By, Aldemaro Narvaez
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War
My brother, Alfredo, and I are separated by 14 months and very little else. We grew up close. Went to the same elementary (primary) school, high (secondary) school, and graduated from the same college in Memphis, Tennessee. We support the same ice hockey team, basketball team, and American football team (New Orleans Saints). We agree on many things. But, when we began rooting for clubs in English football, Fredo chose Arsenal Football Club while I preferred objectively the best club in London. At least nobody chose Spurs.
Whenever we see each other, inevitably the conversation turns to football, and we are constantly questioning the mentality, strategy, and results from each of our clubs. With the third meeting of Chelsea and Arsenal in the month of January just a few days away, Fredo and I decided to ask each other some of those questions that opposing supporters would ask fans of a rival club.
Aldemaro_CFC: With the strengthening of clubs like Liverpool, Spurs, and City, is a fourth-place trophy still status quo for Arsenal or will a repeat of Europa League occur more often?
A: The fact is that most of the clubs not willing to spend over the odds will end up having to fight for Champions League places now. Even if they do, it’s 4 spots and 6 teams. That means two will be always left on the outside looking in. The easiest way to avoid that is to spend and put yourself in a position of strength to fight off the others. Man City have done that. Liverpool are doing that. Man United are desperate to do that as are Arsenal. The status quo is gone because now you’re not guaranteed even that fourth place trophy even if you do spend. You now have to spend smartly.
Fredo_AFC: Chelsea broke through on the strength of their owner’s financial support and a Premier League that wasn’t ready for the influx of money that was about to hit it. With the new TV deals creating a new financial reality, how are Chelsea working to stay ahead of the pack?
A: The new TV deals have, I suppose, given Premier League clubs higher stacks of money with which to buy players; however, other leagues have done a good job of hiking up transfer fees on English clubs. The influx of TV cash has had an impact, but the unintended consequences have negated the effects of that windfall.
For Chelsea, the current strategy is to buy young and sell high. That includes targeted, established players in their early to mid-twenties that could fetch a decent transfer fee at the end of their contract, and academy players that don’t make it to the squad. The hoarding of young talent has provided us some gems that made it to the starting 11 like Andreas Christensen and—okay, just Christensen—but there are plenty of others that seem on the cusp of pushing for their place in Conte’s team if given the chance to grow. Amazingly, our youth policy is both our biggest asset and failure. The string of thirteen managers since 2000 have all needed to pass on youth for established veterans to save their hide and meet the board’s lofty expectations for silverware and Champions League bounty. Further development of our exceptional youth prospects through two-year loans and sale of certain players with buyback agreements would continue to provide cover to the big fee players being brought to the club. At this time, however, Chelsea are less “ahead of the pack” and more “trying to keep up” because of what often appears as the club’s bipolar nature in their hierarchy of needs.
Aldemaro_CFC: Is the Emirates still a destination for world class players, or have years of lackluster transfer and stingy contract negotiations given an air of “baller on a budget” to put off attracting the marquee names?
A: Players chase the money first and always. They’re professional. It’s why so many ply their trade in China now, despite the total lack of footballing pedigree in their league. The catch has always been that the best players want to play for the biggest clubs because they win and because winning for them helped raise their profiles commercially. David Beckham doesn’t become David Beckham if he’s playing for Bournemouth or Sevilla. The difficult catch at Arsenal has been that the allure for world class players has been to play for Arsene Wenger in an Arsene Wenger-styled team, i.e. free-flowing attacks and counterattacks. Now that he’s become the reason for many of the issues at Arsenal, it’s tough to resolve the duality. Mesut Ozil doesn’t come to Arsenal for Sam Allardyce. Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey picked Arsenal because of Arsene Wenger. So one hand, the best reason to come to Arsenal is also the biggest reason why Arsenal run into the same issues year after year.
Fredo_AFC: Is there a concern that Man City has leapt ahead of Chelsea as the de facto strongest team in the league? How do you close that gap?
A: It’s obvious that City were playing chess while those around them were playing beer pong. City managed to get pieces in place like Txiki Begisistain and Ferran Soriano in their front office, players like Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus on the pitch, and remained competitive while they waited to make a move for Pep. They have the financial muscle to purchase almost any player and a type of football that is attractive to any potential target. There is the potential that City fall back to the pack if their wage structure goes off the rails and players begin to ask for more money, or if their spending gets them into hot water with FIFA FFP (insert laugh here), but those scenarios seem a few years away at best.
The proper way to close the gap is by getting transfers correct and limiting the uncertainty in the club hierarchy. Clear direction is essential. That has been the failure of Arsenal and Chelsea. Red London has gone from being commanded by the great General Lafayette in 1780 to being commanded by the once great General Lafayette in 2018. Blue London has been led by everyone from Napoleon Bonaparte to Napoleon Bonaparte’s Spanish waiter. In either case, both London clubs need to get their generals and troops in order.
Aldemaro_CFC: From an outsider’s perspective, Arsenal FC seems in great position to outbid others for the services of world class players. Why does the Arsenal board spend like a grandmother’s Christmas budget with so much money in the bank?
A: That’s down to Stan Kroenke and his hands-off approach. On the one hand, it means he does not meddle in the running of the club’s day-to-day operations. On the other, he’s not going to be there to tell Wenger and Gazidis that spending 150M pounds on a talent like Mbappe, for example, might be worthwhile. Kroenke’s approach across his various clubs, teams, and franchises is spend just enough to remain good enough. American sports give him some cover in this but there is a reason none of his sides have ever won a championship.
Fredo_AFC: How do you improve Chelsea’s attack this season? Do you just wait for Morata to figure things out?
