The travails of Arsene Wenger seem very familiar to me; indeed, in many ways they resemble what happened at Liverpool seven years ago. And in some ways they mirror the struggles the Reds are having right now, albeit with some key differences.
In 2010 Dion Fanning wrote that within six months the era of Rafa Benítez would be seen as a golden age; something I wholeheartedly agreed with. At the same time I was smacking my head against the table upon reading Paul Hayward’s article in the Guardian stating that “Liverpool have taken the first step out of the darkness by appointing a wise head with an eye for undiscovered talent”; and that “Anfield’s regulars were suffering but were too loyal to complain. They filed out through the Shankly Gates bored. It was inimical to Liverpool’s followers to see their heroes win games by calculation alone. They revered Benítez for the 2005 Champions League win in Istanbul but could recognise the creeping joylessness of his football and his apparent inability to derive any pleasure from a goal.”
That was the final straw for me as columnist for the official Liverpool site, when they published the article as its main news headline rather than in the more obscure media section, where such articles would usually get placed. For five years I’d been told not to slag off previous managers, and there they were, immediately after sacking Benítez, putting the boot in; it wasn’t so much that it was such ludicrous praise of Hodgson, even if it made little sense, but that it derided a manager that Steven Gerrard now looks back upon as the best he played under, even if he too was caught up in the difficulties of that final campaign. (And he’s played under Hodgson twice, poor fella. Both periods were awful.)
I’m sure we’ve all written stuff we are proved horribly wrong about – plenty in my case – so I’m not knocking Hayward per se; just that it was clearly drivel at the time, based on Hodgson’s career to that point (and in the seven years since). Hodgson was a decent manager, but there was little sign of this free-flowing, goalscoring football Hayward was on about. “Hodgson’s Liverpool will get back on the front foot. They will assert their pedigree. Nullifying the opposition will not be their religion,” he wrote. (Yup – just like England against Iceland, eh?)
Until then I’d stayed writing for the site despite George Gillett and Tom Hicks, in part to fight the good fight for Rafa and for simple common sense, as the knives sharpened – but if Roy Fucking Hodgson was the epitome of “joyful football” then I was already experiencing the post-truth age.
So, careful what you wish for, Gooners – the media may suggest employing a compatriot, and sing his praises, as he drives your team into relegation battles. (At least you won’t get Hodgson, or Sam Allardyce, eh?)
Struggles and Logical Explanations
But it’s not just Arsenal struggling, although weirdly they seem to be hogging all the limelight (or whatever the bad version of limelight may be: a brutal interrogator’s lamplight shone in your face?).
There are also Liverpool’s own issues these past few seasons – and also the struggles of pretty much all English clubs in Europe for five years, give or take a run here or there (who was the last manager to win a European trophy with an English club? Answers on a postcard to Caldy on the Wirral. Who was the last manager to take an English club to a European final? Some German fella).
While randomness reigns large, and these things can appear to go in cycles, there are some logical explanations to all of these struggles. Quite a few, in fact – all of which may be playing a part to varying degrees.
My theory is that the overall strength of the Premier League (and strength is not necessarily the same thing as quality) is making life harder for the country’s best clubs to excel in Europe.
And the strength of the Premier League is making life harder for the big clubs in general, given the panic that arises from trying to squeeze six clubs into four places (not allowing for Leicester, who, like the American dream, suggested anything is possible; yet barely 1% of people will succeed on those terms, and most will become bitter and angry and disillusioned, and vote for fascists to get their country back, yada yada yada).
It’s got to the point where being in Europe is seen as a bad thing for your title chances (oh, and for your country as a whole; people will become bitter and angry and disillusioned, and vote for fascists to get their country back, yada yada yada).
All leagues have great players spread across numerous teams. However, the world’s truly elite players are at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Several of the best players in the Premier League are ‘rejects’ from those clubs (not necessarily failures at those clubs, but ultimately surplus to their requirements).
