Arsenal Could Be Poised for New Era of Sustained Success If FFP Is the Real Deal

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Arsenal Could Be Poised for New Era of Sustained Success If FFP Is the Real Deal
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WEMBLEY STADIUM, LONDON—It’s now been exactly one day since Arsenal last won a major trophy, a record only Atletico Madrid, St. Johnstone and Bayern Munich can match.

Come on then, fans of the rest of Europe’s elite, what do you have to say now?

The previous wait, nine years, eventually seemed to hang like a weight around the club’s neck: dragging them down at the crucial moments, ensuring they always came up short when the stakes were highest.

There were numerous Champions League exits. There was the League Cup final of 2011. There was always fourth place.

This season the Gunners were top of the Premier League table more than halfway into the campaign, before a series of emphatic defeats against their closest rivals proved their undoing.

The defeats alone indicated a certain deficiency in overall quality, but the manner of the defeats (6-3 against Manchester City, 6-0 at Chelsea, 5-1 at Liverpool) seemed to expose the fact there was a mental frailty there as well.

The FA Cup was the chance to make amends, as a relatively amenable draw (Arsenal were never asked to leave London, although they did have to overcome Tottenham, Everton and Liverpool along the way) gave them every opportunity to change the record and finally taste success.

On Saturday, they duly went and achieved that ambition, although again they had to overcome some unexpected hurdles in order to do so—going 2-0 down in the first seven minutes at Wembley before man-of-the-match Aaron Ramsey completed an enthralling 3-2 comeback in extra-time.

But after nine years of waiting, what difference did an additional 30 minutes make?

Afterwards manager Arsene Wenger, flushed with excitement, claimed two hoodoos had been put to bed: His side’s trophy drought, and their stage fright in the big matches.

“It was an important moment in the life of this team,” the Frenchman stated. “To lose today would have been a major setback, but to win is a good platform to build on and come back even stronger next season.”

It was Wenger’s fifth FA Cup win, making him the most successful manager in the competition’s history.

“That’s not too bad,” he mused. “It was more important today than all the others.”

Clive Mason/Getty Images

It was previously 3,383 days since Arsenal last won a trophy, but the 3-2 win ensured that count was reset to zero.

Elsewhere, it’s two days since Manchester City accepted a £49 million fine for breaching UEFA’s financial fair play regulations, and 26 days since Manchester United paid £7 million just to get rid of manager David Moyes—and that was because it would have been more expensive to do it at any other point.

It is three days since the same club said that Moyes’ appointment cost them in the region of £50m in lost Champions League revenue and other costs.

These are different times in football, times where cash rules everything around managers. Wenger has been criticised for declining to spend big in the transfer market in recent times but at Wembley it was not his £42 million record signing (Mesut Ozil) that won the game, but the £5 million then-teenager (Ramsey) he patiently nurtured to stardom.

With Ozil a peripheral figure, Ramsey was the game’s pivotal influence long before he scored the winner, the Welshman controlling the game after a quiet first hour as Arsenal eventually delivered on their threat.

"Over the last couple of seasons we've been under pressure and taken stick for not being ruthless and not taking opportunities,” the Welshman said. “But the manager has always believed in us.”

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Beyond giving youngsters like Ramsey their chance, Wenger’s justification for his careful spending has always been a sizeable one—paying for the Emirates Stadium, a ground that was not even completed last time Arsenal won a trophy.

The club had to pay off the loans on their £390 million crown jewel over the last nine years, so Wenger always insisted, so could not responsibly alter the wage structure or break the club’s transfer record while it was trying to adhere to its payment plan.

That was another reason why he was and remains so proud of his run of successive Champions League qualifications (now extended to 17)—the bank managers smile greatest at participation in that competition.

A lot can happen in nine years. Arsenal’s vanquished opponent on Saturday, Hull City, finished 16th in the Premier League. In 2005, that position was occupied by Portsmouth. Since then the South Coast club have gone on to win the FA Cup, gone into administration, dropped down three divisions, experienced more administration and nearly gone out of business entirely.

As dramatic an example as that is, those are the pitfalls of over-extending yourself in pursuit of short-term success.

Wenger has always eschewed that temptation, to his own immediate criticism but, just possibly, longer term vindication.

Earlier this season he was labelled a “specialist in failure” but now—as young striker Yaya Sanogo rather presumptively tweeted on Saturday morning—he has one more trophy to his credit this season than the special one who made that comment.

The question is whether there will be many more.

It could be the dawn of a period of more sustained success, where fans do not have to wait years, nearly decades for their next taste of silverware. The Emirates is not completely paid for—that will not happen until 2031—but, with the rapid increase in TV rights money and sponsorship revenue, it is no longer the drain it once was.

