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The Complexity of Winning: What Does It Mean To Arsenal

As a North American who grew up as a child in an immigrant family to Canada, my understanding of North American sport was complicated. Until the age of eight, I never understood the rules of baseball. I didn’t truly understand the rules and regulations of American Football until at least the age of 12. I understood basketball, but hated it as a child because it was difficult to shoot a basketball; and growing up Canadian, I think that we’re inherently born with a gene that immediately allows you to skate and play hockey. All of this is to say, I grew up in a house where we played football. I didn’t know who Arsenal were, but I did know about Hajduk Split, Yugoslavia and the impressive wave of young players led by Robert Prosinecki and Zvonomir Boban. I loved it as a kid and it was simple to understand, you kick or play with the ball to get past another player and score a goal. The concept is so simple and so beautiful – and I was able to do this by the age of 3!

Why do I bring all of this context up? Simple. In North American sports, the concept of winning is fairly straight-forward. You play in a league (anywhere from 82 to 162 – baseball – games) that leads to a set of playoffs which determines the league winner. That’s it! No individual league cups. No risk of relegation or promotion. No dual cups. No dual leagues. No balancing an international duties schedule – for an understanding of how the NHL handles this they either shut their league down (link) OR use it as a negotiating tactic (link). Even in the MLS, you have to balance SOME of these complexities, but there’s no relegation or promotion risk and the CONCACAF Champion’s League is more of a thorn than a reward.

Compare this to Europe – which is the exact opposite of everything I just listed – with the added prestige of the Champion’s League and the risk of having under contract players being tapped up for a move elsewhere, with the added level of complexity of the Chinese Super League throwing around money to any and all players.

All of this to say is – how do you determine a culture of winning? Look at the team that just won the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots – they’ve been to seven Super Bowls, won five in an era of the league where there is tremendous parity. The San Antonio Spurs are considered a model franchise in the NBA and the Detroit Red Wings have won (how many Stanley Cups) while reaching the playoffs for 25 straight years. Without these layers of complexity winning in North America is straight forward. You know what you are winning and what you want to win.

Here’s a question – what do you want to win the most if you are Arsenal? We can cross out the Community Shield (who cares); ditto for the League Cup (no one cares). Let’s move to the FA Cup – we can all admit it doesn’t hold its same level of prestige. Now, the big one: Champions League or Premier League? Which one? No team has won both at the same time, but you need to decide, every, single, year. Which holds more prestige? Would you rather be the champions of Europe but finish fifth in the league OR would you win the league and drop out of the Champions League in the group round? And don’t say I would be ok dropping out of the group round, because that would be an embarrassment for a team like Arsenal – just go back to the almost disaster of two years ago in the group stage where we lost to Dinamo Zagreb. And don’t say, well if we win, we go back to the Champions League anyways, because so much changes from year to year (injuries, player transfers, etc.) Simply making a choice of what you want to win is, well, difficult because you need to choose what you what to win.

Which brings us to Arsenal. What is the decision? What does ‘winning’ actually mean in a system that is inherently flawed? We look at a convoluted system of co-efficients to determine how many spots in Champions League each league receives (thank UEFA!). The system rewards relative mediocrity – and let me make this clear – that’s ok. You’re trying to play for the most prestigious trophy in sports (sorry World Cup.) The benefits are numerous – from obvious financial benefits to the ability to recruit and retain players. If you’re not even able to compete for the trophy then you’re not able to retain the best players in the world, or even be in the conversation.

Don’t believe me? Here are some facts:

  • As of 2016, the cost of not qualifying for the group stage now equates to approximately £7.3 per club. com
  • Each win can bring about £850,000 and if you draw you’ll earn about £425,000.
  • Get into the last 16 and you add a further £3 million
  • Lucky enough to win? As of 2012/13, winners earned £9 million and second place finishers earned £5.5
  • Man U, who were knocked out in the group stages last season, saw a drop in profits of 3.3 per cent for the year ending June 30, 2012 Daily Telegraph

In an era with increasing costs of player wages and international competition to sign these are additional figures that cannot simply be ignored. However, it isn’t only lack of financial success, it is the inability to sign or retain your top players (Luis Suarez leaving Liverpool for Barcelona, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale leaving Tottenham for Real Madrid etc.), thereby necessitating the need to at least compete for the Champions League.