Great players on their own don’t win trophies; but if the super clubs hoover them up in sufficient quantities, and they are the kind of great players who also graft (or have enough teammates who’ll do it for them), then those clubs become hard to stop. But these clubs in Spain and Germany and France are monopolies and duopolies; as the Premier League becomes about half a dozen clubs. If Spain or Germany’s best clubs had to share their best players with three or four other rivals, their leagues would get more interesting but their top teams would be weakened. (And once they are weakened they’d be less able to dominate the global transfer market for new acquisitions).
Look at the change in Germany since Bayern started “stealing” Dortmund’s players. Every year, without fail – and without even being close – Bayern, Barcelona and Real Madrid are in the Champions League, and every year they’ll be so much stronger than the rest of their domestic league (bar maybe one or two other clubs) that their status is never really in doubt. They never look like failing to make the top four, and staying onboard the gravy train. (Not to be confused with the Groovy Train.) That means players don’t think twice before joining them. Even without the Champions League, Barca and Real would be tempting to top players; but the constant qualification nails it.
In Spain, this happened because the big two got their own TV deals; only Atletico Madrid have bucked the trend and offered any sustained resistance (what a good job that club and its manager does). Bayern were always the richest club in Germany, but FFP meant that others could not suddenly invest big sums from left-field to compete. Dortmund have had to adopt the “get in early” model, to find players before they are good enough for Bayern; at which point Bayern then buy ‘em.
Based on turnover and FFP, Bayern were only going to get richer; a virtuous cycle. Success leads to money and money leads to success. This is the unfairness of FFP. The fairness is that random clubs can no longer be purchased by random rich people and billions pumped in – and the ‘lottery’ (the unfair part, to my mind) being whether the zillionaires chose your club or someone else’s.
(Indeed, often doing stuff wrong at a club makes them more tempting to purchasers, who can’t afford to buy the better-run clubs. Liverpool were bought by FSG for this very reason – the untapped potential. However, let’s also not forget that the club was on its knees at the time, and in need of any kind of non-cowboyish hand-up. The club is restrained by FFP, with 2010 the point where rich benefactors were less able to change the course of a club; although if they’d already spent a fortune beforehand, all well and good – Chelsea and Man City weren’t forced to sell those players, after all.)
Through the tumult of FFP – following on from various overseas cash injections, as well as the retirement of the most powerful man English football has ever seen (the much-feared Alex Ferguson) – the Premier League has seen chaos reign. It’s more exciting right now, but clearly more chaotic.
Up until a few years ago it had a certain order to it; but in recent years it’s become much more volatile. Until 2013, if you won the title you could probably expect to finish 2nd – at the worst – the following season. But that’s all changed. United, post-Ferguson, finished 6th; Man City finished 2nd in 2015; Chelsea finished 10th in 2016; and Leicester sit 17th in two-thirds of the way through 2016/17.
For 15 seasons, from 1998/99 to 2013, the lowest any defending champion finished was 3rd (on just three occasions). However, the average finishing position was 1.8(th); and the average for the nine seasons after 2003/04 was 1.66(th), with 2nd the lowest any defending champion finished in that time. In those 15 seasons, five retained their titles, while eight finished 2nd. This has clearly gone haywire in the past four seasons, with the average for the past four title defenders currently ninth, and is therefore perhaps more than a blip.
As a result, England no longer has any Champions League perennials.
Except … Arsenal.
Yes, the same Arsenal whose manager is now at the centre of toxic unrest – just like Benítez was at Liverpool in his final months; the fanbase dissolved into bitter in-fighting that serves no good and only ends in managerial change, with years of “successful stagnation” – maintaining a high output without the ultimate titles – replaced with years of “why can’t we be back where we were then?”, wondering why on holy hell the club appointed a journeyman manager as a “wise head” who, we were assured, would see the untapped potential of Paul Fucking Konchesky and Joe “Hunched Over Vomiting” Cole.
Even though Ferguson went of his own accord, and on the high of another league title, it’s worth reading Daniel Taylor’s take on how they’ve fallen. If it’s got harder to retain the European Cup these past 20 years, it now seems harder to even remotely defend the Premier League title with any dignity, and to sustain a place at the top table of Champions League football.
