PART 1 —THE DREAM
Several weeks ago, an uncertainty entered my mind that would greatly stigmatize me as less of a Gunner fan if shared—am I really an Arsenal Football Club fan, and if so, is it really worth supporting them? I quickly discarded the thought for fear of prejudice, and proceeded on my way. Several weeks later, the question still resonated with me and I was determined to find an answer.
After a friend introduced myself to Arsenal and its prowess many years ago, I was smitten with the team led by the faces of the franchise, the ever-so graceful Thierry Henry and volatile midfield general Patrick Vieira.
Many years later, I am in a state of ambivalence. To properly analyze my dilemma is to understand the interplay between my beliefs and their alignment with Arsenal’s philosophy, vision, and strategic plan, starting from a macro-level analysis and then zooming on the micro aspects.
''If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn't make sense''
I have always classified myself as an independent thinker who creates his own opinion based on facts and observations from a number of different sources. Blessed with a critical eye, I tend to stick to my convictions unless logically and intellectually proven otherwise. These combine to create a core philosophy and culture in which there are different yet highly specific components. In my years, there have been several qualities that re-affirmed my interest in the team many affectionately call the Gooners.
Most importantly, the pragmatism demonstrated by the club in the financial realm has been exemplary. Displaying a conservative approach, Arsenal Football Club, primarily led by the former Vice-Chairman David Dein, has promoted growth in small steps on the basis on fiscal stability.
In a sports sphere where football clubs seemingly go into ‘administration’ or over-indulge themselves without consequence every few months, Arsenal has promoted a responsible business model as shown by the increase revenue from €224 million in 2007-2008 to €263 million in 08-09, reported by the Deloitte Sports Business Group.
With this said, Arsenal's conservatism in the market has its cost. In 2004, Arsenal signed a 15 year, £100 million deal garnering £6.7 million a year. Compared to the £20 million a year that Manchester United signed with Aon, and Liverpool signed with Standard Chartered Bank recently, the Holloway habitants are given peanuts.
Nonetheless, Arsenal's ideological views have obviously paid dividends seeing as how Forbes lists them in 2010 as the 3rd most valuable team in the world after Manchester United and Real Madrid, with an expected value of £837 million ($1.2 billion). Profit earned is rightfully assumed to be at the top of the pyramid when it comes to running a business, however, it is also is the foundation for how a football club’s philosophy is produced.
‘In Wenger We Trust’
Arsenal Football Clubs’ emphasis on financial pragmatism and stability transcended to the management levels when the worldly-intellectual Arsène Wenger was chosen as coach. The Frenchman speaks six languages, followed the Obama election closely, visited Hungary to study communism, and has a passion for politics and art.
On the football stage, Wenger had had notable success at Association Sportive de Monaco and a small stint at Grampus Eight (now known as Nagoya Grampus) in Japan, but truly was untested on the larger scale. However, he bought into the monetary philosophy, and Arsenal Holdings felt he was a controllable pawn of sorts. It wouldn’t be the first club that promoted enduring stability over style. The domestic dominance of Lyon, a club that once had limited success, reached unfathomable goals with its long-term sporting director and now presidential advisor, Bernard Lacombe.
Wenger was duly noted for his observant and intellectual approach. A master’s degree in Economics from University of Strasbourg, Wenger uses statistical analysis to track the development of his players. As celebrated in Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics , Wenger collects information from the amount of kilometres his player has run to their dietary needs. As they say, information is free.
Wenger’s rational approach combined with his calm demeanour, results in a safe environment in which the players tend to be in high spirits. He places an emphasis on loyalty and supports the growth and development of the footballer. He experiments with players in different roles—as shown by placing Theo Walcott on the right wing rather than in his natural position of striker—and is not afraid let players struggle in order for them to gain a better grasp of the team philosophy.
In a ruthlessly competitive environment, Wenger is one of the few managers to understand that the virtue of patience often correlates with long-term success of the player. Wenger understands that the long-term gain outvalues the short-term success of replacing the player (selling a player below their peak value after spending countless thousands as well as years to develop the athlete is impetuous).
Wenger’s strong beliefs in patience and understanding derives not only being economically responsible, but also from his desired style of play. “I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art,” states Wenger. An attack-minded yet fluid style in which the ball is primarily kept on the ground through an assortment of short and medium passes.
The players are comfortable on the ball with superb composure yet are expected to be multidimensional. The physical components include a low-centre of gravity, strong balance, good quickness and agility. Complimenting this is an artistic flair in dribbling, intelligent decision making, creative in space and an eye for the precise pass (Samir Nasri and Tomáš Rosický are fine examples of this).
The defensive style is more subtle, but focuses on the collective. This team style revolves around group play in which team chemistry is the focal point. Arsenal’s training often includes two-on-twos and three-on-threes. This approach is a far cry from celebrated Manchester United first team coach and Dutchman René Meulensteen whom states “do one thing very, very well.”
Creating a Culture
Arsenal’s style has evolved from the days of Vieira and Sylvain Wiltord where the play was much more direct with play often conducted through the middle in which creating chances were just as important as maintaining possession. This current style of play is excellent to the development of the young athlete. It polishes their skills and creates more opportunities for them to succeed, whether they are in various positions or different tactical situations (1 on 1, counter-attack etc).
This shaping of the athlete is exuded in the youth policy in which young players develop or expand on certain facets of their game without consequence. “Young players need freedom of expression to develop as creative players,” Wenger states, “they should be encouraged to try skills without fear of failure.”
Wenger’s strongly believes in political and economic efficiency, though his affection with youth players results in him being looked upon as a ‘father figure.’ His track record of remarkable successes focuses on buying young players, developing them into talented and an integral part of the Arsenal team and contrary to public opinion, motivating them to stay at Arsenal despite differences.
If all else fails, allow them to depart (and not coincidently, when they are on the decline)—all for a healthy fee. Some of these incredible transfers include purchasing a young Nicolas Anelka for £500,000 from PSG in 1997 and two years later selling for £22.3 million to Real Madrid. Buying Dutch winger Marc Overmars for £5.5 million and three seasons later allowing him to depart for £22.3 million to FC Barcelona. Purchasing Vieira for £3.5 million and 3 Premiership crowns as well as 4 FA Cups later selling him to Juventus. Swooping for Emmanuel Adebayor for just £3 million and selling him to Manchester City for a reported £25 million. Lastly, buying club legend Thierry Henry for £10 million, converting him from winger to striker and 174 Premiership goals later selling him for £16 million on his decline of form.