The Gunners boss is regularly criticised for believing a third- or fourth- place finish is better than winning a domestic cup trophy, but it makes clear financial senseCOMMENT
By Julian Bennetts
Arsene Wenger has often been credited with revolutionising football in England. Now, subtly, football has hit back, launching a counter-revolution of its own, one of which The Professor is a leading proponent.
When Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1997, dietary supplements and yoga were seen as the ideas of a lunatic.
Now, putting every effort into winning trophies is seen as lunacy, certainly when there is the tantalising possibility of a Champions League qualifier at stake.
Priorities are skewed, success relative. The goal is no longer a day out at Wembley and the chance of an FA Cup winners medal. Instead, the aim is to travel to Cluj, to Braga, to Zagreb in the Champions League.
Wenger makes no apology for this – and he certainly did not as he explained why at Arsenal's AGM on Thursday - and nor should he. His duty is to his club, and as world football has become condensed to the choice of a satellite television channel, romance has drained away.
It used to be that European qualification offered fans a chance to see players and teams they knew little about. In the modern age, established stars are drawn to the 'project' of playing in war-torn Dagestan, as long as they are recompensed to the tune of £350,000-per-week.
Should Samuel Eto'o and his friends at Anzhi Makhachkala worry about where their money has come from, considering that the average monthly wage in Dagestan is £156? Perhaps.
Does Wenger worry about how Anzhi are funded? Certainly, in that it affects his own club. If a genuinely world-class player such as Eto'o is worth such an exorbitant sum, how about one of slightly less ability – someone such as former Russia captain Andrey Arshavin, for example.
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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to one very respected eye, Arshavin is worth £80,000-per-week. Wenger has little choice but to react to the inflationary nature of football by paying premium talents more, and wages at Arsenal are now £143m, an increase of £19m on the previous financial year.
So how is that funded? Winning a trophy is one option. After all, the latest winners of the FA Cup (Chelsea, in case you had forgotten) got to take home a cheque for £1.8m last season. Mind you, they could focus on qualifying for the Champions League.
Taking part in the group stage of the Champions League is estimated to be worth £40m. Advance further and the figures rise dramatically, with Chelsea thought to have earned £48m in prize money alone for winning last season's competition.
Two seasons ago Arsenal raised ticket prices by 6.5 per cent. That will bring an extra £4m annually into the club's coffers. In comparison, the difference between being knocked out in the last 16 or the quarter-finals of the Champions League is £8m. Resting your key players for FA Cup and League Cup games is hardly a surprise when those are the figures at stake.
Many feel that such a state of affairs is hugely depressing. Players used to measure their careers by what they had won, and fans by trophies they had seen their teams lift. Now, there is an acceptance of the new status quo, one that has quickly taken hold.
It has come from the decision to expand the European Cup into the bloated, money-spinning tournament it has now become, one where finishing 21 points behind Manchester United – as Arsenal did in 2006-07 – is something to be proud of.
In many respects, it is simply capitalism taken to its natural conclusion. Big business does not care about the source of your money, simply how much of it you have. The champions of Europe are bankrolled by a Russian oligarch, the champions of England by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
For Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and the rest, competing with such inexhaustible financial backing is, well, exhausting. They have to find new and innovative ways of increasing their revenue streams, as well as maintaining established ones such as Champions League qualification – and even then they may only stand still.
So if you want romance, don't expect it from the FA Cup. If you want heart-warming tales and against-the-odds triumphs, then a sport that has been caught up in a series of racist disputes for what seems an eternity probably isn't for you.
Instead, the battle for fourth place in the Premier League will be as hard-fought as ever. Blame Samuel Eto'o for that. Blame Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour if you want. But don't blame Arsene Wenger for talking about a truth that is already self-evident.