This is where Wenger’s achievements get overlooked by fans sated by that particular type of success. (I always think back to driving home from Anfield at the turn of the millennium and hearing Sunderland fans moaning about Peter Reid – in the days when I still listened to phone-ins – after they’d finished 7th twice in a row. Their fans were bored of finishing 7th, they wanted more. How did that work out?)
In the past few seasons Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea have all fallen out of the main competition – these were three of the four perennials from 2004-2010; and Man City are hanging on in there with Arsenal, but they’re only a handful of seasons into life at that level. (And domestically they are underperforming in relation to their spending to a greater degree than Arsenal this season, although they are in a period of transition.)
People seem to love how competitive the Premier League now seems at the top – and it’s certainly gone beyond the duopolies of Manchester United vs Arsenal (1998-2004) and Manchester United vs Chelsea (2005-2011). But does this openness actually harm its clubs in Europe? I think it possibly does.
The pundits and those on social media who laud the Premier League’s “brilliance” are often the ones most angry when its clubs fail in Europe. They’re patriotically proud of the league, and angry at its standard-bearers letting this fine land down. Yet they’re also the ones defending the festive programme and the two cup competitions – the traditions, “what makes us so great”, etc.
I feel that the league is becoming ever more attritional. It’s always been a battle, but our domestic game is, more than any other, a test of endurance; and if you then have to fight side-battles, it saps the energy in a way that Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid and PSG don’t face. Yes, those clubs will still lose games in their leagues – which are not “weak” – and they’ll still have bad seasons; but they are like tough 1,500m races compared to the Premier League’s 3,000m assault course. And when those clubs do have bad seasons they finish 2nd, maybe 3rd if it’s a disaster.
To me, what we see in those leagues is closer to how the Premier League was a decade ago: four big clubs, managed by top managers, able to maintain top-four league form and runs in Europe; but statistics from the time showed that Man United and Chelsea (who had bigger, costlier squads) had far better results after European games than Liverpool and Arsenal, who dropped points far more frequently than they would when not having just played in the Champions League. Which, I think, is part of the reason why Liverpool and Arsenal often battled for 3rd and 4th, rather than 1st and 2nd, even though they could still reach Champions League finals. It’s well known that teams are less able to run as far and at the same intensity, and also pick up more injuries, with games every two, three or four days. So it stands to reason that you’ll win fewer points, on average, with less rest and preparation time.
Even so, for six years there was a status quo: the same four teams. This also happened to be a golden period for English football in what used to be called the European Cup: the best since the halcyon days of the late-‘70s to mid-‘80s. Part of it was because the quartet were in it every year – they built up a tolerance, and an understanding; they acclimatised and they succeeded.
Nowadays, few English teams get a sustained run at it; and Arsenal, the only ones from then who remain, are stuck in the same maddening loop. They get worn down by the Premier League’s brutality and by its cup competitions, and their squad, which is the 4th-costliest, falls short time and again, usually in the spring, when all the competitions collide.
You can almost set your watch to it, and so it irks their fans; but to me it’s like being bored of being in the Premier League every year and just “getting by” (like, say, Aston Villa) and then finding yourself “thrilled” at life in the Championship. Or bored of finishing 7th, like Sunderland. Or bored of Liverpool under Benítez. (Or even those lunatics already bored under Jürgen Klopp.)
Stale food sucks; but rotten food is far worse. Which isn’t to say that fans must give up on dreaming – just to be prepared to hold their hands up if it goes to shit.
It’s frustrating in Arsenal’s case as they could spend more money, but choose not to. Equally, they give their fans a lot of cup wins (before they eventually go out), and they have yet to have the ignominy of falling out of the top four. This, to me, is like the Liverpool fans moaning that Klopp was a loser because both cup finals were lost last season; yet to reach a final is much more of an achievement than going out at the first hurdle. There are shades to success; grades of achievement.
Qualifying for the Champions League year after year has become something to mock about Arsenal (“Oh look, they won the trophy for being in the top four again!”) but it will suddenly become unfunny to those of their own fans who say it when they fall away and can’t get back in.
