For the peddlers of certain myths about Arsène Wenger there is an uncomfortable fact about this recent transfer window that they are surely hoping won’t get too much comment. And it is this one simple truth: that in the FIRST transfer window in which both the club and Wenger openly stated that our spending power had increased, Wenger went out and spent big. Just as Gary Neville predicted in that now famous monologue in a Sky Sports studio at the end of last season, Wenger did indeed know that it was time to make his move and, in a complete contradiction to every narrative that has been spun about him, went out and spent over £40m on one of the best players in the world. So perhaps now is the time to re-evaluate the myths and challenge the narratives that have been constructed about Wenger and the past 8 years at Arsenal.
The Emirates made us a hugely profitable organisation
Well…no, it didn’t really, or at least not at first. The club’s accounts are pretty complicated, but there is a basic trend that is clear – that if we ignore player sales and one off property deals, Arsenal have, give or take, been breaking even since moving to the Emirates. It is only with the newly negotiated sponsorship deals coming into effect that any reliable, regular profit will start to be seen.
Wenger has ALWAYS had money to spend and has stubbornly refused to
Ok, so I guess this is the big one. We’ve all heard about our ridiculous cash balance. The most recent figure is £154 million, but let’s knock that number on the head right away – that’s not our transfer fund, and it never ceases to annoy me how many tweets I see declaring that it is. A great deal of the £154m is needed to pay the running costs of the club (not least the players’ salaries). However, at the start of the recent window, the super-reliable Swiss Ramble believed £70 million is a pretty good estimate for our transfer kitty. He notes that we might have made it to £100 million had we used an option to take some of our new sponsorship money a year early, but since that’s essentially money from the future I won’t use it whilst we’re considering the past 8 years. (You may care to notice, however, that the AST misleadingly used the higher figure in their latest statement, despite the fact that this money isn’t actually ‘in the bank’ yet.)
But still, £70 million! That’s some serious cash. But let’s register a few caveats. Firstly, we’ve not had anything like that kind of money for the entire trophy-less period. Back in November 2006 the cash balance was £53 million. Well, if a balance of £154m only gives us a transfer kitty of around £70 million I think we can assume things were pretty tight back in 2006! Furthermore, as recently as 2009 the club took a pretty big hit on its property profits – selling a set of flats at a £10m discount to a real estate group to free up some funds. This is not the act of a club rolling in cash, it was a fairly desperate act of a club trying to keep all its financial balls in the air.
In fact, I’d argue that the club had very little financial clout to go into the transfer market with until 2010, at the earliest. Firstly, this was the point at which the debts on our property business were paid off, so any property sales from then on made the club a profit. Secondly it was the summer after we made £30 million in profit from selling Adebayor and Toure. Certainly, that 2009 discount sale of Highbury Square flats is a good indication that the turning point couldn’t have been any earlier.
Now, many will leap on this and ask why we didn’t spend big from then on, and truthfully, I have no conclusive explanations for this. I do, however, accept that we never know the whole story, and that there might be good reasons for it. Not least, £70 million really isn’t that much in football terms. It could be frittered away in 1 season by missing out on the Champions League, and at the same time making one major transfer that doesn’t work out. It’s all very well spending that money in our heads in 2010 and dreaming about what we could have achieved, but if the club chose to be cautious for a couple of seasons whilst they waited for the commercial deals to kick in, is that really so great a sin? Given that the club claims to budget for the possibility of falling out of the Champions League it doesn’t seem that crazy to believe they wanted to build up a ‘slush fund’ before loosening the purse strings. It is certainly preferable in my eyes to gambling the immediate future of the club with over-optimistic spending.
But even if the club got it wrong, even if we might have been better spending 2 seasons sooner - if the club’s greatest sin is simply 2 or 3 years of over-caution, I’m not sure what the hell are we so angry about?! It’s certainly not the ‘8 years of neglect’ that certain fools paint it as.
The Board have been desperately fighting with Wenger to get him to spend money
This is a narrative that, to a great extent, Arsenal brought upon themselves via an (ultimately misguided) PR policy to present the club’s finances as far more robust in the early Emirates years than they in fact were. This PR policy is also a root cause of the previous myth about our spending power. I use the words ‘ultimately misguided’ because in the early days it was a sensible policy. For countless reasons it made sense to give the impression that the building of the stadium wouldn’t impact our spending power or ability to perform on the pitch. For starters, the fans had to be won over to a move to a new stadium. Furthermore, at board level, it was important to give the impression from as early as possible that the stadium move was a success to foster confidence in ‘the brand’.
