By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 18, 2015) US Soccer Players – It’s easy to make wide sweeping proclamations about the future of a soccer club that failed to win. That’s Arsenal after Tuesday night’s Champions League aggregate loss to mighty Monaco. This is familiar territory for Arsenal’s sizeable global fan base. What’s historically the biggest club in the biggest city in the Premier League can’t get it done in the Champions League Round of 16. It doesn’t exactly fit the description of “super club” that season after season Arsenal can’t make the quarterfinals.
There’s more to it, of course. Arsenal’s contemporary reputation builds on simply refusing to lose. Though the Invincibles season is now over a decade old, that’s what Arsenal are all about. Manager Arsene Wenger builds teams around unquestioned star players that somehow still manage to play pragmatic soccer. There aren’t the occasional loss to a struggling team. The big losses come against other super clubs. Until, of course, they don’t.
Except Arsenal have an annoying way of managing their disappointments.
“Yes, I would take it separately from the other years,” Wenger responded to a question asking if this was the most disappointing Champions League exit. “I am very disappointed to go out tonight of course, but there are lots of positive in the game. The overall situation is disappointing. If you just look at the game tonight, it is positive for us. I am realistic enough to know every season is different. Judge our season at the end of the season. Tonight I don’t believe we had a disappointing performance, it was a positive performance and you can take that into the end of the season.”
Yet it’s later in his postgame comments that Wenger comes closest to getting it. Not only his club, but the super club level of soccer in Europe in general.
“Football is not a fairytale, it is a matter of being realistic and being clinical, maybe a bit lucky as well, maybe that is part of the game.”
Of course it is. This is the game in general and it’s also what made Arsenal invincible. It’s a pragmatic approach built around unquestioned talent. One without the other isn’t enough, and it costs considerable money to build that kind of team. What undid the Invincibles era was Chelsea spending tons of money in pursuit of Premier League points. Chelsea showed what that can do, it can win the title. Since then, the extremes of what clubs have to spend to compete is the story of the Premier League and the Champions League. It’s not necessarily Arsenal’s story.
Arsenal bought into Financial Fair Play in practice far too early. Realigning themselves around a business model that wasn’t as competitive as it needed to be, Arsenal became the Premier League poster club for prudence. They still spent, enough not to slide out of the European spots altogether, but they did it in a way that stressed positive financial results. This put them on the back foot against clubs who saw Financial Fair Play coming and opted to try to maneuver around it.
The Financial Fair Play hammer has yet to fall in the Premier League. Clubs still spend, financial maneuvering still happens. The sweeping changes on how clubs operate has yet to follow. Arsenal now look like a team that decided to play by a set of rules prior to adoption. They had plenty of time to readjust, to admit internally that they’d overestimated Financial Fair Play. Instead, they pushed forward.
To some extent, Arsenal’s current situation is an indictment of UEFA itself. Financial Fair Play’s intent was a fairer game, one where teams weren’t simply spending as much as they could get and beyond. Arsenal represent the opposite extreme of Financial Fair Play, taking UEFA at face value and reorienting accordingly.
Under the current management, a free spending Arsenal is highly unlikely. The game has changed because of Financial Fair Play, just not in absolute terms. We’re still in an adjustment phase with no super club kicked out of Europe over how it handles its money. That’s the big picture push Financial Fair Play needs, the test case that shows the new order applies even to the big clubs. Without that, it’s almost as if Financial Fair Play doesn’t apply to the elite.
Arsenal isn’t a reactive club. Their boring tag covers a lot of what they adopt as standard practice. It works for them, drawing a sharp distinction between old and new in England’s topflight. What it doesn’t do is keep them in contention in Europe. That’s a step Arsenal looked to take at the end of the Invincibles era when they lost a Champions League final that made sense. There were no Monacos blocking Arsenal’s ascent. They beat some of the best teams in Europe before losing to mighty Barcelona in the final.
Since then, Arsenal have been a consistent third or fourth best in the Premier League and a team that exits the Champions League in the knockout round. 2009-10 was the last time past the Round of 16, the season before the last semifinal. These are results that most of the Premier League would trade up for in an instant. Whether or not it’s good enough for Arsenal doesn’t have the obvious answer. That’s the unintended cost of Arsenal’s pragmatic response to Financial Fair Play.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
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