Once you’re not in it it becomes harder to retain your best players and buy elite new ones; unless super-high wages are paid. But being in it saps energy, although you can afford a bigger squad. It’s a double-edged sword, but overall it’s surely better to be in it than out of it. (Remember, you may stand more chance of challenging for the title if you’re not in Europe, based on the past few seasons, but it’s probably a brief all-or-nothing fling; you need to be back in it, and to stay in it, in order to build as a club.)
Not only have mid-table Premier League clubs like Stoke and West Ham become much richer on the back of the league’s popularity, but – and I think this is the key factor – the top division is the ultimate smorgasbord: aesthetes and passers; pressing teams; counterattacking teams; and still, in the 21st century, those crossing and long-ball teams of lumbering giants, often managed by Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce. England is the great mashup of football styles, and that’s a huge part of its chaos. It is the land of the Shawcross.
As I noted in late 2015, most European top-flight leagues have at least half the clubs managed by homegrown managers. I went through a list of the teams in Germany and Spain, and most of the coaches were German or Spanish; with others from nearby countries, such as Austria in the case of the Bundesliga. There’s a German style, a Spanish style, with subtle variations therein.
However, the paucity of great/successful English coaches (or perhaps more tellingly, Scottish ones working here – lest we forget Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Kenny Dalglish, Alex Ferguson and even George Graham) has meant foreign managers are turned to; as they have been since Arsene Wenger essentially reinvented English football in 1996. But “foreign manager” covers a lot of territory. French ones are different to Italian ones, who in turn are different to German ones.
When in the last few years British managers have been given a go at the big clubs – the “go” they say they never get – it’s gone horribly wrong; they still whine about it, but seven years after I wrote about British managers hitting a glass ceiling for the inaugural issue of The Blizzard magazine, we’ve seen decent efforts by Brendan Rodgers (one almost-great season, before it went wrong) and Harry Redknapp, but more notably, the indescribably horrible tenures of David Moyes at United and Roy Hodgson at Liverpool.
Foreign managers still fail, of course, but they’re also the only ones who succeed; including the example of the club with no money that inexplicably won the title: Leicester. (Not that it was anything other than bonkers and nonsensical; but Allardyce, Moyes or Pulis, for all their decent merits, didn’t do it. It wasn’t a Brit who bucked the trend, despite all the Brits down where Leicester usually were, but an Italian.)
As always there are promising young British coaches, but none who are making waves at big clubs; and none who go overseas – to step up from a smallish English club to a fairly big European one – to prove themselves in order to get given the biggest English jobs. They continue to hit the glass ceiling, although at least the current breed aren’t all stuck in the 1980s. But these managers continue to contribute to the “chaos” of the Premier League.
Getting back to the smorgasbord, the Premier League currently has two French managers, three Italians, two Spaniards, two Portuguese, a German, a Dutchman, an Argentine and a Croat; plus seven Brits. There is no homogenous style, other than that the crowds (and the climate) dictate a fast, intense game (surely no one would run around this much in the searing heat; and anyone not running around gets bollocked by the crowd. And we value tackling more than anywhere else does).
Unable to import the world’s truly elite players, the league has instead imported its best coaches (because, as mature men, they’re less concerned about living in fancy cities with a thriving nightlife) – but they are all working with different approaches, having inherited squads possibly suited to another way of playing. In some ways our league is a total mess, but not exclusively in a bad way. It’s simply Picasso rather than Michelangelo. Or maybe it’s Picasso and Michelangelo, with a smattering of Jackson Pollock jizzed up the wall.
So if it’s not the league with the highest technical quality, it’s the weirdest. It’s intense, and having a style that defeats one opponent might leave you open to attack from another (hence the ‘rock, papers, scissors’ of my 2015 piece referenced earlier). Money still wins out 90% of the time, but it’s spread across several clubs now.
Par for the Course
All my work with Graeme Riley on what became the ‘par’ argument – that the average £XI (average cost of the team over 38 games, with football inflation taken into account) finishes close to where its spending rank falls (pretty much the same as with wage-bill ranking) – looked torpedoed last season, when Leicester blew the model out of the water. But it’s back to normal now; Leicester are the one clear outlier in the past 13 years, and perhaps no one will ever make sense of it.
