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Why narratives are stupid (vol. 72,836)

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The latest in a continuing series that will never, ever end.

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Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

If you’ve read any of my stuff, like, ever, first of all, thanks! And second of all, that should mean you know a few things about how I feel about the game and its attendant...stuff. One of the things I hate most, you’ll recall, is narrative.

Narrative, otherwise known as the laziest way to understand a sport in history, is basically relying on and accepting the perceptions of others as fact about a thing, without actually considering the thing itself. In sports, this plays out in many ways - it could be an assumption that a player never or always scores against a particular team, a team never or always does well against a particular opponent, or whatever.

The common thread with all of these things is that they’re never vetted. It’s really easy to look at one or two past results and say “my team never wins at (whatever place)”, when even a cursory look at a table for the last few seasons would show that, despite your team not winning there the last two times, those two losses were only two losses in a series of ten games, or whatever.

The point is, narrative doesn’t often hold up to scrutiny - it becomes narrative precisely because it’s never scrutinized, so en masse, people just shrug their shoulders and go “eh, sounds right, Arsenal suck now”.

Coming into this weekend, one of the stronger narratives about Arsenal has been that of being surpassed. It’s been “Spurs are ascendant, Arsenal are in a decline”. And again, at first glance, sure! Spurs had a great season last year, finishing second and not winning a trophy, while Arsenal’s streak of consecutive Champions League appearances stopped at 19, and Arsenal finished outside the top four for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s 20 year tenure as manager.

Given the evidence of that one season, and of the overall improvement in Spurs’ quality under Mauricio Pocchettino, it would be very easy to buy into that “Power Shift In North London” narrative, should you be so inclined. It would also, however, be wrong.

Why? Economics, mostly. For all of Spurs’ recent success on the field, they’re about to enter into a period that Arsenal know all too well - the period in which they’re building a stadium and have to pay for it. The difference between Arsenal’s stadium and Spurs’ is substantial - it’s estimated that Spurs’ stadium will cost around £800 million when all is said and done (and it will in all likelihood cost more, as construction is just getting started), as compared to the total cost of the Emirates of £390 million.

Arsenal, as we all know, took a number of cut-price sponsorship deals up front in cash in 2005 to help pay for the stadium, and that, plus Arsenal’s consistent record of success and presence in the Champions League, enabled them to structure their debt in such a way that its annual payments are, while still ongoing, very manageable in the scheme of things with their current cash flow, even while being out of the Champions League.

And here’s where things get tricky for Spurs. They do not have the record that Arsenal have, and haven’t in their history. So, while they are in no way broke, they also don’t have the financial head start that a team like Arsenal has. This article, from March of this year, contains a very interesting graphic:

In that chart, it’s easy to see how far behind Spurs lag in commercial income relative to Arsenal, who it should be noted also lags behind the big boys in the league in that regard. And that Nike deal for Spurs’ kit is brand new.

Spurs’ match day revenue will almost certainly catch up to Arsenal’s when their new stadium comes on line, but that gap in things like broadcast revenue, commercial revenue, and kit deal income? That gap only closes with the kind of sustained success that makes sponsors think your team’s a good bet over the long haul.

How does a Premier League team achieve sustained success? By spending a lot of money on a very regular basis, that’s how. And Spurs, at least for the next few years, won’t have a lot of money to spend, thanks to that shiny new stadium they’re building.

Back to the narrative for a minute. That narrative says Arsenal are steadily getting worse, right? Well, in the 10 seasons before last season, with the exception of 2015/16, Arsenal finished either third or fourth in each. Last season, Arsenal finished fifth.

They haven’t gotten markedly worse, they’re basically treading water and not getting better. Even if they finish fifth again this year, that doesn’t make them worse. That makes them consistent at a lower level than we’d like, sure, but hardly makes them a team two years away from staving off relegation, or a team that’s on the receiving end of a permanent power shift.

Arsenal are, I believe, 10 years away from paying off their debt, and their (fixed) annual payments are less than £35 million if memory serves. Spurs, on the other hand, are just starting to incur their stadium debt. They have spent the last two years furiously pushing all their chips to the middle of the table, and it would seem that this year is their golden opportunity to do something big.

After this year, if they have a similar year to last year, a lot of big teams are going to be waving a lot of big dollars at Spurs players, in order to tempt them away. And in order to replace them, Spurs will have to spend a lot of big dollars of their own - we can banter all we want, but Harry Kane and Dele Alli are really good players. They will cost a ton to replace. And what if someone can bend Pocchettino’s ear and convince him to go elsewhere?

Starting next year, Spurs may not in fact have a ton of money to spend - take another look at that chart above, and tell me where Harry Kane/Dele Alli replacement money’s gonna come from. If Spurs don’t find a way, while also paying almost a billion dollars for a stadium, to replicate what they’re doing now with other players, this whole ascendancy thing might be over before it begins, and Spurs may end up being the David Moyes-era Everton of the late 2010’s.

So, long story short - he said 1100 words in - don’t believe the narrative you’re being peddled. Spurs are a good team, absolutely, but so are Arsenal, and they have a track record. Let’s just pump the brakes on the “power shift” thing for a few years, OK?