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Premier League economics mean Arsenal are ‘best of the rest’


Chelsea v Arsenal - FA Community Shield
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

I saw a tweet earlier that made me think a little bit. Which, given that it was a tweet, was something amazing, because Twitter I mean come on now. Annnnnnyway, this was that tweet:

Now, first things first: this tweet is wrong. And also, it’s misleading.

It’s wrong because it doesn’t include wins at Manchester City last year, and both Liverpool and Spurs in 2013/14. It’s misleading because the “current top six” doesn’t include, among others, last year’s champions, who Arsenal beat both home and away. There’s a legitimate point to be made about Arsenal struggling against big teams over time, but this tweet doesn’t make it very well at all.

That said, though, Arsenal do tend to get to a point where they do well and then stop doing better, and in most seasons actively do worse (relatively). There have been many words spent debating why this is, most of which have to do with mental fragility, but that’s not really what I’m here to talk about today.

I have, since the stadium construction days, always thought of Arsenal as the sort of best of the second tier, if you will, in England. They can’t realistically compete financially with the petrodollar clubs, and they’re not the money printing machine that Manchester United is. If you exclude those clubs from the equation, you have a tranche of teams like Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Everton; good teams who occasionally do very, very well but otherwise stay in their lane.

These are teams who are good enough to, in Arsenal’s case, play in the Champions League every year, or like Liverpool and Spurs, get there every few years but, either way, never make significant noise in the tournament. They’re teams who flirt with league greatness every year but never seem to get to the pinnacle, because that pinnacle is taken over by the ultra-rich, and there’s no room up there for the merely obscenely rich.

Last year was the obvious exception to this, but the biggest, richest clubs were all very much in various shades of trainwreck mode last year, so we got the fun of having an “outsider” - not ultra rich, not obscenely rich, just single-digit millionaire rich - win the championship. But that is very much the exception, and probably won’t happen again any time soon.

But let’s take a look at that band of “second tier” teams I mentioned above. Looking at league finishes over the last several seasons, you start to see that Arsenal are easily the best team in that group:

Average Finishing Position Since 2008

Team Average Finish
Team Average Finish
Arsenal 3rd
Liverpool 6th
Spurs 6th
Everton 7th

(Raw data here)

So, yeah. Everyone jokes about how Arsenal always finish fourth; they don’t. But they do average a third place finish, year in and year out, for 10 years now, which is admirable because that streak actually goes back 20 years, and not a single team in England - not even Manchester United - can say that they’ve never finished lower than fourth in every one of the last 20 seasons.

This all brings up the big question, though - is that as high as Arsenal can go? This is not a debate about what Arsenal or its fans “deserve”, because that debate is tedious and annoying (because the answer is “nothing” - clubs earn things, they don’t get them because they’re deserved, and fans are just along for the ride), but even given that, the question of “Is Arsenal a club that should regularly be winning titles?” is a legitimate one.

One way of answering that, in the raw capitalist world of the Premier League, is to look at wage spend. It has been shown that a team’s wage spend (Wage spend, NOT transfer fees - this is a very important distinction) correlates strongly to their league finishing position.

According to this article, 47 of the 56 top four places available between 2001 and this article’s September 2015 date went to clubs with the top four wage spends in the league in any given season. There are any number of other studies, articles, and discussions about wage spend and league position to be found; the linked one was just the easiest to absorb for people like me who aren’t good at math.

So where does that leave Arsenal, who routinely have a top-four wage bill? I said I’m not good at math, so when I say that gives them a 25% chance of winning a title I’m almost certainly wrong so I probably shouldn’t say it even though it was a joke. But, given that Arsenal can’t or won’t compete with the petrodollar clubs for wages, and given that the economic climate of the Premier League will only change going forward in ways that amplify the current situation and don’t upend it, I’m not sure it’s realistic to think that Arsenal can be a title-winning club on a regular basis.

The only way to crack that ceiling is to pour in money, and Arsenal don’t do that - to put it in ways probably nine of us will ever understand, Arsenal are a 403(b) in a 401(k) world. They’re built for long-term predictable results, which by design smooths out the occasional spike, both downward and, crucially, upward.

Arsenal don’t take risks, they don’t sponsor every living thing, and they don’t spend more than they feel is prudent. And all this is good! But what that means is that Arsenal don’t realistically look like a team that can win a title - “flatter to deceive” is a big ol’ sports cliche, but in this case it has merits. Arsenal have all the look of a title winning team, but when the wheels start to turn, Arsenal’s turn fast, but at the same time they turn slower than those of the Manchesters or Chelsea.

There are legitimate questions to be asked about Arsenal’s mental fortitude against the ‘big clubs’ on the pitch. If even half of the losses in the above tweet are turned into wins, I’m not writing this article, and I’m instead writing articles about how I can’t figure out where Arsenal are going to store all the trophies they keep winning. But they aren’t wins, and here we are again, at what seems to be Arsenal’s ceiling, wondering whether this is as good as it can ever get for Arsenal.