Stan Kroenke's Arsenal: Will the American billionaire change the culture of England's most glamorous soccer club?

The stadium scene.
April 14 2011 12:13 PM

The Island of Arsenal

Will an American billionaire change the culture of England's most glamorous soccer club?

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But of course it couldn't last. This is the decade of the foreign billionaire in English soccer, and the American billionaire specifically. Arsenal will be the fifth Premier League club to go under American control since the mid-2000s (though Usmanov, who owns 27 percent of the shares, could still make trouble). Kroenke's takeover coincides with mounting fan frustration over the team's trophyless streak, which has featured increasingly excruciating breakdowns. Two defeats in the final of the Carling Cup. Consecutive high-stakes upendings by Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. The same late-season loss to a beatable team running over and over again, like a worn-out reel at a small-town movie theater.

This season has been the most crushing. In February, Arsenal was alive in all four major competitions, a rare feat. Early in that month, the team lost a 4-0 lead against Newcastle, a dazzling act of choking that had never before been achieved by a Premier League squad. Then they lost the Carling Cup final to lowly Birmingham, dramatically won the first leg of their Champions League quarter against Barcelona only to crash out in the second, and fizzled against hated rival Manchester United in the FA Cup. Arsenal could conceivably still win the Premier League—they're seven points behind Manchester United with seven games to play—but given recent history, it's hard to believe that they will.

If Kroenke has any chance of reversing this trend, he'll first have to unravel a logic puzzle. All the flaws in Arsenal's recent approach—overreliance on young players, rigid insistence on a single tactical system, a lack of ambition in the transfer market, a failure to replace stars like Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira—can be laid at the feet of Arsene Wenger. And yet Wenger is a soccer genius, an indisputably great coach who's led the club to some of its finest moments, including three Premier League titles and, in 2003-04, the first undefeated season by any team in top-flight English soccer since 1889. He's still beloved by most fans, who've made "Arsene Knows" into a sort of soccer koan. At the general shareholders' meeting in 2007, the club unveiled a bronze bust of him. He can't be fired, and he insists he has a plan, but on the touchline he increasingly looks like a man embittered by the world's failure to live up to his standards. Give him free rein, and his young charges Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie, and Walcott could catalyze into a force capable of winning titles for years to come. But the timeline for that development, as understandably frustrated fans point out, always seems to begin "next season." As things stand, it would be insane for Kroenke to interfere, and equally insane for Kroenke to let things slide.

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It's worth noting that for all its beauty on the pitch, Arsenal's style isn't really a romantic phenomenon. The club's aura is one of smart, highbrow competence, somewhere on the border of distingué and hipsterish. (If Arsenal were American, it would appeal both to David Brooks and to people who hate David Brooks.) In other words, its glamour is essentially commercial; Arsenal, which redesigned its crest in 2002 in order to sell more shirts, is pure at heart in the same way as an indie band whose songs sound great in Mercedes advertisements. Even Wenger is sometimes most comfortable casting his ideals as pure show business. "When somebody buys a ticket and spends £50, £60, or £70, it is not because he wants to be bored," he said in 2005. "The target for every manager … is to try to entertain people."

It's possible that this is precisely what drew Kroenke to the club in the first place: Arsenal, like Apple computers or Prada, can be subjected to endless commercial exploitation without losing the prestige that makes it unique. If that's the case, then expect Kroenke to tinker very little with the formula established by the gang of aristocrats that preceded him. He'll monitor shirt sales and sponsorships, make occasional appearances at the Emirates and smile vaguely in the stands. In the meantime, the ambiguities of Arsenal's identity—the triumphant style and the shattering losses, the brilliance and the frustration—will cascade without ever resolving, like some beautiful attacking move that never quite reaches the goal.

Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.

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