(Other than: they were helped by having almost no cup games, and they were not coming off a summer of mass personnel changes; while this season, as they revert to the mean, they found themselves a big scalp, with opponents wiser to their methods, and with a lot of cup games, and a squad with 10 new additions. They also now have a greater pay disparity, with big pay rises for the stars – who are now faltering – but not for the “warriors” who backed them. But that doesn’t explain how they won their Champions League group.)
However, even Arsenal’s first two titles under Wenger were based on big spending; not necessarily by him, but in 1998 they had the 2nd-costliest £XI when winning the title – based on the expensive defence assembled by George Graham (with David Seaman and Martin Keown costing a lot of money at the time they were purchased, and still within their prime years later, while the evergreen full-backs were not expensive but not exactly cheap either), and, having arrived not too long before Wenger, the wonderful Dennis Bergkamp iced the cake.
It was only in 2004 that Arsenal broke the model, albeit not as spectacularly as Leicester did last season. Over the past two decades, Arsenal in 2004 have been the least-expensive title winners, Leicester excluded. Man United, who bucked the model in the mid-‘90s due to an abnormal number of “free” homegrown players (having first won the title under Ferguson in 1993 with a very expensive £XI, largely assembled in the late ‘80s), then began to spend big again; responding to Blackburn, Newcastle and Arsenal, with a major splash of the cash.
Arsenal and Man United switched places as the two costliest teams early in the new millennium (Arsenal ranked #1 in 2001 and 2002, United in 2003), but by 2004, Arsenal – the Invincibles! – ranked just 4th.
This was essentially the fruits of the great “canny purchaser” years for Arsene Wenger: bargains from France, often picked up in the late ‘90s, as he stole a march on the best imports. This was peak Wenger; but rather than him lose his touch, the competition just got more fierce (and in order to curtail the march he had stolen, began shopping in the very same markets). The cost of Arsenal’s £XI continued to plummet in the 2000s, to almost mid-table levels of overall cost, as they built the Emirates (with a rank of 8th in 2008/09). To suggest that they stayed within the top four on spending would be wrong; the figures are clear.
And of course, Chelsea came along with Roman Abramovich’s money and blew the canny purchasing model out of the water with “mass speculating” – a scattergun method of purchasing a ton of costly players and discarding the flops, of which there were a fair few; all while assembling what still remains to this day the most expensive squad assembled in the Premier League era (once all fees are converted to current day money). Man United, however, tried to stay with Chelsea; but Arsenal could not. (United now have a very expensive squad again.)
Before moving onto the concluding part of this article, below is a graphic I created with Robert Radburn last season, to show relative spending and finishing position during the Premier League era. (Have a look, have a click, and then scroll down to continue reading. For instance, click on a club and then look at the line that tracks their £XI rank over time.)
Brutal, Brutish, British
We have no winter break in England. Instead we have an insanely busy festive period – we get busier, rather than take it easier.
But then, on top of that, we cram in a load of cup games from not one but two competitions in January. Just before our clubs go back into European competition, we throw the best part of a dozen games at them.
Since 1960, and excluding May (when the season has often been all but over, in either good or bad ways – title wrapped up or season petering out), Liverpool’s win percentage is at its lowest in the month of January (49.2%), closely followed by February (49.7%).
By contrast, the 247 games in the month of March see a jump to a 60.3% win rate; a huge increase. These figures (courtesy of Graeme, naturally) are league games only, but the data is robust, across 57 years.
You have to wonder what January does to teams, with so many cup games; especially the League Cup, which has not one but two semifinals (and Klopp has taken his team to them in both his seasons so far). Or maybe Liverpool just peak in March? – which may make sense in some of the glory years, but not necessarily in the fallow decades. Obviously by March the League Cup is already over, and the odds are that the club was probably out of Europe by that point in most seasons, bar the periods under Bob Paisley and Rafa Benítez.
England currently has five of the “richest” nine clubs in Europe; but Manchester United aside, four of them are outside the top four. England’s wealth is shared between numerous clubs, and each is weakened by the presence of the others, in relative terms.
