Ivan’s Era

Historically, Arsenal have been a conservative club, but one that makes audacious moves at the right time. Executively speaking, we’ve had a good mix of bean counters and audacious entrepreneurs. When the club was threatened with near bankruptcy after the second world war, Bracewell-Smith’s austere chairmanship kept us solvent and competitive. As we transitioned from Highbury to the Emirates, Keith Edelman was Arsenal’s Managing Director. He was somewhat unloved because he wasn’t much of a football man, but his belt tightening business acumen represented what we needed at the time. The need eventually expired and he was moved on.

When the club looked as though it would follow countless others onto the scrapheap of extinct Victorian clubs, Henry Norris pulled us up by our bootstraps and planted us a few miles across town. A hugely enterprising move which catapulted Arsenal from water-treaders to one of English football’s best known institutions. Indeed, the symbiosis between Arsenal’s administrators and their entrepreneurs was probably best illuminated a generation ago by the formidable boardroom partnership of David Dein and Danny Fiszman.

Arsenal’s relative conservatism has translated into a steady on pitch history. We’re a team that pops up every few years, wins a league or two and a couple of cups, before bobbing down a touch for a few more years. We’re never relegated, yet (one time apart) we don’t win back to back league titles and we don’t win European cups. The early 1980s is talked about as something of a dark era for Arsenal. From 1980-1985 our league finishes were as follows: 4th, 3rd, 5th, 10th, 6th, 7th. That’s hardly terrible. In my time as a season ticket holder, I have seen us finish 10th and 12th.

The administration of the club has been judicious and stable. Yet when revolution was required, it was staged in a largely bloodless coup. When mediocrity threatened in the mid 90s, we signed Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt (who was England’s captain at the time). In 2001, after a few years of cup final defeats and watching United wrap up the league title by April, we signed Sol Campbell. When our early 80s relative malaise kicked in, we beat Manchester United and Liverpool to the signature of Charlie Nicholas. In the late 60s, when the sheen of the 30s had well and truly warn off following a series of conservative managerial appointments, Arsenal appointed their physiotherapist as manager and won the Double.

How will Ivan Gazidis be viewed as an Arsenal administrator in the years to come? Though criticism has increased over the last 2-3 years, there is still a fierce loyalty to Arsene Wenger within the Arsenal fan base. Orchestrated cries for his head have yet to be aired inside the ground. The frustration is instead camouflaged beneath broader pleas. “We want our Arsenal back!” or “Ivan Gazidis, what the fuck do you do?!” Is there another team in England that responds to a defeat at Old Trafford by sledging the CEO? Even the forthright supporters group Black Scarf steer clear of discussing the manager.

This summer, Arsenal are talking themselves up as approaching Super Club status with the financial muscle now available to them. There still some who, out of fierce loyalty and, I think, confirmation bias, have chosen to interpret Gazidis’ bullish proclamations as proof that the board have been hamstringing Wenger all along and are only making money available to him now. Personally, I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a distinction to be made between “we have a bit more money now” and “we didn’t have any before.”

The manager has made some mistakes with that money and had some successes with it too. I see little evidence that the board have been holding back on what’s available to him. Leaving aside the deals we have done in the last few years, we have bid big for players we’ve not subsequently acquired such as Mata, Goetze, Reina and even Felipe Melo some five years ago. I think the truth is that, if Wenger doesn’t get exactly who he wants then he puts his wallet away.

Nobody understood the restrictions stadium debt would put on us better than Wenger, who pushed so hard for the Emirates. But I don’t think the board have been holding back on him. I don’t think he would have stood for it if they had. We’ve been constrained by the competitive landscape in the last 3-4 years, but that handicap is a little less pronounced this summer. This talk of our increased spending power reminds me a little of the Sorites paradox, more commonly known as ‘The Paradox of the Heap.’

We may have a little more, but we’re still competing for a small pool of players with better resourced clubs. Especially since PSG and Monaco have come into the marketplace. Gazidis’ messaging on FFP has become more lukewarm. Whether that’s sensitivity to criticism for hanging his hat on it, or whether his faith has wavered is open for conjecture. However, given our rhetoric in the last month, nobody will settle for more perceived torpor in the transfer market this summer. One can hardly blame Gazidis, having been lampooned so consistently. As Gunnerblog points out, he’s entitled to stick up for himself.

As Arsenal look to make the final jump to European superpower, Gazidis’ ‘era’ will need to be characterised by audacity rather than auditing. He’s delivering a very sensitive message politically. He’s caught between respecting the manager’s autonomy in transfer market and pointing out that he has made greater tools available to him. One wonders what Arsene Wenger feels about the dynamic message emanating from the club. As this piece points out with increased resource comes increased pressure on him.

Gazidis has tempered his talking up of the capital Arsenal’s executives have made available by fully endorsing Arsene Wenger. At Monday night’s Q & A, the question about the manager’s contract came from compere Dan Roebuck, right at the beginning of the evening. Gazidis wanted that message of trust to radiate from the outset. This, before he gave the extended disco version of “I’ve held up my end of the bargain” peppered with regular “I trust Arsene Wenger with his” backing vocals. But are they singing from the same hymn-sheet in harmony?

You have to assume that Wenger is “on message” with this uncharacteristic display of our new found plume. He is not a stupid man. If this public peacocking were all a subtle ploy to pressure him to spend and detract some heat from the board, Wenger would see through it like a CAT scan. It would be a compromising game of brinkmanship if the club really want him to sign new terms too, because make no mistake, this puts extra pressure on him this summer. In any case, I know I would be incredibly worried if Wenger, having pushed so hard for a new stadium, needed to be lobbied to spend the booty it brought.

Arsenal has always been a  club of relative conservatism that makes the big moves when they are necessary. Ivan Gazidis thinks Arsenal are on the brink of Superclub status, name checking Bayern Munich as a reference point, and that we are ready to behave like one. Gazidis is still backing Arsene Wenger as the man to carry the final destination of this journey through. The extent to which Wenger is on the same page will colour the perception of Gazidis’ administration for years to come. It could colour the perception of Wenger’s too. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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