Wenger's genius lies in never losing sight of bottom line
During a board meeting at St Pat's, an innocent question sprung from a simple observation. It was proposed to significantly increase the wage bill available to the manager and allocate greater funds to the director of football to sign players. It was hoped this would elevate the club from league runners-up to league champions, from also-rans to trophy winners. Those in the room with a football background made a convincing case, but it was undermined by those who understood figures.
The amounts involved far exceeded the rewards of success, ensuring an increase in annual losses no matter how the team performed. It made no sense whatsoever on financial grounds, but would be deemed a success everywhere else if a trophy was won. But given the unpredictability of football and the amount of uncontrollable variables involved, there was no guarantee it would work. Reckless spending seemed to be a prerequisite of success, so what was the point of it all? I'm still unsure how to answer that today.
It's been seven years, three months and 12 days now. The longest-serving and most successful manager in Arsenal's history has not won a trophy with the club since the FA Cup in 2005. The club has experienced longer spells in the past, but no one manager has remained in charge to oversee it. It's the stick Arsene Wenger gets hit with most often, and the one used to justify a change in regime.
All the arguments have been made several times. He's taken the club as far as he can. His best players continually desert him. He can no longer attract the biggest names. And whether it is down to him alone or the board, the current transfer policy is outdated and dysfunctional. Unless he changes his approach and his policy, Arsenal will remain in the chasing pack.
Those noises were at their loudest this time last season. The summer was spent fighting a losing battle to keep hold of key players, their replacements were dismissed as inferior impulse buys and the team had just been humiliated at Old Trafford. It's been a less-than-convincing start to this season also and off the field it's been more of the same. Robin van Persie and Alex Song have been sold, and Theo Walcott's future is far from certain. Another trophy-less season ahead?
However, fixating on the trophy drought misses the point entirely because Wenger measures success very differently. A quarter-final place in the Champions League is of more value to him than lifting the League Cup, and he's right. If the League Cup mattered more to fans than the Champions League, attendances would reflect it. If the League Cup mattered in any way to big clubs, Kenny Dalglish would still have a job. Even winning the FA Cup would not have kept him at Liverpool. His declaration that lifting trophies mattered more than finishing third or fourth in the Premier League showed how out of touch he is and how right Wenger has always been. The draw for the Champions League took place on Thursday, and for the 15th year in a row Arsenal were in it. On the same day, Liverpool were playing Hearts in the Europa League, rich reward for their League Cup success. I'm not sure where Dalglish was.
Dismissed as a selling club by some, Wenger's transfer dealings have left many fans bewildered. But Wenger lives in the economic real world, refusing to plunge the club into territory which may jeopardise involvement in Europe. It is unclear how UEFA president Michel Platini will deal with clubs whose finances fall short of the targets set by UEFA, but Arsenal have no such concerns.
And while supporters don't get high reading impressive balance sheets, they must accept finishing in
the top four is of greater value than any domestic cup when enticing players to the Emirates.
Nobody signs for clubs because they are the holders of the FA Cup. The Europa League is the prize for winning domestic cups and top players are no longer interested in that. Players of a certain standard demand Champions League involvement and Wenger consistently delivers on that. Defeat to Birmingham City in the 2011 Carling Cup final was a low point, but does anybody think a win would have changed the minds of any of the players who subsequently left?
The club is in a healthier financial position than most of its rivals and remains consistently competitive on the field. They won't win the Premier League this season, but they'll qualify from their Champions League group and finish in the top four again.
Defeat today against Liverpool and the critics will be out once more. Finishing third last season was an astonishing feat given the chaos of the first month. Wenger deserved more credit for what he achieved despite that chaos. Maybe he'd have got it if Arsenal won the Carling Cup. But he knew it didn't matter and he was right. He usually is.
Sunday Indo Sport