And so, soundbite after soundbite emerged from key figures on the board making it clear that Arsène had all the money he wanted. The board essentially banked on all the goodwill Wenger had built up over his wonderful early years to carry them through the hard sell. After all, if it was WENGER’s decision not to spend, who is going to criticise the genius behind two double winning seasons and an unbeaten League triumph? As early as 2005 Keith Edelman told us “There are sufficient funds available to the manager for transfers”. In 2007, he said “We have got plenty of financial firepower to make the transfers Arsène wants to make. We had over £70 million of cash at the end of the year and if Arsène wants to spend that money, we will make it available.” Then there is the famous Fiszman quote claiming that, if he were offered £100 million, Arsène would ‘give it back’.
The interesting thing here is that none of these quotes need to be wholly untrue to still be misleading spin. If we assume that Wenger and the Board were entirely united - wanting to build the best team possible, of course, but accepting that the best thing for the club was to tighten their belts for a few years - then those quotes take on a different meaning. Read between the lines and they are essentially saying ‘We have no more money to give Wenger, but he accepts that.’ It was always ‘IF Arsène wants more money’, because they KNEW he wouldn’t demand it, because he accepted the strategy as the best thing for Arsenal Football Club. Instead of throwing his toys out of the pram like Benitez did in his final years at Anfield, Wenger protected the club and took the blame, slowly seeing the goodwill and credit he had built with the fans being chipped away by a lie that was the best thing for the club, but the worst thing for him.
The frustrating thing is that, in recent statements, the club has admitted that we were, for years, massively constrained financially. Whenever the club have talked recently about our increasing financial clout, the unspoken (and even spoken) subtext each time has been an admission that there WAS a previous period of enforced austerity. They can admit that now, since the hard times are past. They no longer need to use PR to convince the world that we are on the right track. But remember the phrase, ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.’ Well, this lie had 7 or 8 years to travel around the world before anyone started even telling the truth!
And so the damage is done. No one even questions the idea anymore that Arsène hates spending, or that he willingly ‘gambled’ the club’s future on a vanity project to prove he could win without spending. So now, when the manager has been instrumental in making a world class signing – even to the point of making a deal-sealing private phone call to persuade the player – now is the time to question it!
The ‘Top 4 Trophy’
Misled by all this, there are those who imagine the board might be considering not offering Wenger a new contract, as if he has in some way failed to fulfil their expectations. These people are morons. If you think for even a second that Wenger’s brief over the past 8 years has been anything other than ‘keep us competitive and keep us in the Champions League until 2014 when we can renegotiate our sponsorship deals’ then you are completely delusional.
The trouble is that people who believe that we have always had money available will always massively underestimate the importance of the Champions League income to our future success. So if you are one of those people, here is the bottom line - had Wenger failed to get us that top 4 spot on just two occasions, that £70m transfer kitty would have been pretty much £0 and Mesut Özil could not have been signed. (Not to mention that a player of his calibre would never have signed for a non-Champions League club).
So if you have found yourself jeering Wenger for his comments about the ‘top 4 trophy’ ask yourself this: which do you think is more important to the future success of Arsenal Football Club, winning a League Cup, or signing a Mesut Özil?
Even if you ignore everything I have written, I have one request: next time you hear someone tell you how things are behind closed doors at the club, even if they back up everything you believe about the club, at least consider that they probably know absolutely nothing for sure. And even if they genuinely have a source, remember that you are still only hearing what one person wants you to hear. And the ONE man whose point of view you will never be hearing is Arsène Wenger’s, because he is the one man in this whole story who is too classy to go bleating to the media to win friends and influence people. So in the end, we have to judge him by his actions. And his actions in the last weeks would suggest a very simple narrative: that in the first summer that he had serious cash available to him…he went out and spent it. In the words of Gary Neville, ‘if they move up now it will look like one of the most magnificent managerial performances in history.’
Follow Alastair on Twitter: @albrookshaw