How sustainable success for Arsenal has a pathway through history’s breadcrumbs
Empires rise and fall. It is one of the great truths throughout the course of human history. Dominance and hegemony are sure to eventually come crumbling down. But the very notion of empire building is rooted in the notion that you have to start from somewhere.
One of the greatest, if not the greatest, image of empire building – Rome – could trace its humble beginnings to being nothing more than a fledgling city-state in central Italy in the shadow of a much greater presence that were the Etruscans; a name in history many often forget or barely even know existed.
Even after Rome became the dominant entity in Italy, it all could have come crumbling down if not for toppling Carthage in the Punic Wars which amounted to a life or death struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean. But once Rome started to roll in the wake of Scipio’s great reversal at Zama and secured total domination from Iberia to the Adriatic, there was no stopping her.
Much of the same can be said for Macedonia; a small region once thought of as nothing more than goat herders until Philip II restructured its way of war into a well-trained fighting force capable of defeating its more “civilized” neighbors to the south in the Greek city states. Once more…humble beginnings.
Further still, Macedonian hegemony would not leave its mark on the world until Philip’s young but charismatic son Alexander took the reigns and expounded on the bedrock that his father laid down and crafted it into one of the greatest military machines ever conceived in order to topple the premier power of the age in the Achaemenid dynasty in Persia.
But both Rome and Macedon, like so many empires before and since, eventually fell.
The key factor for any empire to last goes hand in hand with its ability to remain stable on all fronts politically, socially, economically, and militarily. If any one building block should fall, the house falls.
All empires begin as the underestimated player turning up at the blackjack table only to spring one surprise after the next in order to beat the house. But once you become the house, there is always the next in line that is looking to beat you in turn the minute your weaknesses become apparent or until your ability to remain stable is dealt a hammer blow that is unrecoverable.
Rome fell because it grew too big to administer in terms of governance while its entire existence – expansion – ground to a halt when there was no place to expand to. It’s economy eventually collapsed, the vaunted Legions were downsized to the point where “Barbarian” incursions could not be countered, and a series of wildly-incapable Caesar’s were all factors in why it eventually met its inevitable demise.
As for Macedon, the answer was far more simple. Alexander was a genius of a visionary, but the empire had no power-base to fall back on when he met an untimely death at such a young age.
In the immediate aftermath, the most capable of his generals split off into smaller entities (still large in their own right) and all with the notion that they were the one who should take up the mantle. Thus the wars of the Diadochi and a split in power that eventually saw the fall of all of the successor kingdoms with Ptolemaic Egypt the last to disappear after Cleopatra and Marc Antony failed in their stand against Octavian in the aftermath of the death of Julius Caesar.
Now that the history lesson is over (and if you are still with me here, I love it), the question is how does this relate to football, and more importantly, to Arsenal? That one key word; stability.
In the current Premier League age, money is king. It is no surprise that the clubs that have won the balance of the titles on offer since the massive influx of cash into the top flight of English football are the ones that are backed by extraordinary wealth. Manchester City and Chelsea have changed the “meta” in the league to the point where spending power is not only what nets you the pieces you need to manufacture title runs, it also effectively covers blunders in a way that clubs that lack such financial resources struggle to recover from. And some never do.
It stands to note that I did not mention Manchester United among those that have shifted the sand table for one reason only; City and Chelsea are – generally – far smarter and more well-run than United have been in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
For all their power projection on a global scale, United have made a complete mockery of themselves time and again since the legendary Scottish manager called time on his storied career at the Theater of Dreams.
From poor managerial appointments, to market spending that regularly missed the mark on an astonishing level, there is a reason why United have only finished in the top four fifty-percent of the time since Fergie left and have barely sniffed silverware on any competitive front. Money spent has saved their blushes but it hasn’t kept them relevant to a level commensurate with their stature in the game.
Liverpool, and to an even greater extent Leicester City, have been the outliers. Leicester’s run to the title in 2015-16 is an anomaly that is likely to not be repeated with any sort of regularity because it relied on too many factors far out of the Foxes control that, to their credit, they had to remain nearly perfect to pounce on in order to achieve passage into footballing Valhalla.
Regarding the Reds, they remain the shining example of “winning a title the right way.” The club’s modus operandi is what dreams are made of; trust your scouting network to find players that fit the club and the team while exhibiting character traits that are in line with the manager all while masterfully navigating contract negotiations to ensure your wage bill does not go into an unrecoverable tailspin.
In essence, Liverpool have to be run perfectly both on and off the pitch while banking on help in other factors out of their control in order to net an end result that achieves success in the form of trophy lifting ceremonies. Once they hit their stride, they achieved just that in the form of success in both the Champions League and the Premier League in back-to-back seasons but were immediately back out of the slipstream of trophy hauling in 2020-21 and at the time of writing are well in the wake of the machine that is Pep Guardiola’s City.
