It looks like Liverpool are going to win the League for the first time in 24 years. And it looks like they are going to win the League after having forcibly kept their best player, with the fifth highest salary, and with a transfer policy that has spent money but not the huge sums that clubs like Chelsea, Man U, and Man City have spent. And after they win the League, Arsenal supporters need to prepare themselves for a summer of comparisons between the two clubs. But are the comparisons fair?
Perhaps the biggest link between the two clubs is over Liverpool’s star player, Luis Suarez. This summer Arsenal tried to buy Suarez after they were informed that the player had a £40m release clause. Liverpool’s owners famously asked “what are they smoking?” after the Gunners put in a £40m+1 bid for the Uruguayan but despite the bluster of John Henry Arsenal felt certain that the bid was enough to activate Suarez’ release clause.
Liverpool publicly denied that Arsenal’s bid was enough to force a transfer but behind the scenes, they were sweating because as it turns out Suarez did have a release clause and Liverpool were gambling big that he wouldn’t force through the transfer in the courts. Now that the dust has settled and Suarez is their star player, John Henry has publicly bragged that Liverpool essentially refused to honor Suarez’ contract. Henry posited that if players can refuse to honor their contracts with clubs by demanding trades — like Arsenal’s star players had done for the three seasons prior — then clubs shouldn’t honor the contracts either.
Some Arsenal fans now wish that their club had done the same with Robin van Persie the year earlier but the situations were vastly different between all four parties. With van Persie, Arsenal had a caustic character who was captain of the club yet involved in fist fights with the younger players. Van Persie’s demand to leave the club was sent via a letter to the fans which publicly remonstrated the entire Arsenal management team and ownership structure. Robin’s tenure at the club had become untenable. Suarez’ come and get me was done via an interview and was perhaps the most anodyne transfer request in the history of the sport. Whereas van Persie’s letter was a “hey guys, Arsenal suck, trade me” Suarez’ interview was “hey guys, I wish Liverpool would just honor their contract.”
Van Persie and Suarez’ situations were very different, for me the better comparison is Suarez and Cesc Fabregas. Van Persie was on the final year of his contract and threatening to destabilize the team with his attitude (just like he is doing at Manchester United now) and the fact that he would publicly sign for another club mid-season. Meanwhile, both Cesc and Suarez were still on a long term deals when their transfer sagas went down.
Moreover, Cesc and Suarez were both the heart and soul of their teams. You can see what Suarez means to his team just in terms of goals and assists and Fabregas nearly took Arsenal to a League title in 07/08 and the club were a backheel away from beating Barcelona in the Champions League. Since Cesc left, Arsenal have struggled offensively in the Premier League and the Champions League with their shots per game averages dipping drastically and with the club barely ambling in to the Champions League places instead of challenging for the League title.
Cesc was also sold for a song, Barcelona’s then president bragging that Cesc was worth €60m instead of the €40m they paid. Suarez has since renegotiated his contract and a new release clause has been added which doubles his value. In hindsight, getting Luis Suarez, who is leading his team to their first title in 24 years, for £40,000,001 would have been the deal of the century.
Cesc left Arsenal to join his boyhood club and fulfill his lifelong ambition to be a starting midfielder for Barcelona and it was classy of Arsenal to let him do that, especially after the player went on strike and had his entire country tapping him up to go home. Arsenal made no fuss, they simply negotiated the best deal they could and got on with life. Liverpool on the other hand were classless in their dealings, refusing to honor a player’s contract and publicly mocking Arsenal’s offer with their “what are they smoking???” jibes.
The other comparison that will be made between the two clubs is over the fact that Liverpool, supposedly, haven’t spent a ton of money to win the trophy. I say supposedly because in actual fact Liverpool have spent quite a bit of money and have been very wasteful with that money, especially in the transfer market.
Prior to the current ownership regime, Liverpool were so grossly mismanaged by the owners Hicks and Gillette that the banks forced the sale of the club to the current owners at what amounted to a cut rate price. The current ownership group has moved the club’s debts onto other companies that they own and gotten the books to look a bit better in the process but Liverpool are still a team that spends far more money than they earn and they spend most of that money in wages and transfers.
Their wage bill may “only” be the 5th highest in the land but at one point it was an astonishing 70% of their annual turnover. They have reduced that percentage to 60% over the last few years but that hasn’t stopped the club from posting a net loss of £49m this season. That loss takes Liverpool’s three year losses to almost £150m and means that when they apply to play in the Champions League next season, they will probably have to pay a hefty fine. UEFA could refuse them entry in the tournament and if there ever was a team that should be denied based on the Financial Fair Play rules, it would have to be Liverpool. After all, this is a club that were minutes away from bankruptcy just four years ago and whose new owners are simply loading more and more debt on to the balance sheets.
Their spending in the transfer market over the last three seasons almost directly matches those losses as Transfermarkt has them down £110m net. So, while Arsenal have a larger wage bill than Liverpool, Liverpool have spent lavishly on a transfer list that reads like a horror novel: Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Enrique, Coates, Joe Allen, Borini, Sahin, Sakho, Aspas, and Ilori have all failed to live up to their sticker prices.
You will probably be told this summer that Liverpool and Arsenal are similar in their spending patterns but nothing could be further from the truth. Both teams are sort of outsiders in terms of the huge spending teams like Chelsea, Man City, Man U, PSG, and Monaco but if we look at the last three seasons Arsenal have spent a whopping £19m and Liverpool £110m. And overall, Arsenal are in no way going to run afoul of Financial Fair Play while Liverpool could, in theory, win the League and be denied entry into the Champions League based on their debt and profligate spending — spending which ironically was meant to get them into the Champions League.
I struggle to find many similarities between these two clubs. Liverpool have loaded debt onto the club, have wasted money on terrible players, and have an ageing stadium which they look unlikely to ever afford to replace. Arsenal, to many a fan’s frustration, have kept a tight grip on spending, built a wonderful new stadium, and look like they are ready to enter a new era of rational spending at the club.
Even the dealings with their players provide a huge contrast. Liverpool kept Suarez by refusing to honor his contract and acted in a rather boorish manner toward Arsenal and Suarez. Meanwhile, Arsenal let Cesc leave on the cheap but it was to his boyhood club and the transfer fulfilled his lifelong ambition. Footbalistically, it was probably not the right thing to do, but humanistically it was. Still, looking back at the last three years I have to wonder what Arsenal would look like if we’d been just a little less classy and forced Cesc to honor his contract.
So, to answer my headline question, is Liverpool a validation or repudiation of Arsenal’s philosophy? Neither. Arsenal were top of the table for 19 weeks and then injury took toll. No team could expect to win the League if they lost their star forward (Walcott), their star midfielder (Ramsey), their record transfer player (Özil), and many of their best squad players all at the same time. The core of this Arsenal team is very strong but it needs a few parts to compliment that core and provide rotation to cut down on injuries. While Arsenal have been unlucky, Liverpool have caught a rub of the green. Suarez, after years of being a selfish, wasteful, and frankly mental football player — a player who bit one player and committed a racism against another — has turned in a career season, scoring 30 goals and assisting for 12. If there was one thing that they got right it was keeping Suarez.
A huge gamble that looks like it paid off big.