Soccer fans watch a Sky Sports broadcast of the Community Shield match between Arsenal and Manchester United in a bar in north London. (Photographer: Rogan Macdonald/Bloomberg News)

Arsenal Faces New Era as Rivals Threaten Business and Status

(Bloomberg) -- Arsene Wenger’s retirement as coach of Arsenal after 22 years leaves the storied English soccer club in search of a new leader at a critical time both on and off the pitch.

After already being overtaken in London by Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, Arsenal faces the prospect of being eclipsed in the Premier League and financially by local rival Tottenham Hotspur. More broadly, it has fallen from England and Europe’s elite after a season outside the Champions League, the region’s foremost -- and richest -- club competition.

In August, just a couple of miles away, Spurs will move into a new 62,000 capacity stadium, gaining extra revenue as it more than matches Arsenal’s own Emirates ground. Tottenham also appears set to win a spot in the Champions League, something Wenger’s side is likely to achieve only if it gains back-door entry by winning the more junior Europa League competition.

In terms of sales, Arsenal is ahead for now, with 488 million pounds ($686 million) in the 2016-17 season, versus 356 million pounds at Spurs. Arsenal is sixth-top overall, according to the Deloitte Money League.

The club, which is 67 percent owned by the U.S. businessman Stan Kroenke and 30 percent by Russian Alisher Usmanov, may be worth in excess of 1 billion pounds, according to Trevor Watkins, head of sports business at law firm Pinsent Masons. The succession may not be easy given Wenger’s two decades in charge, but “the club is hungry for European domination and needs to compete on that level,” Watkins said.

Invincibles

The urbane Wenger’s reign at Arsenal has occupied two distinct periods.

In the first, the Frenchman won the Premier League three times in quick succession, going undefeated for a whole season on one occasion and guiding the club to its only Champions League final in 2006, when it lost to Barcelona.

But Wenger’s last title win was in 2004, and for years now he has seemed content to steer a line between being careful with the owners’ funds and finishing high enough in England simply to participate in the Champions League. And last season even that proved beyond him, leading some fans to start campaigning for his dismissal.

When Arsenal moved to its new stadium in 2006, Wenger’s parsimony was welcomed by the board given the debts incurred to finance the build. But as the years have gone by, a reluctance to sign the costliest players, until recently, has been a source of frustration.

Empty Seats

Barring three victories in the now diminished FA Cup competition, Arsenal’s fans have had little to celebrate since moving to the ground, built on a former refuse site close to the club’s former Highbury home.

In recent months, matches have been played in front of thousands of empty seats as fans have either protested by staying away or been deterred from coming by Arsenal falling out of contention for a leading place in the league.

Despite this Wenger will be remembered fondly by most in football, especially for his early period at Arsenal. “The biggest compliment is that he played football that made us change the way we played against them,” tweeted Gary Neville, the former Manchester United player and current TV pundit.

When Wenger leaves at the end of the season the once standard English model of a club manager being in charge of all aspects of the job, from scouting to watching junior squads, as well as managing the first team, will also have effectively been consigned to history.

“Wenger’s departure signals the near end of the one-man era into a time when everything is departmentalized in the huge business that is now the Premier League,” says Michael Broughton of Sports Investment Partners.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.