The one factor where Liverpool falter when compared to City and Chelsea overall, is their ability to spend to mask mistakes. Both shades of blue are capable of spending 50million pounds and not breaking a sweat if it doesn’t work, only to repeat the process less than a year later until it works.
If we circle back to professor Drew from earlier and briefly discuss Rome once again, that very factor is why they were able to expand to the limits that they did even in the face of one unmitigated military disaster after the next.
Multiple times in Rome’s history saw them utterly annihilated on the field of battle or made to suffer so dearly that it completely halted their advance for decades. But the takeaway is that it never stopped them for good. They always adapted, they always took the best bits from their enemies, learned valuable lessons in defeat, and came back stronger to a point where the former victor could no longer stand toe-to-toe with them.
Rome defeated itself in the end, but the other part of the story is that Rome could have risen from the ashes once more in the 5th century AD if it was not for the likes of the Goths, Vandals, and Alans that were primed and ready to pounce on the wounded eagle. It is the very reason why Leicester and Liverpool have won the Premier League in the age of unfathomable wealth in English football; they took their chance expertly when the time allowed for it. But how long does that window remain open? Will there ever be a club capable of not only going through that gap but also keeping it open long enough to establish a beachhead on the other side?
More importantly, can Arsenal be that club? The current landscape suggests that is precisely what the club hierarchy and ownership structure are angling for.
The reality is that there will come a time when City are not managed by Pep Guardiola. When Jürgen Klopp leaves Liverpool. Where Chelsea go through a period of things just not working and no amount of money that can arrest the issues under management quickly enough, which we have seen before.. Arsenal must not only be primed to pounce on the opportunity, but sustain itself at the top for longer than just one reason.
We had our chance in 2015-16 when it was absolute bedlam at the top of the Premier League but we lost out to Leicester. Many of us still feel that was a massive opportunity missed. And it was. But a chance like that is sure to come again.
Another power vacuum is sure to occur in the Premier League when, like empires throughout history, various factors cause the top dog(s) to leave themselves exposed just enough for the next in line to strike a hammer blow. The project under Mikel Arteta may be that eventual blow under the guise of our favorite word from paragraphs ago; stability.
Are Arsenal currently a top-four side? Maybe, but there is still too much time to know if Arteta will achieve that aim this season. But if he doesn’t, should it cost him his job? Absolutely not.
One of the reasons United have fallen away the manner in which they have, while not completely, is because they have lacked stability in all areas of the club from the hierarchical structure down to the playing staff in order to sustain the hammer blow that was Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. That event was exacerbated by the poor decision making that failed to address a myriad of issues efficiently or quickly enough.
In that same light, one of the reasons Liverpool eventually tasted success is because they championed the combination of stability with incremental gains under a manager that was the perfect fit for their long-term goals.
When you do not have the ability to throw endless streams of money at any problem, you have to find another alternative. While KSE are a massive entity that have a valuation that leaves many wishing they turned into a Abramovich-style sugar daddy overnight, the likelihood of that occurring is slim to none.
But Arsenal have continued to progress under the Spaniard and that is clear to see, but still, many feel as though we will never be able to compete with him at the helm. But there is no way to back that theory with anything other than conjecture.
Quantitative and qualitative progress is visible. At the moment we are above where we finished last year. Our brighter young talents are all at the forefront of our brand of football on the pitch and they have all developed ahead of schedule. We have entirely revamped and improved on how we handle the summer window as evidenced by our much-lauded recruitment period in the summer. Most importantly, our point totals have increased from 1.47 in 2019-20 to 1.75 in the current campaign (2020-21 was 1.60).
All of this, added to the overall long-term vision of the club under Arteta in a tiered approach to success with incremental gains year on year is the very basis of how you sustainably grow a project from its roots to, dare I say, empire.
Grow too quickly and you spiral out of control without a clue in how to adapt to the situation at hand. Grow too slowly and you’re outpaced by a more aggressive competitor. Grow at just the right pace and see the fruits of your labor able to stand challenges as they come into view while being able to adapt to set-backs more readily.
What is for sure, is that our position of maintaining stability in our long-term project is probably the only way we will have a fighting chance at another Premier League win. Our current ability to adapt to how we have slowly begun to unshackle ourselves from limited spending is showing a willingness to improve the areas that held us back previously.
So let us draw lessons from history on how to build, how to achieve, and how to sustain in order to realize true preparedness for when the time comes that we are able to push forward in a manner that we as a fanbase feel we truly deserve. Because eventually, all empires fall.