other teams are not searching for some kind of footballing Utopia; arguably they are building [and improving] on the benchmark of the silk and steel blend that characterised the Arsenal teams of Wenger’s first decade.
In his second decade Wenger’s teams have increasingly been characterised – on the pitch and in the transfer market – just by the silk, [there is semi-serious standing joke about the sheer number of attacking players on Arsenal’s books].
The physicality and mental strength of his teams has disappeared to be replaced by the aforementioned inertia that seems to run widespread throughout the club.
Whilst Wenger has without doubt done everything he believes best, the lack of different perspectives, challenges to his ideas has ultimately been unhealthy for the club, footballing wise.
The last decade has seen a decline in the overall quality of signings.
There have been exceptions of course, such as Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny all spring to mind, but the overall trend has been one of questionable signings, or signings lacking in the character required to return Arsenal to title winners, especially in defence and midfield.
Sebastien Squillaci, Mathieu Debuchy, Callum Chambers, Gabriel Paulista, Andre Santos were signed for a total of £48 million. None have been successful.
Midfield has heralded the arrival Mathieu Flamini [re-signed], Kim Kallstrom, Mohamed Ellneny and, most recently, Granit Xhaka for over £38m because, according to Wenger, they were outbid on N’golo Kante [signed by Chelsea for £32 million].
Wenger has always seemed more comfortable in signing attacking players but here again in recent years a number of signings have been far from successful – Lukas Podolski, Joel Campbell, Yaya Sanogo, Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh have all failed to make their mark.
Partly due to Wenger refusing to pay “market prices” for players and partly due for his desire to discover talent cheaply at a time when other clubs have caught up and surpassed Arsenal in scouting.
How much have Arsenal missed Dein’s acumen in these years?
Wenger is passionate about the club and the criticism, particularly from fans, will surely cut him deep.
However, his passion for the club, the clubs decline, his dented pride, stubbornness and the belief he has in himself that he is the best person to ‘turn things around’ is one of the reasons that a separation seems unlikely, despite the increasing bitterness between the faithful and the anti-Wenger brigade.
Football logic dictates that Arsène Wenger should leave. Leave behind a legacy, memories and his position in footballing history. Kroenke’s inertia and contentment to put business before football means Wenger is likely to stay.