Friday, April 30, 2021

The Disaster of Arsenal Past Meets the Disaster of Arsenal Present

It was a weird day. It's hard not to reminisce when it comes to big European nights, and my mind did wander to those hazy days of 2006. The semi-final away against Villareal that year was a tough game, memorialized in one of my earliest blog posts. Looking back, I remember the massive sense of exhilaration and hope that night. The team's progress in Europe that year, plus the imminent stadium move, seemed to herald a new chapter in the club's history - a portent of big things to come. 

Who would have known that this was the peak of the club's performance in Europe. And that the last 16 years have seen us decline from champions league contenders, to European canon fodder, to mid-table also-runs. Put in context, it's a sorry decline, and it's hard not to correlate it to the involvement, then ownership, of KSE. 

The empty stadiums and dismal football have made this a hard season to care about. But a European semi-final is a rare occasion and one worthy of note. What a shame then that Arteta decided to galaxy brain our line-up. It's hard not to see the imprint of his mentor, Pep, in the bizarre team selection for today's game. Too many decisions seem to be made on the basis of short-term patches of form. Xhaka at left-back and Ceballos in midfield appears to still be based on our thrashing of Sheffield United a few weeks ago - one of the worst teams in the modern premiership era. Both were ripe for targeting by a man that we all know is obsessed with video analysis. 

But deciding to, essentially, not play a striker in a game of this magnitude reeked of cowardice and over-complication. I am not sure Odegaard, Smith-Rowe, Saka and Pepe can play in the same team together even if we had a forward on the pitch. That we did not led to some bizarre parody of a false-9 without an actual 10 leading the line. For a team that struggles to score at the best of times, this was a terrible decision. We did not have a shot on goal from open play until after the 90th minute as a result.

The players looked over-awed and confused and we were rightly battered in the first half. Whatever Arteta is doing in training is not working. It's a shame because you can see the raw ingredients of a great coach in Mikel, but he seems determined to shoot himself in the foot. He is scared of starting players that have explosiveness but potentially cost us some degree of control of the game. This could have been the occasion for Martinelli to lead the line on a historic night in Europe. Instead we bothering a vast swathe of the Villareal defence. 

As for Ceballos - again, one great performance against a relegated team does not compensate for a terrible season and, in particular, an abysmally poor season in the Europa League. I can only assume Arteta was too proud to hook Dani at half-time and we paid the price for his stubbornness. 

This is my concern about Arteta. He is completely unproven as a manager, regardless of his success as a coach at City. Many of the attributes that define a great coach in football - essentially helping to put in place the structure for players to realize someone else's plan - are not that comparable to what's needed for a manager. You get little sense that Arteta can roll with the punches and adjust as different scenarios arise. His in-game management is appalling and his tactics barely seem to flex regardless of the various scenarios we're facing. The players appear to have been ordered to build up play in a measured, almost glacial manner, killing the impetus of counter-attacks. I can't tell if this is a stats-driven approach, or simply a desire to dominate possession and hope the win comes from there. Either way, it's boring, results in very few goals, and isn't working. If you're going to be a control-freak perfectionist, you have to be able to make your plan work. 

What luck then that we came up against the disaster of Arsenal's past. I could not imagine a more classic Emery move than subbing an attacker for a defensive midfielder at half-time during a game you're dominating. We were on the ropes and a third goal would've killed us. Instead, Villareal sat off us in the second half and let us back into the tie. Emery's gonna Emery. 

Emery's appointment was its own special kind of disaster, squandering our last, easiest opportunity to return to the Champions League. It remains to be seen where we go from here and, who knows, we may win the Europa League and this whole season will have been worth it. But it's hard not to shake the sense that this season has been a slow-moving disaster for the club, with KSE, yet again, showing little desire to put the club back on the right track. Here's hoping Mikel doesn't overthink the second leg. 


Friday, April 23, 2021

Josh Kroenke Fronts Up - But Why Are We Talking to our Owner's Son?

So the great apology tour has begun. Vinai has apparently been calling various board members at other PL clubs to apologize and I'm sure he's getting an earful. More interestingly, there was a fans forum with him and Josh K yesterday. Kudos to Chris Wheatley at Football.London for publishing a full transcript (and audio) of the event, which is well worth the read. 