Liverpool sit 9th, behind the other four. There are two über-rich clubs in Spain, and one in Germany. So when the best players are looking for a club to join, they want one that is always in the Champions League; one that can challenge for trophies; and one that that can pay the best wages. The Premier League is not a meritocracy but it is more meritocratic than those leagues. (Also, if you’re a very good player heading to France, you go to PSG; to Holland, and it’s Ajax or PSV. That doesn’t mean these teams win the league every season; it just boosts the probability, given the smaller number of dominant clubs.)
The issue for the big English clubs in Europe is the one that has stopped Manchester United running away with things this decade: the spread of talent.
If you’re going to come to England, as an elite player, then who do you choose? Man United are the richest; they pay the highest wages (£300k a week is their current limit, although the vast hike in TV money and the Chinese paying silly sums, means that could rise). But unlike Madrid, Barcelona and Paris, it’s not a “sexy” destination; and it’s not got the kind of weather the Latin players particularly like (and most of the world’s best players are South American, or from warmer European countries).
The same is obviously a problem for Manchester City, and FFP has meant they can no longer offer silly money (like now seen in China) to attract “ungettable” players such as Yaya Toure and Sergio Agüero. They’ve still been spending big sums on players, but these figures are not as big as they were pre-FFP (with our Transfer Price Index inflation, Agüero and Carlos Tevez remain their biggest buys, although the Tevez fee is reported at wildly different figures; somehow he’s also now the best-paid player in the world … playing in China).
For example (and I’ve suggested this before), say that Man City as we now know them didn’t exist. Nothing against them personally, but they were essentially the spanner in the works; the fifth wheel. If there were just four Champions League perennials in England (as there was a decade ago) then those four clubs would get richer still; they’d have fewer clubs to share the European wealth with, and be a more consistently attractive option for top players. That would be bad for the league, in terms of competitiveness, but it would help those clubs to compete on the continent. So this is not a criticism of City, just how a fifth team confused matters.
The best players that City have managed to lure – had that wealth not been injected – would instead have possibly been lured to United or Chelsea; particularly David Silva, Yaya Toure, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero.
Also, the players City took from Arsenal and Liverpool – Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Raheem Sterling – might have stayed where they were; or been poached by United or Chelsea, to further concentrate the best talent to a small number of clubs, instead of spreading it wider. Which, of course, is not to say that these players all shone for City; perhaps none clearly improved them (Sterling may yet do so). But they were doing very well at Arsenal and Liverpool respectively, and so buying them disrupted those rivals in the process. (The key then becomes whether that money was reinvested wisely; i.e. were the transfer fees fair recompense for losing the talent. That’s another question.)
What Attracts Players?
As much as we love the city on this site, we know Liverpool is not somewhere most overseas players yearn to live. Liverpool as a club has location and turnover against it, in the hunt to restore past glories. It can compete for young, up-and-coming players – but not the world’s established elite.
The club’s turnover means that its maximum wage is £150,000-a-week (perhaps up to £200,000 with bonuses), while Chelsea pay £220,000-a-week to their maximum earner, City pay £240,000-a-week, and United c.£300,000-a-week to three different players.
However – a lot of these deals were signed a few years ago. The new (improved) going rate for each club will be seen when big players renew their contracts; as seen with Liverpool and Philippe Coutinho, who is clearly the club’s main asset. I’d expect United, in particular, to push to £400,000-a-week before too long, if they continue to throw money at the problem of four difficult seasons. With China playing on some players’ minds, the chance is there for agents to agitate for hefty rises.
Part of Arsenal’s problem is that their two “key” players (Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil) want new deals with big pay rises, and a kind of frustration has built up around them as a result. Sanchez has taken to screaming at team-mates and wandering to the side of the pitch to isolate himself, and Özil has lost the form that put him in contention for a pay rise in the first place. Do they want out? Or do they just want more money?
This brings up another issue: if you say you’re worth more, you then instantly have more to prove. You cannot be mediocre on mega wages (or even when just asking for them) – or the fans will take against you, teammates will wonder why you’re getting paid so much more than them, and the owners will see you as an overpriced luxury that can no longer be afforded. Players who aren’t fully committed to the cause can be as heavy as the deadwood that lurks at the fringes of all squads.