What does this mean? The goal, at minimum therefore, is this: qualification for the Champions League is a goal that must be reached every year. The cost, both in financial capital and physical capital is too extreme.

This does not even examine the cost of not doing well, or being a team that consistently qualifies but is never taken as a serious threat for the Champions League – a conversation about the lack of overall competitiveness and interest is a discussion that needs to occur at a future date.

Examining this criteria – Arsenal, are a success, and are by definition a winning team.

How about the Premier League?

This is frankly more complicated.

I believe, that the English Premier League is one of the toughest leagues to win. The schedule is grueling. The competition is fierce and difficult. There really is no easy match in any league globally. Each contest requires a full-squad to a semi-full squad. This cannot be understated.

In Soccernomics, Kuper and Szymanski argue: “The premier league is becoming soccer’s NBA, the first global league in this sport’s history…. So the league is all consuming, particularly if you play for one of the big clubs…. The players have to give all of their concentration in every match. In no other country do players face as many demanding games a season. No clubs in any other country play as many European games as the English do.”

The points they make are valid, however, we must also note that the Premier League is home to the largest amount of international players playing anywhere – with English born players representing a small figure.

Side note – examine the Arsenal squad quickly – from our key players those on foreign international duty (not including English players) include: Ozil, Alexis, Giroud, Koscielny, Iwobi, Elneny, Ospina, Cech, Bellerin, Xhaka and Ramsey. How many play a key role for both squad and country? How much football can the body take (a question for another day).

The amount of football, Arsenal players play, is frankly insane. The need to manage fitness is paramount, and unfortunately this affects both the squad make up and its ability to compete. Don’t think fitness is important: here’s what Daneile Tognaccini, longtime chief of athletics coach at AC Milan had to say when a player has to play about 60 games a year:

“The performance is not optimal. The risk of injury is very high. We can say the risk of injury during one game, after one week’s training is 10 percent. If you pay after two days, the risk rises by 30 or 40 percent. If you are playing four or five games consecutively without the right recovery, the risk of injury is incredible. The probability of having one lesser performance is very high.”

So what do you if you are Arsenal? What does winning mean? How do you win? Do you want to win and be successful?

When you factor in the Cup contests and Continental championships, a decision needs to be made about winning. Additionally, the league rewards, its inherit flaw, simply placing in the top 4. Were this changed to the winner of the league is the only team to enter into the Champions League, well, would there be a greater focus on winning the league? Looking at the financial incentives, one can argue yes. However, the structure is not conducive to winning the league, it is conducive to winning a ‘spot’.

Factor in imbalance – Leicester, beyond being lucky benefited from playing no European matches, the same can be send about Chelsea this season, and lack of success one season can lead to better odds of winning in the Premier League. The question is: is this risk worth it?

All of this brings us to the majority owner and NOT the manager. The manager is the function of ownership. That is the goal of any owner.

The question is not: Why won’t Wenger win?

The question is: What does winning mean to Stan Kroenke?

Remember what winning in North America is like. It is singular. What does Kroenke want to win? Does he want to win the Champions League – or, more likely, reap the financial rewards every year, all the while fielding a competitive squad? Does winning the league, truly matter in a league that provides little incentive on winning the title, beyond, and let’s be honest placating the desire of a fan base? Does, or should this matter?

I challenge anyone, associated with Arsenal FC to answer these questions:

What does winning mean? Is it worth, from a human-capital standpoint to win? Should the focus be on the singularity of winning – focus efforts on either the Premier League or Champions League but not both.

I’d be interested to hear those answers.


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