Let me put a few cards on the table here: I give Josh some kudos for fronting up, particularly as he seems to have aged about twenty years during lockdown. It's unclear to me whether his dad - the actual owner - will ever speak directly to an Arsenal fan group again after the battering he received a few years ago at an AGM. Josh could have hidden behind his vast wealth too, but it seems like there is some attempt here at building bridges with the fans. 

I wasn't at the event, but there were some tweets, and references in the transcript, about how Josh gave the impression that he didn't really want to be there. And, again, to be fair - would you? This is like being caught cheating on your spouse and having to do a zoom call with their family to apologize. It's grim no matter how much cash you have. 

To be less fair, that we're speaking to Josh says a lot about why bad decisions are being made in European football. As Simon Kuper was discussing in a great thread earlier this week, old white man, their families/mates and ex-players are at the nexus of power in most clubs. This is a tiny, insular talent pool that is predisposed towards thinking in ways that benefit that in-group. There is now abundant business literature that diverse teams make better decisions and drive innovation.  The current Arsenal board, who largely drove the decision to join the ESL, comprises Stan, his son, a retired carpet maker (Lord Harris) and Tim Harris, who only joined in June last year. Stan and Josh may as well be one person, and Chips is  a token figurehead. So basically, at a board level, we just have Tim Lewis, a corporate lawyer that we had to draft in to deal with the *shenanigans* that were going on last summer.

Even if we take into account that Vinai and perhaps a few others in the club were involved in the ESL discussions, is it any surprise that this quarter made a bad decision? Imagine if there had been fan or ex-player representation on the board - they could've told them in ten minutes that the ESL idea was a disaster and bad for the club's image. KSE need to understand that it is *in their interests* to have fan representation at the board level - it will lead to better decisions that will benefit both KSE and the club. Josh signaled that he wasn't entirely opposed to the idea in the fan's forum, but I'll guess we'll see. 


If we look at what else was said in the meeting, a few things stood out:

* Josh basically tried the, 'we didn't like it, but we had to go along with it' line of argument. This is either pathetic - we're so weak that we have to go along with what the big boys want - or disingenuous. I find it extremely hard to believe, especially after Ivan was snapped having dinner with the Glazers and FSG  in NY a few years ago, that this hasn't been in the works for years. Producing an economically stable cartel is clearly the end-game for the US owners in their drive to make revenues and outgoings more predictable and in-line with the owner-driven model of US sports. So don't insult our intelligence.

* Josh said we'd be seeing a lot more of him over the next few years. Again - good, I suppose. But rather than feeding off whatever scraps they throw us, permanent representation within the club's running is crucial for fans. I'd rather, also, that Stan fronted up. It's such terrible corporate management to hide behind your money and your family rather than be open and candid about your goals for an organization, particularly for such a public institution like Arsenal.   

* He was clear that KSE are not going to sell. Not a surprise. But given the failure of the ESL it begs the question - what is their strategy for the club? My preference, as always, has been for a fan-owned club. If KSE want to own part of the remaining 49% - fine; but the fans should be in charge. If that's not going to happen, we want a clear, detailed vision from KSE on how they are going to make Arsenal a competitive force in English and European football again. Because, at the moment, they have done little other than oversee a 10-year decline and it's not clear to me what their next move is. 


Thursday, April 22, 2021

The ESL Goes Down, But What Now for Arsenal and the Kroenkes?

Well, I wasn't expecting that. When the synchronized statements dropped on Sunday night, I was sure that the the ESL was a foregone conclusion. Yes there would be some wailing and flailing, but the owners, ensconced in their ivory towers, would do the usual - 'thank you for your interest in our affairs' - and we'd soon be all signed up to our new streaming packages. So what went wrong?

Why did the ESL fail? 

If I was to speculate on why the ESL fell apart so quickly, I'd point to a few things:

* Fan pressure - It seems this did matter, particularly when fans can show that they can translate their displeasure into tangible disruption, particularly to the brand or bottom line of their clubs. I still think, because it fits a lot of romantic narratives, that the role of the fans in the ESL's downfall has been somewhat overstated in the press. But it was certainly significant, and powerful, to see the protests at various grounds around the country. That said, portraying Chelsea and Man City fans as the saviours of English football, and seeing their fans carry signs complaining about the role of money and greed in the game, was a level of irony that I'm not capable of processing. More on that later. 

