In a world where short term needs and requirements are largely put before long term planning, football is no different.
In fact it is worse, it feels like not a day goes by where a manager is not sacked somewhere in Europe, regardless at what stage of the season we are at. Teams spend recklessly on impulsive signings, sometimes regardless of their age, quality and value in the quest for immediate success. Clubs near the top are reluctant to focus on youth development, as you have seen with Chelsea and Manchester City having no real success, since their take-overs, in developing any youth players to contribute to the first team.
Part of the reason I love Arsenal and Arsene so much is the emphasis on doing what is right for the club. Through constant adversity and criticism they have stuck to their convictions without wavering from relentless external & sometimes internal pressure to change ( from players trying direct the club to Usmanov trying to tell them what they should be doing.) They had a long term plan and they were going to execute that plan – no matter what. As Ivan Gazidis put it recently, “We’ve made enormous progress over the last five years. We managed to keep a focus on where we want to go, how we were going to turn through the corner and making sure we could come out of that corner strong and well positioned. That hasn’t happened by accident it has required a lot of hard work and passion by people at the club along the way.”
Some have criticised Arsenal for what they perceive to be a lack of ambition. I would argue that the move to the Emirates was the most audacious show of ambition seen anywhere in Europe for a long time. To do so, whilst maintaining champions league football year after year, in the most competitive league in Europe is quite frankly astounding.
The only stadium builds that are completed or any where near completion in Europe over the last 10 years that can even come close to the Emirates stadium were Lyon and Bayern Munich. Lyon have a 60,000 seater due to be ready for the European Championship next year and is estimated to cost £280m once complete. Of that they are getting £125m of public money and £50m from the Urban Community of Lyon. Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, was completed at the cost of £235m. It came at a cost though. Before winning the last 3 Bundesliga titles, they had only won 2 out of the previous 6, including failing to qualify for the Champions League in 2006/07. That fact alone, means Arsenal along with Real Madrid are the only team to compete in the Champions League, every year for the last 18 years.
Bayern had that period of struggling, in what is largely, a less competitive league and with a stadium cost far less than ours. (£235m compared with the Emirates costing £390m.) The only reason they were able to come back as quickly as they have is due to the other teams having far less resources than them, even after the stadium build. Compare that with us, having a net spend from 2000-2012 of just £57.4m, 9 times less than Manchester City City (£523m) and 10 times that of Chelsea (£570m), as well as ours being about 4 times less than United and Liverpool over the same period. Looking at this you can see why it has been a longer battle for us to come back to compete compared with Bayern Munich.
Now I am not saying we are as big as Bayern but that is clearly the clubs aim, with Gazidis recently stating “We are off the shoulder of the best teams in world football, we aren’t at that level (Real, Barca, Bayern) but thats where we are aiming to get to. To have the infrastructure and the foundations to deliver it to our fans, thats not something that happens over-night but we are on that journey. That’s what everyone is striving for, we want Arsenal to be in that elite group of clubs. Its long term journey that we are on, that consumes us every day, we want this football club to be at the top of the worlds game. ”
Now whilst the stadium was vitally important, its cost left us lagging behind in other areas, where we previously excelled in. We were unable to invest in other aspects of the clubs facilities, academy and infrastructure until now.
Our training ground, prior to 2000 was leased and it was one of things Wenger insisted on changing, as Bob Wilson recalls “I remember him saying ‘I do not understand. This is Arsenal?, It cannot be Arsenal. First in his sights was a new training ground, purpose-built and paid for in an ingenious way. He bought Anelka from Paris St Germain for £300,000 and sold him to Real Madrid for £23million. From that, £12m created the country’s best football training facility. And with the spare £11m he went out and bought another young French player called Thierry Henry. Some business, some brain.”
Whilst at the time it was the best in the country, that was 15 years ago. It is only now that the short term debt of the stadium has been paid off that we are able to start investing in these key areas again. “We’re investing many million pounds into developing London Colney, our main training centre – our athletic development, our analytics, our scouting. We need to make sure that we’re absolutely ahead of the curve in all of those areas.” Ivan Gazidis stated recently, saying that it is only due to be completed for the 2017/18 season.
Including in this will be an increase area for analytics and athletic development. Both areas the club are keen to develop. Whilst the appointment of Shad Forsythe was widely acknowledged, the appointment of Andy Rolls from West Ham as the new head of Sport Science in January 2014 was quite the opposite. Whilst there is still away to go, signs in the 2nd half of the season have shown promise, with less injuries and players coming back quicker and in better shape than previously. It is an area, which continued improvement and investment off the field, could very well complete the puzzle for on the field achievements to follow.
