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Arsenal: Are the Club's Financial Restrictions Hampering Its Title Ambitions?

Matthew Snyder@schnides14Analyst IIIAugust 22, 2012

BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 20:  FC Barcelona President Sandro Rosell and Alex Song shake hands after signing for FC Barcelona at Camp Nou on August 20, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

With three years remaining on his contract, Mirror Football indicated that Arsenal midfielder Alex Song approached club management about improving the terms of his current deal.

Given the season he just had, one where he contributed 11 league assists (14 when all competitions were considered) and manned central midfield—something he'd done since the 2008-09 season—with aplomb, he might have been justified in thinking he could augment his yearly intake.

You play well, you get a promotion, or you get a bonus. Seems like a pillar of capitalism.

Whether Song was justified in the course of action he decided upon in trying to get his new deal—Mirror have indicated that Song's last days at the club were marked by petulance as management shot his proposal down—is a matter for another story.

What is apparent is that Song, who was making around £55,000 a week at the Emirates, wanted a salary more befitting of a man who had just tied the club's league assists record.

He wished his salary to reflect his standing as a key member of the team for four seasons on the trot. Considering that Andrei Arshavin was enjoying a better financial package, you might understand his frustration.

Arsene Wenger would not be moved, however, and when FC Barcelona showed interest in acquiring Song, the French manager struck while the iron was hot and sold his midfielder for £15 million.

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Never mind the savvy bit of business by Wenger, who enjoyed a £14 million windfall from his sale—he'd bought Song from Bastia for £1 million after bringing him in on loan for the 2005-06 season.

Song has reportedly signed a five-year deal at the Camp Nou that will see him earn £70,000 a week, according to The Daily Mail, roughly a 27-percent increase from his wages at Arsenal.

Not a bad return for the player, either, but you begin to wonder whether Wenger could have ponied up that extra cash considering the £39 million he's doled out on three new players this summer.

Wenger might rightly have felt that were he to acquiesce to Song's contractual demands, with the player on books through 2015, he would be setting a dangerous precedent for future players. Have a good season, see your wages increase significantly—the player holds complete power, and could run Arsenal's finances into the ground with improved contract demands following culmination of every good season.

For a man who has constantly lamented the current financial state of world football, noting that Arsenal cannot cope with the petrodollars being flung about by Manchester City or Paris Saint-Gemain, nor the big-money muscle flexed by Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid's owners, Song's departure had to rankle him.

It proved the latest in what is becoming a long line of Gunners who have looked elsewhere to satiate both their fiscal and competitive ambitions.

Ah yes, the trophy side of the argument. We were always going to get there.

With that new wrinkle added to the mix, a two-pronged problem arises at the Emirates. If Arsenal are not able to cope financially with the European powers, it is inevitable that top players will filter away from north London.

Will they be able to remain a "big club" if this continues does not abate? To answer that question, you must first qualify what sort of qualities are inherent in a top club, but it seems safe to say that winning silverware is one of them.

Secondly, if Arsenal succeed in improving a talented youth prospect bought on the cheap, as they have done perhaps better than any other club of their stature—all the while, mind you, competing on the continental stage and finishing in their domestic league's top spots each season (perhaps we should include that in the qualities of a 'top club'). If that player does not win silverware, however, he might begin to see his future looking far rosier elsewhere.

Because in the end, what separates Arsenal from, say a club like Ajax? The Dutch giants, long bastions of youth development (their academy has produced some of the top players in Europe) have still managed to remain competitive in their league as well as cope with the rigors of Champions League football.

Now, naturally Arsenal hold a crucial advantage over Ajax in that they can offer weekly football in Europe's top domestic league. But that argument becomes moot when a player sees he can still play in the Premier League, while enjoying increased ambition with, say, Chelsea or the Manchester clubs.

Or he could filter away after falling victim to the Catalan siren song, as Song did.

The latter has been of particular relevancy in recent seasons, when the paths leading from the Emirates to Barcelona (Alexander Hleb, Cesc Fabregas, now Song and to a lesser extent Thierry Henry back in 2007) having become the most well trodden, with Manchester City not far behind.

Obviously, there were extenuating circumstances that affected some of those decisions, but the fact remains that Arsenal were unable to retain their top players, and they believed they were making a step up as far as their career was concerned by moving to the Iberian peninsula.

That Wenger has been unsuccessful in delivering silverware to the club since 2005 plays a giant factor in the players' decisions to leave.

Take the thoroughly-examined case of Robin van Persie, as of two weeks ago still the Arsenal captain.

It is understood that an unholy cocktail of increased ambition, mixed with his advancing age (he's 29) and ability to receive better wages at another club, helped influence his move to Manchester United.

Van Persie's contract had been set to expire at the end of this season, and while Wenger apparently pulled out all the stops in a desperate attempt to keep his talismanic captain, who was last season's EPL leading scorer, at the club—a £5 million signing fee, coupled with weekly wages of £130,000 were discussed—it was not enough to convince Van Persie that Arsenal were still the right club for him.

The Dutchman, like Song and other former Arsenal players, will receive an increased salary at his new club. Unlike Song, he has passed his prime, so the window for him winning silverware was more acute. But the important takeaway is that he believed he could do so away from Arsenal.


And Now, Finally, We Approach the Point I'm Trying, in a Manner Quite Cumbersome, to Make

Which again leads us to the question: can Arsenal hope to compete for silverware in this sort of market?