A: On the pitch, go back to the 3-4-3. I understand the reasons for the change to the 3-5-2, but Chelsea is better served by playing to our overall team strength out wide. The interchange of our wingbacks and wingers provide flow to our attack, and bringing in Cesc at the right time often cracked stubborn defenses open during the second half of games last season. At times we may be well served to go with a five-man midfield, but asking Moses and Alonso to do all the heavy lifting out wide twice each week has only served to wear them out and make them ineffective or get them injured.
As for Morata, Granovskaia is not the type of Director that will chase a 60M pound striker with a 35-40M pound up-and-coming forward in January. So, it’ll be a bit of bargain bin shopping for an older forward in January. Conte obviously doesn’t rate Batshuayi very highly (or at all) finding him much too raw for his liking, but the alternatives that the Chelsea board have reportedly targeted this January window makes it crystal clear that: 1. Someone at the club has a great or horrible sense of humor and 2. They will not upset their shiny new star by bringing anyone that can overtake him in the starting 11.
I like Morata a lot. Chelsea need to give him plenty of time to adjust and excel in the EPL, but it will be kid gloves until at least the end of the summer. Hopefully we can incorporate Tammy Abraham into the squad next term, and whoever we manage to bring in during the January transfer window pushes Morata to a higher level.
Aldemaro_CFC: What does the future hold for the Gunners?
A: Transition. Lots and lots of transition. The fact is, even if he’s not the problem, Arsene Wenger has demonstrated an inability to find the solution. I’m of the mind the club and he will part ways this summer. The two-year deal given to him last summer was a roll of the dice. “Hey, you just won the FA Cup again and maybe you, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Per Mertesacker can all bring the team together and finally win the PL trophy! We’ll even buy that striker you’ve needed for last 3 seasons!” It was not the worst idea but they couldn’t countenance Man City’s season or that Alexis really wanted to go in the summer to join them or that Mertesacker was done while Koscielny and Mustafi have picked up injuries. Now with a director of football, a new contract negotiator and new head scout/player personnel director in place, I think the reality is Arsene will get a chance to say farewell at season’s end. Beyond that, we’ve a squad that’s either too old (Koscielny, Monreal, Cech) or too young (Iwobi, Maitland-Niles) or the guys in the sweet peak spot are too injured (Wilshere, Welbeck, Ramsey). Whoever comes in next has an overhaul.
Aldemaro_CFC: Give me the top four things you would do to change Arsenal for the better in the next five years.
- Devise a post-Wenger management plan. If that is bringing in established players like Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan and then hiring Ancelotti to oversee things for next 3 years while the squad matures, so be it. If that is chasing Max Allegri or Joachim Low to take over post-WC with a Brinks truck of cash and letting him do what he wills, so be it.
- Begin stocking up on young talent. Despite the revenues, we aren’t going to be paying anyone 500k pounds a week any time soon. Nor paying 200M quid as transfer fees. That means finding talent and developing it. Something we were famous for years ago but seem to be falling short in the last few years. We still have kids coming through, but that feels more of a desperation move than a planned growth strategy.
- Build inroads with the fanbase. The calcification of the last decade of fighting, feuding and general foolishness among Gooners won’t be broken up in one summer or by one hire. But they have to work towards helping supporters who’ve felt dismissed, betrayed or that have feuded with the club come back into the fold. Not all will, but you have to extend olive branches. Winning will fix a lot, but need to get people on board to avoid the usual happy-to-mad cycle we are on. A committed supporters base helps build that home fortress advantage that clubs seek.
- Exercise some of that power we have. Arsenal are the 4th-5th richest club in the world. We used to have David Dein as our face in a lot of the backrooms and power structures of the game. That allowed Arsenal to muscle in and keep up with the bigger boys. Since his ouster, Arsenal have been tiptoeing around the world of football and letting clubs bully them. We’re too nice. Say whatever you want about Real or Barca or PSG or Bayern, they aren’t bullied about. Not by agents or their FAs.
Fredo_AFC: What happens if Antonio Conte leaves at this season’s end? Who replaces him?
A: Something in me says that Conte is gone, and I’m not happy at all in thinking that. Body language, track suits, beards, and getting into grouchy, old man war of words with Mourinho tell me he’s getting fed up with England. A deep dose of the pressures that comes with Chelsea cannot help at all in getting him settled or convince him to stay. He may try to see what assurances he gets and what happens during the early portion of the transfer window, but I think he will return to Italy in the summer if we don’t make strides the second half of this term. Besides, he managed to win the Premiership title in his maiden voyage and he would leave the club having bested a lot of what his predecessors did. I genuinely hope I’m wrong.
As for potential replacements, I know Chelsea will initially look to tempt Simeone out of Atleti. But getting the Argentine may be far more difficult than just splashing the cash as he has a language barrier to vault, will be limited in his ability to acquire the players he wants to bring in, and he just got the band back together with Diego Costa in their brand-new stadium. I just don’t see Simeone leaving for Roman’s rubles this summer.
Other targets like Jardim (Monaco), Sarri (Napoli), Zindane (if sacked by Real),or Ancelotti are decent options, but the right choice is Max Allegri. He would build on Conte’s work and provide a far subtler personality to the recent string of hot-tempered Chelsea first team coaches. Juventus just signed an extension with Allegri until 2020 last summer, so getting him out of the Bianconeri would be difficult. Also, would Allegri want to leave the stability of the Old Lady for the shark tank at The Bridge? Still, Chelsea have shown they can attract the best coaches—keeping them happy is another thing altogether—and paying over the top for what may be the third or fourth best coach in the world would be worth it for me if we lose one of the few coaches ahead of him in Conte. Something else to consider is that after so many coaches with fiery personalities at Chelsea, Allegri may cut down on the high blood pressure meds CFC supporters have been popping like Skittles for years.
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