When Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal in the autumn of 1996, one of his earliest moves was to look at the wages the players of greatest importance to him were receiving, and tie them to the club by extending their contracts under improved terms. The growth in income as a result of improved deals for Premier League TV rights meant that the more frugal approach the club had demonstrated in the years before were no longer going to retain the best talents.
As the growth in the amount of money swilling around in the Premier League since its inception has spiralled, the influence of a club’s wage spend has proven to be highly significant in determining their final league position. In Wenger’s early years at Highbury, over the period when, for the most part, the top two places in the table were a carve up between Manchester United and Arsenal, those two clubs were the highest payers. United generally spent a little more, but not that much more. And recent seasons have shown us that although a club’s position in the wages paid table does not exactly correlate with their actual place in the league, there is not a great deal in it – normally a position or maybe two - specifically when it comes to the higher reaches of the table.
When Roman Abramovich arrived in English football, a spending spree at Chelsea ensued, with a dramatic increase in the wage bill at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal managed to win the title in the first season of the Russian’s tenure, although they had to remain unbeaten to do it. In 2004-05 they made a fist of the challenge for the opening period of the season, before Chelsea, by then paying more in wages than anyone, made the title race something of a procession. Arsenal’s second place finish was the last time they were placed so highly in the league. The South West London club effectively replaced Arsenal as the annual challengers to Manchester United, as Arsenal tended to battle for third place with Liverpool. There were exceptions to the rule, such as the Anfield club finishing the 2008 season in second place, but the overall pattern was established.
In a sense, the Abramovich era has echoed the earlier years of Wenger, in that generally, the two clubs that pay most have competed for the title. However there is one key difference. Arsenal bucked the odds three times in seven full seasons to win the league against bigger spending rivals. But since Chelsea’s title win of 2006, the five subsequent campaigns have seen Manchester United win four titles, and given Manchester City’s gatecrashing into the top four courtesy of Sheikh Mansour, should Sir Alex Ferguson win the Premier League again this season, he would have not only turned the tables on one club laying out more in the way of salaries, but two. Whether you like the red-nosed Glaswegian or not, there is no denying his achievements, with three Champions League final appearances in this period to boot.
But where does that leave Arsenal? Arsene Wenger actually bucked the odds in 2004-05 by finishing above Ferguson’s team, but the arrival of Abramovich meant it did not result in a fourth title for the Frenchman. He has since twice given realistic hope that Arsenal could creditably challenge for top place again, but springtime collapses in 2008 and 2010 had many asking questions about whether he had lost his magic touch. It seemed his side’s natural place in the order of things was third or fourth, trying to hold off the teams behind them who – significantly – paid out less in wages. It should be borne in mind at this point that transfer spending – an entirely different outgoing – does not have such a direct influence on finishing position. Over the last decade, Tottenham’s net transfer spend (money laid out against that recouped by players sales) works out at some £20 million a season more than Arsenal’s.
So with the amounts being received in the bank accounts of the mercenaries at Eastlands now outstripping both United and Chelsea, if Arsenal do manage to hang onto third place this season, Arsene Wenger will have overachieved, in fact a phenomenal achievement when one additionally takes into account his net transfer spend in recent seasons has been so low. Yet, what Alex Ferguson has demonstrated this season is that still greater overachievement is possible, even in the modern climate created by owners seemingly willing to pour money at perceived failings. United’s wage bill is not significantly higher than Arsenal’s and has not been for 15 years.
However, there are differences in the approach of the clubs, and perhaps this is why Ferguson has won four titles in the last five seasons, with a sixth looking likely. Firstly, once a target is identified, United negotiate firmly without dilly dallying and will pay over the odds if they really want a player. Arsenal can in fact afford to do this, but Wenger’s obsession with value has undoubtedly hampered them from securing needed targets in the past. Some of the unspent profits have gone into cash reserves, some to pay high wages for squad players that rarely appear in the first team.
Secondly, Arsenal’s wage structure is very egalitarian, but leads to a great deal of inefficiency. There are less cases of this at United. One solution to this is to build in more bonus payments to players, so that they are on a decent enough basic wage, but only receive the sums some are getting now if they actually play first team matches. If the player has enough self-belief, then it is a deal they should be willing to accept. The overall spend might end up the same, but with players more determined to perform. At times, there seems an air of complacency, a lack of hunger and desire.
Finally, and here lies a problem not easily solved without the baby being chucked out with the bathwater, there is an argument that Alex Ferguson is simply a better organiser and motivator of his players than the Arsenal boss, perhaps assisted by a coaching team that is refreshed often enough to stop total familiarity breeding contempt.
So going on the wages/finishing position correlation, Arsene Wenger’s top four finishes since 2005 are about where fans should expect him to be, and third place this season would be a mini-triumph of sorts. But others have shown that it is possible to do even better, and that ‘petrodollars’ do not inevitably have to win the day.