Wenger's great coup—buying young talents on the cheap (Song for £1 million, Van Persie for £2.75 million from Feyenoord in 2004), and hoping to achieve the improbable and win silverware with said youngsters—has faltered, and the French manager's activity in the transfer market since last summer (he's reneged on his former policy of not buying elder players quite considerably) appears to reinforce his movement in another direction entirely.

Perhaps Van Persie and Song will prove the final straws that broke Wenger's back. Because for all Arsenal's financial responsibility—and let's not shortchange what Wenger has done, re-building a club in a fiscally responsible manner while maintaining its competitiveness—they have yet been unable to lay fingers on a trophy.

And that has impinged upon their status of "world beaters" that had appeared so inextricably ladled upon them after the Invincibles' season.

Wenger cannot cope with the financial muscle of other big powers, but he can cut into the stranglehold they've exerted on the market.

Even if Van Persie had agreed to the significant package offered by Arsenal this summer, which would have made him the highest-paid player in club history, his weekly wages would still have come some £60,000 short of what Fernando Torres receives at the end of a seven-day cycle at Chelsea.

Considering that Torres's goal-scoring return last season was a mere shadow of van Persie's—he scored 24 fewer league goals than did the Dutchman—and that he was still able to rake in those absurdly exorbitant riches, one begins to see the problem Wenger runs into.

Arsenal are a definite step below the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and even perhaps Liverpool in terms of spending power. They remain a step above the likes of Everton and the mid-table clubs.

No matter what Arsenal can offer on the field—and to Wenger's credit, he has worked tirelessly to bring in the right players in the past calendar year—they can only go "so far" when it comes to doling out riches upon targeted players.

Wenger attested to as much to the club's official website in the wake of van Persie's departure.

"This is a situation that is a completely brutal reality of professional sport," Wenger said.

"But you say we live outside of reality? No, we live in the economic reality that other clubs do not. There are some things we cannot afford to do, it is as simple as that."

Those clubs can point to silverware earned in recent seasons, coupled with superb contracts, to build themselves up for players.

Unsurprisingly, the two factors are inextricably linked. You pay more, you get better players. Then, you win more. It's the basic version of Manchester City's modus operandi since 2008.

"Honestly, I think it is a short-term problem," Wenger told the official site. "The world cannot go on like this. You cannot imagine that the world will go on just splashing money out without any return because people will get tired of that as you’ll only have a few clubs competing with each other."

"[Financial Fair Play] will make a big difference, how quickly I cannot answer because I am not responsible for putting it in place."

Ah, financial fair play. When it comes into effect full-tilt in 2015, it may well exert change by threatening exclusion from the lucrative UEFA Champions League if a club's books are not in order.

That means the leveraged buyouts used by the Glazers, Gilletts and Hicks in recent years to buy Manchester United (Glazers in 2005) and Liverpool (Gillett, Hicks in 2007) should go the way of the dodo bird, with the spending sprees of recent transfer seasons past will fall softly to the wayside.

Loopholes will abound, as they always tend to do when high-powered lawyers hired by the clubs turn their well-trained eyes to fine print (there are rumors that players bought ahead of the 2009-10 season won't count against the Fair Play ruling), but that's a matter for the future. Not to mention mere inevitability.

For now, Arsenal continue to see their best players poached, for myriad reasons. But they are attempting to stem the tide by addressing the most glaring problem.

Wenger has spent the afore-menitioned sum of £39 million this summer, third-most among Premiership clubs, and more players are purported to be on the way.

It could not have come at a better time. Arsenal's status as a big club may not be in jeopardy—their infrastructure is still too sound to see them tumble down the table—but if they wish to fulfill their title aspirations, the new approach is a very welcome one indeed.

The addition of Santi Cazorla, who cost £16.5 million, showed just what money can buy. The ex-Malaga man was far and away the best player on the pitch during Arsenal's season opener against Sunderland on Saturday.

Speaking to the club's official site after his move, Cazorla frequently referred to the "terrific opportunity" available to him at Arsenal, which he called, at least two times, a "big club," not to mention "a step forward" in his career and a place where he can win trophies.

The gleaming Emirates stadium must only have reinforced his notion. Thankfully, with Wenger's renewed approach toward solidifying his team, it no longer bears the facade of the final days of Rome—a magnificent bastion of achievement, devastatingly beautiful in terms of its opulence and ornateness.

When, in fact, that was a thin veneer covering the burgeoning rot from within.

That should no longer be the case.

But if Arsenal continue to fire blanks in the trophy department, might Cazorla do as Van Persie just did and move on in two years' time if he hits age 29 and has yet to taste glory at the Emirates? Those words he spoke of at his introduction would come back to haunt him, as professions of loyalty recently did van Persie.

It's a troubling proposition, and one that can only be remedied by silverware.

Therein lies our verdict, conclusion, etc.

In the end, success is what entices the best players to stay. Many speak of Arsenal's uniqueness as a club on the professional level—former legends profess their desire to return as waterboys, current star players pledge their future for life—but in the end, even the staunchest defender may trickle away in search of trophies.

That was, after all, what happened with Henry, whose move to Barcelona was fueled by his insatiable desire to capture the Champions League crown—the only major piece of silverware he'd failed to win in eight years at Arsenal.

He wasn't going to leap that hurdle, so nearly achieved in Paris in 2006, at a club taking a new direction of youth.

Now, he might begin to recognize his former club, so long devoid of older, powerful stars, as making a turn in the right direction competitively.

Only time will tell if it's an inexorable trend.

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