(Of course, a club can always choose to pay one player a disproportionately large share of the money – but in order to give him a fortune then essentially everyone else has to take a pay-cut to subsidise it – a smaller part of the same-sized pie – and that can result in unrest. If your mega-earner is like Luis Suarez, and unable to go onto the field and not try his hardest, and is always scoring goals, then that may be acceptable; but Suarez also started biting people, and wanted to play at a higher level – and Barcelona are one of a few clubs in the world that is true of. And so that was complicated. However, if your biggest earner is like Özil, who is very talented but has games where he literally stands about while the others work their socks off, it can’t help with team harmony.)
So with Manchester and Liverpool unlikely to attract the world’s elite in terms of lifestyle, that puts the ball into the court of Chelsea and Arsenal: London has to be the preferred destination for imports, as a major multicultural city, with several major airports as well as a direct train to Europe, on top of the culture. This helps Spurs, too, although they rank 6th out of the big six for spending power, by a reasonable distance.
Even Chelsea couldn’t dominate the market last summer, having finished 10th. They spent over £120m, whilst recouping little, but did so almost equally on four “non-world-class” players (depending on your definition).
Right now, they are bouncing back from a horror season with a runaway success; albeit largely with the same squad that won the title in 2015 and failed so miserably in 2016; plus buying back David Luiz for £30m, and adding N’Golo Kanté for £32m, Marcos Alonso for £24m and spending £33m on Michy Batshuayi, who hasn’t forced his way into the team.
Antonio Conte is clearly one of the world’s great managers, so they have that in their favour. They obviously have no Europe to worry about, and perhaps that has helped make for such a smooth transition, with three of the four additions adding new dimensions. However, their elite players (Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, et al) were purchased when in a position of strength; with inflation they now “cost” far more in today’s money than the c.£30m paid at the time, even if the “time” wasn’t that long ago (football inflation moves fast).
Manchester’s two clubs, and Liverpool, have world-class managers too. So that partly overcomes the stigma of life in a northern town. And United and Liverpool have rich histories – the richest in England, no less, with Liverpool one of Europe’s clear elite in terms of European trophies. (Of course, unfortunately much of that was a fairly long time ago; but the ‘name’ abides.)
Add that Spurs, based in London and with a new stadium on the way, have a highly-regarded up-and-coming manager, and you can see that you could make a case as a top player for joining any of the top six – although the best would probably choose the “rich three” within the big six (United, City and Chelsea) on account of the wages. But the world’s elite will choose Real Madrid and Barcelona, if given a choice (and if assured of a game).
Crazy Season = Crazy Conclusions
Chelsea aside, this would be a normal, highly competitive season; but until three games ago, Chelsea were on course for a points record.
Obviously as already mentioned, they don’t have the Champions League, just like Leicester (and Spurs) didn’t last season, or Liverpool when giving the title a great shot in 2013/14. However, not being in Europe doesn’t suddenly make you a better team; but it is one less possible impediment. So Arsene Wenger has never failed to the point where he has that ‘luxury’ the following season of focusing mainly on the Premier League.
Also, I’ve heard it said this week that his team are “spiralling down and down”, and yet they are two points off second place and at least reached the knockout stages of the Champions League yet again, before collapsing like Eden Hazard at the sight of Adam Lallana (let it go, Paul, let it go…). In truth they had a very bad ten minutes.
Had Chelsea been having their nosedive this season then the remaining top five would be locked in a wonderfully interesting battle, where all the world-class managers would be said to be doing pretty well. Because, for the first time in a while, the big six comprise the top six; no one is having a total stinker.
Instead, Chelsea’s unusually good form is making managers who are still having either pretty good or very good seasons look mediocre. (And let’s not forget: Chelsea didn’t appear to expend much energy last season, on top of not being in Europe this season. And having a tough season appears to increasingly affect teams the following season; as I noted earlier.)
Last summer I looked at Liverpool’s league form in relation to cup competitions, and found that there was an average loss of a couple of points, and one league place, when there was an excessive amount of cup fixtures; and even more of a difference when there was a big jump from the previous season in the number of cup fixtures.