In fact, it has become a real asset. Last season, per Deloitte, only Manchester United (€127.3m) made more in matchday revenue than the Gunners (€108.3m).

Last summer, less encumbered by their stadium (and, admittedly, pressurised by a worried fanbase), the club splashed out on Ozil, a player who started the season so brightly but whose best form may only be seen in the campaigns to come.

That sort of outlay might not become the norm for Wenger, but it could become more of a regular occurrence moving forward.

Arsenal have self-sufficiency, they have a blueprint for continued revenue, they now have a trophy. No fan will forget the barren years but, with hindsight, it may yet come to be remembered as a reasonable price to pay for what was just around the corner.

“You have to accept that in England the Premier League is very tough,” Wenger said, when asked about future trophy challenges. "You look at the top four [this season] you do not have Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United who all have invested a huge amount of money.

“The clubs who have won the league have invested an incredible amount of money. It is not easy to beat them, but we will try.”

It seemed almost a subtle exhortation to the game’s governing bodies, a plea for them to continue their fight against spendthrift clubs. It remains to be seen how unilaterally FFP will be implemented—City may have fallen foul of UEFA rules, but they have not been punished by the Premier League—but all signs suggest that, if enforced reasonably, it will turn the game back in Arsenal’s favour.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

After all, City cannot comply with UEFA restrictions without that also impacting on their Premier League approach. To reduce their fine and avoid further sanctions, City must keep their wage bill at the same level for the next two seasons. Also, their revenues can no longer be artificially inflated by friendly deals with companies (primarily Etihad Airways) with whom they share ownership interests.

With a matchday revenue of €46.2m last season, suddenly City might find themselves struggling to match Arsenal’s muscle while still staying on UEFA’s good side.

Other clubs will have to adhere to similar frameworks over time. When every big club is limited by how much money it can make, Arsenal's matchday muscle may suddenly leave them sitting pretty, giving them an economic advantage they can put onto the pitch.

It now looks like Wenger will be around to test those waters. On Saturday he was slow to state explicitly that he would be signing a contract extension, although it felt like he was half-heartedly taking advantage of a belated opportunity to toy with a media that had not necessarily given him great support in recent months.

“That normally should happen, yes,” Wenger said curtly, when asked if he would now sign a new three-year deal.

A pause. Were these normal circumstances, then?

“We are in very normal circumstances.”

Another pause. So there was now no chance he would be leaving the club?

“There was never a question of leaving,” he finally elaborated. “There was a question of doing the right job for this club.”

He still has a vast job to do this summer. The likely departure of Bacary Sagna to Manchester City indicates that the financial landscape has not changed just yet and will mean a new right-back (perhaps Toulouse’s Serge Aurier) is a priority.

English football veteran Rio Ferndinand was one of many to share his insight on Arensal's needs:

Another striker to compete with Olivier Giroud remains a necessity, while one wonders if a more orthodox defensive midfielder than Mikel Arteta would further unleash the attacking potential of Ramsey and Jack Wilshere.

As captain, Arteta also seems to embody one of the ongoing shortcomings of his side: The Spaniard quick to berate dirty opposition players for failing to play the game with a Corinthian spirit, rather than rolling up his sleeves and getting down in the trenches with them.

Wenger, too, may go away in the summer and ponder his approach. He may be a man of principle but a certain lack of pragmatism seemed to cost his side at times in big games. The number of early goals conceded—as Hull also benefited from—suggests a further problem of preparedness.

He may be loath to hear a suggestion that he should learn something from Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, but surely his side would benefit greatly if the Frenchman absorbed the Portuguese’s willingness to alter his side’s approach in the biggest encounters.

That is for consideration in the weeks to come, however. For now, he finally has a celebration to savour.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

Wenger was quick to pay tribute to Hull and his opposite number, Steve Bruce, who certainly played their part in making this a final to remember. They appeared to be unstoppable when Curtis Davies doubled the advantage given to them by James Chester, but once Santi Cazorla got one goal back so quickly it always felt like they would get overhauled in the end.

“I’m a firm believer that your name is on the Cup sometimes,” Bruce noted. “After that start I thought for a while that our name was on the Cup, but it turned out not to be.

“How Arsene gets stick is beyond me. Arsenal are a fantastic club.”

On Sunday there will be nothing but praise for Wenger and his club. For a change, now it will be Chelsea and Manchester United—all without a trophy in at least a year—who have to face the probing questions.

“It’s a big moment of happiness,” Wenger acknowledged. “We waited for a long time for that—but sometimes happiness is linked with the suffering and the time you have to wait.”

Arsenal fans will hope they won’t have to wait so long again.

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