Photograph: Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The View From Down Under

As I write, it’s Monday evening – and I’ve been up since 3:20am when I awoke to watch our first home game of the new season; complete with a full house, and some new players.

I need to download; and it may take a while. So, go and grab a cuppa, a beer, a dram, a bucket… and get comfortable. This may not be a quick read.

But I won’t talk about that match, as it’s pretty much what we expected (even if we hoped otherwise) and there’s plenty of content out there for anyone wanting to increase their frustration and probably their blood pressure.

What I’d like to look at is where we are, how we got here, and being me – what a best (or at least, better) case outcome for us in terms of moving forward from where we are.

Figuratively if not literally, because however we might want to spin it; things aren’t good right now.

Professionally, I’m an organisational training and development specialist; and I’m going to utilise a similar approach to look at:
– Where we are
– How we got here
– Where we want to be
– What we need to get there.

So, here goes:
Currently, we’re a mid-table club. Yeah, yeah, I know… we’re top club, we’re The Arsenal, we’ve got a big stadium, turnover, market capitalisation… etc, etc… sorry – but it hurts me to type as much as it hurts you to read. Though results don’t lie. We’ve been eighth for the last two seasons; and last season we needed some decent performances to get above tenth.

Sure, we’re on the upper side of mid. But we’re not in Europe, and after the start we’re having to this season – it’s early days and we’ve had some shitty luck, but there’s a lot of teams ahead of us.

We’ve got a Manager with limited experience and hopefully a high upside. We’ve got a Technical Director with no prior European experience (in a DoF sense) and hopefully a high upside, and we’ve got a playing group with too many experienced, relatively highly paid, relatively low performing players; and high potential, inexperienced, better value players who in many cases aren’t ready to be regular first-teamers.

Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Yet. Sure, some will mature quicker than others– but in the meantime, we have a chasm in the middle where we ideally would have a solid core of 24-29-year-olds that form the heart of our squad; with perhaps 2-4 others from the slightly younger and older groups.

This hasn’t happened overnight. Since the 2016-17 season when we failed to qualify for the UCL for the first time since Arsene Wenger’s early days, the gap between ourselves and the top clubs has been growing. Though the signs of our decline were there earlier… we can all remember the “4 th is like a trophy” gag… which like many gags, had more than an element
of truth to it. And why might that be?

One could look at the ownership, and there are certainly some factors there which we must consider. The key factor being: what do KSE want to take out of AFC? And conversely, what are KSE able (and willing) to put into AFC to achieve it?

You needn’t look far across North America and KSE’s portfolio to see that they’re not in it for the glory of winning championships and competitions. Unfortunately for us, the sporting franchises they own are not known for winning. Sure, following a pretty dusty decade and a half (with a losing record every year), the LA Rams won the NFC in 2018 but fell to the Pats come Superbowl time. And the Denver Nuggets won a few division titles in the mid to late noughties and again in the last couple of seasons; but no conference titles or championships shows that they’ve never been quite able to foot it with the elite franchises… hmmm…parallels.

Photograph: Sky Sports

Similar but perhaps to a lesser degree with the Colorado Avalanche in the NHL, and as for the Colorado Rapids across more than 20 seasons in the MLS? An MLS cup in 2010 and their first playoff appearance in 2020, where they went home after the first round.

If about now is the time when you need a straw to clutch, look up another KSE entity; the Colorado Mammoth… and no, I’d not heard of them either.
So… what do KSE want out of owning Arsenal? Well, I don’t actually know – but the fact that they were really keen to get us into the ESL (remember that?) to me indicates that it’s not about on-field success. As such.
I expect it’s more about commercial factors (read: moolah), and the prospect of having a slice of the huge potential global broadcasting rights generated by one of the biggest sporting clubs in the world, particularly in competition/s where said club also has a stake.

Photograph: IAN KINGTON/Getty Images

Due to its numerous flaws and imbalances across multiple levels of the game, I’m glad the ESL fell over, but these owners are playing a long game. They’ll be back.

The one silver lining could be if and when KSE realise they can’t afford to let our club slip further toward mediocrity and if they don’t in fact reverse this trend rather quickly, then in all likelihood when the future broadcasting and competitions are next allocating seats at their table – Arsenal won’t have enough weight to hold one down. And I don’t think that
appeals.

My optimistic tendencies are lead me to think this is why we’ve invested so much in players thus far in this window despite shifting relatively few on; at least with much in the way of revenue coming in (Joe Willock being the obvious exception).

So that’s where we are and how we got here following a good period of relative success since the late 90’s. We have an imbalanced squad, struggling to perform against the league

elite – and to be fair, others across the league. Remember the good old days when we got 4 th most seasons’ when regularly losing to the top few teams and usually winning at home and rarely losing away to pretty much everyone else? Good times.

But we’re not there anymore.

So, what do we need to get there?

Clearly, the league has moved on at a faster rate than has Arsenal. For much of the last 5-10 years it seems as though we’ve looked to plug gaps in our squad, with varying degrees of success. Meanwhile, our competitors have strengthened their squads more broadly – either by bringing in (generally) younger players, or in many cases by spending more than we’ve been able to; both in transfer fees and/or wages.