Something else that largely went under the radar was Arsenal acquiring StatDNA, a data analytics company in December 2012 for £2.165m. Not a large amount is known about exactly what they do but Gazids did state “The company is an expert in the field of sports data performance analysis, which is a rapidly developing area and one that I, and others, believe will be critical to Arsenal’s competitive position. The insights produced by the company are widely used across our football operations – in scouting and talent identification, in game preparation, in post-match analysis and in gaining tactical insights.”
Interestingly, it was used in the recruitment of Gabriel, although Arsene didn’t want to go into too much detail “I cannot tell you all but he has good stats. We look at interceptions, defensive errors, winning tackles – what we call tackles is committing to win the ball, set piece receptions, these kind of things”
With football becoming increasingly competitive, innovation and good choices and efficiency off the field are key to gaining any kind of advantage possible. Whether it be improving the fitness of the players by improving training facilities or coaches, better analysing performances, better decisions on recruitment among other things, can save you huge amounts of money.
Another area the club are investing huge sums of money is the academy. Whilst the on field results across all age levels have been quite poor this season, the club are early into a long term project with Gazidis saying the aim is to have “best youth academy in the world.” The club are half way through phase 2 of 3 phases to make the Hale End facilities “the best young player development centre when its finished in February 2016”
Gazidis went on to say “Our youth development, is going to be the foundation of this football club moving forward, we’re investing millions into leadership & coaching at that level as we go through our transition and also our facilities.”
One of said coaching changes with Liam Brady leaving the club was Andries Jonker being appointed Academy Manager and bringing a couple of his Dutch colleagues to work with him. Arsenal describe Jonker as “ a vastly-experienced and highly-respected coach, Andries previously spent seven years working for the Dutch FA and two seasons working as a senior coach in the youth set-up of the Dutch Federation. Andries was involved with all the national youth teams from under-15 to under-23 level.”
He wasn’t a popular choice with everyone. Terry Burton was one of the casualties of his appointment stating “I still think they’ve made a big mistake. I think if it wasn’t me, there’s good people out there that they could have put in. It’s a massive job. There’s a lot of work to be done there. Arsenal, with respect, have fallen behind.”
Whilst the academy has contributed more players either produced at the club or signed early on at ages 15 or 16 then any other of the top 4 teams in the country (Gibbs, Wilshere, Szczesny, Bellerin, Gnabry, Ramsey, Coquelin and Walcott all have been at Arsenal since aged 16 or below), it is an area that the club and Jonker are keen to improve with Jonker saying “Arsenal want more talented players to come through, because that has been lacking. They want me to develop the players from the academy much better than it was done before. At this moment, considering the investments the club have made, players have hardly been developed properly. This is why they wanted me, a man who can guide the coaches and who can influence the other coaches. Ivan Gazidis wants Arsenal to be the best academy in the world. He realises that will cost money and will take time, but that is his ambition. The scouting must be restructured all over again. It needs to be brought to a level so that we can bring in the absolute best talents from abroad and from England.”
Again it is a project that may take a long time, perhaps even a decade or so. If any club can see through a plan for that long its us. The focus on stability, improvement and innovation off the field is a big part of the reason I love our club so much. The way in which we are run, financially and in all the aspects I’ve mentioned above are reason to be proud to support Arsenal. Arsene Wenger may not be here to see the fruits of the labour completely come to fruition, with the Emirates not scheduled to be completely paid off until 2031 and the academy development may not show its true potential for just as long. Johan Cruyff set up Barca’s famed La Masia academy whilst he was coach from 1988 to 1996 and the Barcelona only saw the complete potential of that unfold a decade later.
Arsene Wenger sums it up better than anyone, with this quote, demonstrating his selfless, long term plan saying he wants to leave the club “in a strong healthy position, that means, good players, good youth behind, strong financial position to go further and develop more and I will do that believe me. The guy who comes in after me is a very strong position to develop something exceptional.”
Whilst almost every single member of personnel has changed since he has been at the club from chairman, CEO’s, to owners, to board members, Arsene Wenger has been the one constant and it is his drive, determination and vision that has carried us this far and yet even with him knowing he is unlikely to be the biggest benefactor of the changes, he continues to plan for the clubs long term success, something that is very rare indeed.
As the famous quote goes; “the future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” In which case, we need not worry about the future of our great club. Just sit back and enjoy the ride my fellow Gooners.