That may be a slightly different issue to the phenomenon that has faced Klopp: facing just three games in some months, but eleven between Boxing Day and January 31st. Do you need a big squad to cope with one crazy month? (What do those players do the rest of the season, especially if the club exits early in both domestic cups. Does that cause unrest, with too many unhappy players moping about? How can you pay them handsomely without the Champions League?)
But eschewing the cups has its own perils. If you go out of the cups to focus on the league, and you have a bad month, the season feels over and the pressure rises; sometimes the cups can be a buffer. At various points in a season, winning any type of game helps.
If a manager plays a weakened team in the cups, fans will moan that they didn’t get to see the best XI, with no view on the ramifications. Even if the club gave away the tickets, if a reserve XI is then fielded people will moan about travel time or costs, or the two hours of their lives they “won’t get back”. A manager has to plan for the big picture; but some fans put themselves, and what they want, first.
Just Like Elvis, Caught in a Trap
I wonder if Arsenal are caught in the trap that Liverpool got caught up in under Rafa Benítez. Benítez almost always took his team into a ton of cup games (even in his brief time at Chelsea he did the same). Liverpool ranked 3rd in spending in the latter years of Rafa’s tenure, having overtaken Arsenal whilst they built a new stadium. After 2007, Liverpool were consistently good across all competitions without winning any of them.
Since then, Arsenal have usurped Liverpool (the stadium is now paying dividends, while Liverpool lost traction under Gillett and Hicks, and fell away from the Champions League spots). The landscape has changed dramatically even since Benítez went. However, Arsenal still appear to be doing what Liverpool did from 2007-2010.
In Rafa’s first three seasons there were four cup finals: two in the Champions League, no less, and two of those four finals were won. But his best team was in 2008/09, and yet he won nothing in the second half of his tenure – even though the club rose to the no.1 rank in Europe, there were no trophies. At no point did Liverpool have a mega-squad; by 2008/09 it was a great first XI (particularly the spine) with some good squad players, but not the kind of strength in reserve United had at the time (having had a much costlier squad and £XI).
Early on Rafa would reluctantly sacrifice league games, when the title was well out of reach, to focus on the Champions League, or in 2006, the FA Cup (only after crashing out of Europe uncharacteristically early that year).
But by the second half of his tenure it was a case of doing very well in Europe without reaching the final; and doing very well in the Premier League, without staying at the summit. Those Champions League finals and that title tilt of 2008/09 were soon forgotten; it took just one mediocre season (2009/10) and he was axed, albeit also in a mess of club politics. In truth, 2004-2009 remains the best five years the club has had in almost three decades. Fanning was right, as many of us suspected at the time.
Since then, as I’ve laid out above, the Premier League has got tougher: more competitive, with a greater spread of the wealth. Liverpool have struggled, relatively speaking, in all but one domestic season since 2009; with this season looking like being the second, at least until the recent wobbles. (Even so, it’s still very good overall, as things stand at the time of writing.)
There’s no constant demand of Europe, sapping the energy, like there was under Benítez; but there are domestic cup games, and the brutal nature of a league that only speeds up, and the difficulties of trying to reestablish the club in the top four when there are six strong contenders.
For Arsenal, however, the struggles of the Benítez era retain great parallels. Once it gets toxic, and becomes a battle of one half of the fanbase against the other, it’s almost never going to end well. Confirmation bias (and our overal negativity biases) means that four good results are undone in an instant by one bad one; even though four good results for every bad one is a recipe for success (win 80% of your games and you’re champions). Every setback gets magnified, as people like Piers Morgan screech “I told you this would happen!”, and the pressure on the next game – even though you’re not doing badly overall – gets out of control. The crowd emits groans and abuse rather than bellow with encouragement and songs, and it becomes stultifying. Fights break out.
But let’s not be too snooty about this, away from the craziness surrounding Wenger. Liverpool fans are turning against Klopp already, albeit just the small lunatic fringes for now. But if that’s allowed to creep, the situation becomes self-destructive.
Unfortunately for Wenger at Arsenal it already appears be too late.