When Ivan Gazidis met fans from a variety of supporters’ groups at the Emirates Stadium last week, his message regarding UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations was unequivocal. It will happen and the clubs are all in favour of it, not least because the alternative – football’s bubble bursting if it continues to expand in the current form – does not bear thinking about.
My personal belief is actually that football should go beyond Financial Fair Play, and introduce things like salary caps and hell, even some variation of the draft system seen in American Football. Naturally, with the movement of so many players across borders from all over the world to play in Europe these days, such a proposal is both idealistic and unworkable. In a sense, the huge amounts of money swimming around in the game are a huge disincentive to those that control the players, the clubs and the variety of football associations. Everyone is enjoying their slice of the pie.
However, because of this, I am equally aware that FFP is in fact a bit of a paper tiger. I spoke with an individual with an inside track on UEFA’s proposals in Munich over the weekend of the Champions League final, and his message was clear. It will have no significant effect on the game. Because even if clubs are found guilty (and there was a hint that punishments might be pinned against individuals rather than clubs anyway) the sanctions against them will be initially minor, only becoming serious after a number of transgressions. So slaps on the wrist like fines in the thousands of euros, perhaps, eventually, a points deduction in a UEFA competition will be the order of the day. It will take the practical beheading of Michel Platini by the owner of an overspending club to actually see anyone banned from the Champions League. But it gets better. Once Michel Platini moves onto FIFA to succeed Sepp Blatter in 2014, the whole thing will quietly fade away anyway. It is Platini’s baby and no-one else is very much interested, perhaps because they know it is too pointless an exercise to actually invest time in.
And even if sanctions were enforced strongly, mega rich clubs will be able to dance around the rules and show a clean set of accounts with various methods far more subtle than Manchester City’s naming rights deal.
Which begs the question as to why Ivan Gazidis is so adamant that Financial Fair Play will be the salvation of Arsenal. The truth may be more than wishful thinking. The economic model that the club follows suits a FFP world down to the ground. It justifies the prudence of the club, the refusal to take a calculated punt to enhance the chances of success, or raise fresh capital through such measures as issuing new shares. There is a deep suspicion that Stan Kroenke is not obsessed by the idea of winning trophies in the way that other owners are, and that he treats his investment in Arsenal as purely business. To him, some would say, the club is not first and foremost the sporting concern the fans want it to be.
Naturally, others take a different view. And did Manchester City and Chelsea fans feel their trophies this season were tainted in some way by the financial advantage given to them by their rich owners unconcerned with posting profits? They cared not a jot. Victory is everything.
Arsene Wenger is a willing collaborator in the current Arsenal way because it allows him to indulge himself in the aspect of football he enjoys the most – developing young talent to play in the style he feels best serves the game. As long as he consistently achieves good results on the balance sheets, the board are not going to request a change of priorities, although the disastrous start to the last campaign did bring about a realization that without some more old hands, the balance of the squad – so cruelly exposed in the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford to a younger Manchester United team – meant the traditional top four finish might go out the window.
The manager now faces a dilemma over whether to continue replacing departing players with more experienced heads as he did with the purchases at the end of last August, or return to the recruitment of the promise of youth. The latter has failed to deliver any silverware, so realistically there may be no choice. And Wenger – much more than Kroenke – is hungry to win trophies, and may have accepted that he cannot do it the way he would like to, especially now that Chelsea are not the only club operating at a significant financial advantage.
However, even operating the way Arsenal do, there is a chink of light. The mega-rich clubs can only buy so many players, or more specifically, they cannot have unlimited squads. So they must either sell or loan those that they do not consider of the quality they desire, or simply do not have enough room for. This led in 2011/12 to the likes of Yossi Benayoun playing for Arsenal, and Emmanuel Adebayor being Spurs’ main striker. In brief, there are only so many places for players at the mega-rich clubs, and this can mean that those cast adrift can suddenly become a cheap, quality option for those less wealthy.
Naturally, a manager utilizing those that have been squeezed out of Eastlands or Stamford Bridge must still box clever, punch above their weight, to achieve success, but it can be done. A mixture of experience, tactical organization and team spirit can take a team a long way. Manchester United have shown it is possible to consistently finish above a club that spend more on wages and transfers, and that is what Arsenal must now do.
If the likes of Manchester City’s Nigel De Jong become available, Wenger should think seriously about recruiting him. There seems little doubt that the new champions will buy big again, meaning there will be quality players that become surplus to requirements. The likes of Adam Johnson, Gareth Barry and James Milner are amongst those that could be offloaded, via either transfers or loan deals. Whether or not Arsenal need to consider such options depends on other negotiations to bring players in and indeed those to retain current options nearing the end of their deals. However, the one bonus of players from other Premier League games is that the question of whether they can perform in England has already been answered.
It is still possible for Arsenal to challenge richer clubs – even when FFP ultimately fails to have any effect - if they can get the balance of the squad correct and perform consistently and intelligently. And unless there is a sea of change in board opinion about Alisher Usmanov, it is the Gunners’ only real chance of achieving the on-field success those supporters listening to Ivan Gazidis last week want to see.