* Player pressure - More significant were the public statements against the league by players. The dumbest move in this whole affair by the ESL ringleaders was not getting the players on board first. This is an elite industry with a small pool of high-level talent - the clubs can't do anything if their players don't sanction it. People, in general, have an intensely strong psychological reaction to things being taken away from them, and without an intense PR campaign to the players, there was very little upside to them for the ESL and plenty of downside - loss of international caps, contracts that didn't reflect the lucrative new competition they were being asked to play in, etc. Once the Liverpool players came out, en masse, against the league, it was a goner. 

* Government pressure - To put it lightly, Boris Johnson knows a populist opportunity when he sees one. Whatever long-term schemes they had in mind about the location of ESL clubs, the English ESL clubs needed the UK government onside, so to speak, with their plan. Instead, BoJo promised a 'legislative bomb' and opened the door to all kinds of long-term repercussions for the clubs. Who knows what was said behind closed doors, but I think this genuinely spooked the ESL leaders, not least because both us, and Sp*rs, have taken huge COVID loans from the Bank of England recently. The irony here, of course, is that successive UK governments turned a blind eye to the successive takeovers of major English teams that led us to this shambles . Had the government enforced fan ownership models in the early days of the Premier League, once the money started trickling in, we'd have seen a much different (and better, league), and one where fans would not have to worry about owners acting against the interest of local communities. Here's hoping the government puts this right in their forthcoming review, although how they would force owners to give up a share of their clubs at this point is questionable. 

* Internal Group Dynamics within the ESL - The ESL was a coalition and the cracks within it soon appeared. The true ringleaders here are the American owners (including AC Milan), the Spanish owners and Inter/Juve. Barca, Real and Inter are financial basket cases, with huge debts that they see little prospect of repaying, particularly as the premier league continues to grow in popularity. The American owners have long sought to push football in a direction where financial risks are mitigated through more consistent (as much as larger) revenues, effective caps on expenditure, and a shift from player to owner power as seen in the various American major leagues. This situation would only be possible in a unified league of Europe's top clubs where a true economic cartel could be created - otherwise players could just shift leagues to chase bigger contracts. The problem for the ESL is that Chelsea and Man City do not really need money, given the source of their funding, particularly in the wake of UEFA's failure to effectively enforce Financial Fair Play. They joined for fear of not being left out and were the first to leave - once they left, the whole thing came crumbing down. The financial doping and disruption that these clubs (together with PSG) have brought to European football was a major reason for both the rise and fall of the ESL. 

* The new Champions League format - While the whole circus was rumbling on, UEFA was able to push through changes to the Champions League. These changes will lead to  more games and backdoor methods of qualification for the big clubs through the fabled 'UEFA Coefficients'. Combined with more money, the new format gives the ESL rebels a lot of what they already wanted. Indeed, it has been hilarious to see UEFA held up as some form of virtuous organization over the last few days. The current Champions League format is awful - it's a quasi-rigged system to ensure the big teams get to the knockout stages each year. It has led to CL money being consolidated into the heads of an ever-diminishing number of clubs, who then dominate their leagues each year. It's been a rubbish competition for at least a decade and is in need of reform, and the ESL clubs will no doubt use this opportunity to push it more in the direction they want, whatever public pronouncements of their 'defeat' will claim. 

Where Now for Arsenal and the Kroenekes? 

The  question posed by many fans in the wake of the ESL's announcement was why Arsenal, a club currently languishing in 9th place in the table and who have not competed in the Champions League for 4 years, should be included in a super league. The answer is simple - we are one of the ten biggest teams in world football. Even if we put aside the colossal history of our club and its achievements, you could basically choose your metric when it comes to the things that owners/money men care about - revenues, fans, brand awareness - and we would be in or around the global top ten. I say this all the time to anyone who will listen: we are a massive, massive club. 

