Liam Brady assesses capital losses at Arsenal and Spurs and explains why only Chelsea are giving grounds for optimism that the south can rise to the top again.
A decade or more ago, there was a growing consensus that London would dominate English football for years to come.
All the top foreign players, we were regularly assured, would be seduced by the bright lights and the big money on offer in the capital, with the result that cities like Liverpool and Manchester would struggle to compete.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that, has it? Chelsea secured title wins in 2010, 2015 and 2017 but otherwise, it’s been an all-Manchester affair at the top of the Premier League — four for City and two for United — bar that astonishing intervention by Leicester in 2016.
And, now, it’s Liverpool’s turn.
From a position in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Manchester United were the dominant team and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal their only serious rivals, the landscape of the Premier League experienced a transformation that was as sudden as it was seismic, first with the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Stamford Bridge and later with the Abu Dhabi takeover at Manchester City.
Since then, it’s been very difficult for other clubs to match the financial clout of City, United and Chelsea. The only way it has been done — and, tellingly, it’s the way it’s going to be done again this year — is through quality recruitment.
Leicester City did just that in their title-winning season. Think of the likes of Riyad Mahrez, now at Man City, N’golo Kante, now at Chelsea and Harry Maguire now at Manchester United. In Kasper Schmeichel, they had a top-class goalkeeper and in Jamie Vardy a striker who, at the age of 33, is still scoring goals for a rebuilt Leicester side currently an impressive third in the league.
Liverpool are in an entirely different bracket to Leicester in terms of the size of the respective clubs, but in Anfield’s quest to bring 30 years of hurt to an end, they too have brought themselves to the very brink of that title, under the management of Jurgen Klopp, thanks in large part to enlightened recruitment.
The sales of Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez gave Liverpool the funds to invest in the transfer market and, to say the least, they did so wisely and effectively.
If any further confirmation was needed that London has lost out in the fight for the Premier League’s best signings, you can see the winning evidence at Anfield in the celebrated attacking trident of Salah, Firmino and Mane, as well as in the crucial signings at the back of Virgil van Dijk and ‘keeper Alisson.
In the capital, Chelsea, Spurs and, most especially, Arsenal, all suffer by comparison. For my old club in particular, you could express the contrast as starkly as this: Liverpool have invested their money; Arsenal have wasted theirs.
The only two London clubs entitled to hold their heads up at the moment are Chelsea, currently in fourth place in the Premier Division, and Crystal Palace, secure in 11th. The latter’s ambitions are on an entirely different scale to those of the bigger London clubs so I’d imagine they can only be delighted with where they are in the league. You have to hand it to Roy Hodgson. There’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle, and it’s no surprise that, under his wise management, they are such a well-drilled and well-coached team. But, again, the only real expectation at a club like Palace is that they stay in the top flight.
There would be a similar expectation at West Ham but, unlike Palace, they currently find themselves in a very precarious position, with only goal difference keeping them above the drop zone. Again, poor recruitment has left them struggling, with the result that the club has had to turn once more to David Moyes to essentially take on the fire-fighting job of saving the Hammers from relegation, but without being given any money to spend.
There are encouraging signs at Stamford Bridge that, after a few seasons of and inconsistency and uncertainty about the future, Roman Abramovich appears to have rediscovered his enthusiasm for the club. That could well have a lot to do with the fact that, unlike previous managers, Frank Lampard has been prepared to give young talent a chance. Perhaps this policy was forced by the transfer ban but it might also have been a direction he wanted to go in anyway.
Either way, it certainly seems to have woken Abramovich up, to judge by Chelsea’s activity in the transfer market now. They’ve secured Ajax winger Hakim Ziyech, they’re on the brink of signing Timo Verner, they’re on the trail of Kai Havertz and they’re also being tipped to nab Declan Rice, all of which shows a real ambition to build on the foundations already in place and leaves no doubt that, of all the London clubs, Chelsea are currently in by far the healthiest state.
Spurs have built their brilliant new stadium but, having been Champions League finalists last year, their eighth place in the table as the season restarts means they’re struggling to make it back into the Champions League for next season.
Not only have Spurs not spent as well as they have in previous seasons but, despite all the hype which inevitably attended his arrival, Jose Mourinho hasn’t made any great impression since he came in.
My gut feeling is that, under Mourinho, things at Spurs will pan out in the same way that they did when he was at Manchester United, with players coming in for blame to deflect from what the manager has been unable to achieve. And all that attention-seeking stuff we have come to expect hasn’t gone down well with the Spurs supporters either. After Mauricio Pochettino, Daniel Levy felt they needed a big guy to fill his shoes. But they might not have got the right guy.
But of all the London big guns, I would suggest Arsenal are the one with the biggest concerns. Certainly, when I talk to my fellow supporters, that’s the way they feel. On the field, the signings have been particularly poor — I find it hard to think of one player who is now worth more money than the club spent on him. The likes of Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Mustafi, Xhaka, Sokratis — the list goes on. David Luiz was brought in to improve the defence but hasn’t delivered. Yes, Aubameyang has done really well but, at 30, he’s of an age where the club are not going to be able to capitalise on his sale — in the way that Liverpool did with Coutinho — by bringing in two or three to strengthen the team.
It’s not that the owner Stan Kroenke hasn’t provided money to spend; the problem is that the outlay hasn’t proved cost-effective either in transfer fees or wages. But the problems at the club run deeper than that, all the way from the pitch to the boardroom.
Kroenke now needs to examine a different way of running things. It’s clear that Arsenal, as a club, has changed direction since Arsene Wenger’s departure, and what has been put in place at executive level hasn’t worked. There’s a strong argument now for going back to the old way of doing things: that model of a board of directors who combine experience in football and business and are willing to show enough faith in the manager to take guidance from him.
It’s probably fair to say that old board had aged and needed rejuvenation but that hasn’t happened. To all intents and purpose, the board is now redundant and the result is that the club has lost a lot of its identity. To reconnect with Arsenal’s history and what it means to its supporters, Kroenke should consider bringing someone like Ian Wright or David O’Leary into the administration, Arsenal legends who know what the club means and could lend their expertise to the other executives and also the manager.
Wright, quite apart from his football experience, would be a progressive and important appointment at a time when there has never been a greater need in football for a meaningful statement of intent in the battle against racism.
For his part, David O’Leary, the club’s record appearance-holder, has amassed huge experience in all aspects of the game.
Of course — as has already been proposed by Martin Keown among others — there’s no better man to be chairman of the board than Arsene Wenger. But I’m not so sure that’s a role he would be interested in taking up now.
Finally, though the experience will be very different from what we are used to, I’m really looking forward to the return of the Premier League this week. Of course, worry and uncertainty persist in the wider world but life will go on and sport has an important role to play.
The race for Champions League places will be intriguing as will the battle to avoid relegation.
But the overriding point is that Liverpool will finally get to be crowned champions — and deservedly so.