And what about our competition? We’ve seen City stroll away into the distance, Chelsea after a bit of circle working look to have hitched up their strides and are marching off in a similar direction. United are doing their three steps forward four steps backward but may finally be reversing that balance (though of course, we hope not). Liverpool are a quality side if they can stay relatively injury free.

Leicester are beginning to perform with a level of consistency that reminds me of another club a few years back that I may have mentioned earlier.

I mean, we haven’t even had St Totteringham’s Day since 2017. Truly desperate times!

And that’s notwithstanding the increasingly weak results we’ve had against other clubs in the last couple of seasons. Sure; Covid, blah, no crowds, blah, lower revenue, blah… none of these factors/excuses are unique to Arsenal.

So, what is? It’s easy to identify the ownership, and there may be some validity in doing so – but that doesn’t address the fact that we could do better with the resources we have; and there are other examples across the league, and across Europe of clubs who do, consistently.

As a club, there’s little denying we’ve made some truly bizarre decisions in recent years… contract extensions, wage increases, incoming transfers, outgoing transfers, contract terminations, etc etc. There’s been some weird ones – and if you’ve read this far, you can probably think of more than a few pretty quickly. I’m not going to analyse specific instances, suffice to say that as a club we’ve lacked direction, process, clarity, application, vision,
leadership, and don’t start me on the club’s muddled communication strategy (if such a strategy even exists).

Of all the factors I just identified, there’s one that stands out – primarily because if we get it right, the other stuff will eventually follow.

Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Leadership.

I’m not here to call out any of the club’s leaders – and to be honest, absolutely zero shits would (rightly) be given if I did. But in saying that, it’s pretty clear that we’ve a lot of holes on the pitch, and we’ve a lot of holes on it.

As much as I tire of hearing Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Lee Dixon, and other former greats of our club continually banging on about the lack of leadership in our defence, team, or club – you can’t escape the fact that they’re dead right.

I’ve worked with, and for a lot of leaders over many years; I’ve also developed and run numerous leadership development programs. The one constant message for any aspiring leader is the understanding that being a valued, effective, respected leader comes after being a valued, effective, and respected leader. Sure, there are exceptions – can you think of any? Nah, me neither actually… you can’t be a good leader until you’ve been a good
leader.

Then when people see you’re a good leader, the trust will grow, the team will grow, the performance will improve… but good leaders create the environment to do so – whilst accommodating the individuals within their team/s as necessary (and in doing so, creating clear expectations, boundaries, support, and consequences).

Doing this is challenging without experience. And within Arsenal’s “leadership group” for want of a better term, we don’t have a whole lot of experience… either on the pitch, in the football department, or the broader executive. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No… but it’s going to take time.

Photograph: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

I’m pleased that we finally seem to have learned some lessons around our recruitment and contracting, bringing in younger players with much better upsides from a performance and commercial perspective. That can only be positive moving forward.

Though it’s not enough to right the ship in the short term… and the fans want results now – as we should.

Today’s loss meant this season is the first time in 128 years Arsenal has ever begun a season without a point or a goal from our first two games. Luckily, we’re playing Mikel Arteta’s previous employer next, so I’m sure that’ll go well.

I take solace in the hope we may, at last, be making some good decisions around some strategies and some processes which are clearly long overdue.

The reality is that these decisions will take some time to bear fruit.
Despite the addition of Richard Garlick as Football Operations Director, who looks to be a positive acquisition early in his tenure, we still lack experience in key roles off the pitch. We also lack experience (at the levels we would expect of a top-six club) in our technical, management, and, in our playing group. This experience can be gained; but how long will that take?

The consensus seems to be the owners are behind the Arteta/Edu rebuild. And for what it’s worth; so am I – it absolutely has to happen, and it’s a clear case of better late than never, lest we continue the slide further towards, well, downward.

My issue is whether we have the right people navigating, leading, and steering us forward.

Photograph: Sky Sports

And that’s no reflection of any individual concerns, it’s about a lack of experience in the key roles of CEO, Technical Director, Manager, and our on-field leadership also, both at the pointy end but equally in terms of depth. Beyond Auba (who could be sold), our two other on-field captains tend to be either Laca (who would be sold if we can find him a home) and
Xhaka, who seemed to have found a home until Jose forgot which part of the mattress he put the money – only to find it again when a young, English forward who wanted to come to Arsenal became available. Bluddy Jose. Again.

Anyway, I reckon that’s about enough for my first “piece”. And please remember – before telling me exactly how, where, and why I’m wrong, this is just one person’s opinion… I don’t present myself as any sort of expert; I’m just an Arsenal fan in New Zealand, with a keyboard and the internet, who wants what’s best for our club – pretty much just like you (and if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading).

TLDR: We’re in for a long road back to where we want to be, and it’s not going to be a straight line to get there. There’ll be bumps, there’ll be bruises, there’ll be a sore arse, and perhaps the odd more serious injury too… but I never chose Arsenal – Arsenal chose me, so I’m in it for the long haul, and the hope that eventually, we can scale the heights again. And there is no doubt that we can… the doubt is if we will, and if so, when.

Get comfortable and strap yourself in, this ride may get a little bumpy.

Luckily, sometimes the best journeys aren’t the smoothest.

Cory Smith
Arsenal New Zealand