We have been duped into thinking otherwise, largely by the bizarre statements that pleaded poverty after the stadium move and the Chelsea/Man City takeovers, combined with the terrible mismanagement of the club in the last ten years, both on and off the pitch. On the pitch we had the Arsene twilight years, followed by the Emery fiasco. Arteta has shown some promise, but we are on course for our worst league finish in about 25 years, and questions should be asked about his position if we do not win the Europa League. Some of the football this season has been as bad as I have seen in thirty years of supporting the club and it has to change. 

Off the pitch has been an even bigger fiasco. Gazidis was paid millions, yet did little to address the decline in our on-pitch fortunes. He set up a triumvirate within the club to strip power from Wenger, who all (including Gazidis) left the club around the time of Arsene's departure. Sanhelli's time in charge saw us pay overinflated transfer and agent fees for *reasons* and once he was booted out the club we now have two inexperienced leaders in Vinai and Edu basically at the helm of everyday operations. 

It's a mess and it's resulted in the club punching well, well below our weight. I'd contrast our current fate with what's happened at Leicester and Liverpool (altho the latter have obviously taken a hit this week). They have shown that through a smart recruitment policy you can challenge in the Premier League, even if you don't have the financial firepower of Chelsea and Man City. 

The reason for our mess lies largely at the feet of one man: Stan Kroenke. I am on the record in 2007 and 2012 opposing his involvement in the club, because even to the younger, more naive Goonerboy it was obvious that Kroenke was bad news. It's worth re-reading that 2007 post because in the comments there were certainly fans that were open to the takeover. But the warning sides were all there - debt-fueled takeover, minimal involvement in his teams, the mediocre performances of his 'franchises'. 

Kroenke's ownership of Arsenal has been a disaster. He's sat back while we went from a club that challenged for the title, to scrambling into the Champions League spots, to one that could very reasonably finish in the bottom half of the table this season. He has only dropped the hammer a few times, and they all correlate to occasions where he saw a threat to the bottom line - Arsene finally failing to deliver CL qualification and Emery being in a tailspin. Were Kroenke serious about the club we would see much more active investment and involvement in the team - we would not have let Arsene' agonizing decline play out over 2014-2018 to give but one example, including the bizarre summer of 2015 where the club decided to not purchase any outfield players. 

In this respect, it's unsurprising that we backed the ESL - and I imagine we were one of the prime movers in it - because it was a massive get-out-of-jail free card. Ten years of decline reversed with the stroke of a pen and a return to Europe's elite without having to actually do the hard work of competing. 

This was why, if I am being completely honest, I was somewhat on board with the ESL. I do not trust Kroenke to take us back to the top and this seems the only feasible way in the short- to medium-term for Arsenal to re-establish ourselves as a leading club. But that is...awful. It makes me feel like a terrible person for even admitting it. It's essentially saying that we need a cheat code because the club is a basket case. To paraphrase a better man than me, is this who we are, what we are, and what we represent? 

The whole ESL fiasco raises the question as to whether this was Kroenke's long game all along. Maybe, but one shouldn't discount the combination of opportunism and incompetence that were the hallmarks of this entire affair. Covid may have simply been the short-term trigger for an attempted power grab that had been only discussed in theoretical terms over very expensive bottles of wine for years. 

The question is, therefore, where do we go from here? I have to say - I'm worried. There are only two positive ways forward for Arsenal. One - the Kroenkes wake up tomorrow, decide they love Arsenal, and start pumping money and purpose into the club. Let's just say that this scenario is unlikely given virtually everything we have seen about this family over the last 15 years. Two - the Kroenkes sell-up. But to who? Perhaps the government will give financial support to fan groups and introduce compulsory purchase orders, but I'm skeptical. In terms of the private market, who's available that's better than Kroenke and has 2-3 billion pounds needed to buy Arsenal at the moment? Much as I dislike Kroenke, the thought of us becoming the PR arm of a dodgy government/organization makes me even more queasy. Is our saviour out there? And even if he is, would Kroenke do a deal? 

So I think we're stuck. I'd love to end this blog on a positive note, but I don't really have one, other than hoping we can do some good deals this summer and Mikel can finally realize his vision next year. If not, I fear that the end of the ESL may be better for the soul of football than it was for the future of Arsenal.