Arsenal and Bayern Munich are not only two great clubs, but they have one striking similarity between them. Each leg of their Champions League tie will see the away fans travel to a shiny, recently-built stadium, with all the trappings of modern football, for better or for ill (and not necessarily the same for both grounds.) Both were built for the same purpose - to expand the earning potential of their hosts, and give them a chance to compete with other European giants. And we all know how it's turned out.
Despite having a higher capacity, Bayern's matchday income, much of the purpose of building a new stadium, amounts to around half of Arsenal's. It's no secret as to why that is - there's rightly been plenty of coverage of Arsenal's scandalous ticket prices, and the point of comparison usually reached for is the Bundesliga, with it's highly affordable and fan-friendly experience. So, how has Bayern Munich's deal helped them to assemble one of the greatest teams in the world while Arsenal's has seen them sporting a financial third leg into every title race since?
To forgive the peddling of any lazy stereotypes of German efficiency, Bayern simply got things done far more effectively than Arsenal did when it came to the stadium. Out of a desperation for security, Arsenal signed up to very, very long deals on various sponsorship rights. Their kit deals will not expire until next year, and incredibly, the stadium sponsorship was set to run until 2021. Since then, clubs around the world have vastly increased their income from these sources, and mostly spent the money on paying players higher wages. Arsenal have stood still, but have still had to cope with the higher wages regardless.
In addition, Bayern also did something that David Dein warned would be necessary at Arsenal, advice that went unheeded: they got new investment in the club. They also had the sense to buy their neighbours' share of the stadium - an opportunistic move taking advantage of their intra-city rivals' desperation for cash, the purchase cost them €11m and immediately resulted in an increase of almost seven times that figure from commercial deals alone.
Essentially, Arsenal's problems stem from a series of catastrophic misjudgements, most around the time the stadium was built. Football was changing yet again - the project of gentrifying English football had been achieved, and Arsenal saw it as a zenith. In truth, another tsunami of cash was waiting to flood into the game, as it entered it's next phase of growth and commercialisation, but Arsenal seemed unable to anticipate it. It has shades of the immortal line of the Chief of the U.S. Patent Office, testifying before congress that they were in "that period that human improvement must end." The year was 1848.
Unfortunately, a monster was about to awaken, and much like what happened in 1848, it came from Lancashire. This time, however, there were two. The Glazers at United began the vast expansion of their revenue base, signing ever-more extravagant sponsorship deals as their neighbours struck oil. As Arsenal failed to heed the advice of David Dein on seeking further investment to negate the austerity that the Emirates project would require, Manchester City provided the most extreme example possible, the stadium that was opened a year before Arsenal broke ground at Ashburton Grove seducing Emirati gold.
Nobody expected that a decision about which city would host the Commonwealth Games would change English football more than Arsenal's new stadium would, but it did. The world in which the Emirates was conceived, in the blink of an eye, was gone. That era was one of effective duopoly, with Manchester United the enemy, an Evil Empire who possessed an obvious advantage in the fortress-cum-cash-cow of Old Trafford, while Champions League football was a relatively closed shop. Since then, not only have both Manchester clubs grown more powerful, but Chelsea have been taken over and financially supercharged, Tottenham have emerged as perennial top four contenders, and Liverpool have undergone reformation and counter-reformation.
Of course, it's not as simple as pointing the finger at economic misfortune and attributing all of Arsenal's woes to it. If this is finally the season when fourth becomes fifth for Arsenal, the team that takes their place will probably be Tottenham Hotspur, a side whose wage bill, according to the most recent accounts, is £33m a year lower. People may point to transfer fees, but wages are ordinarily a far better barometer of relative success, and in any case Tottenham's net spend is looking rather austere itself nowadays.
Above all, times have changed at Arsenal too - just not for the better. They aren't a selection of talented youngsters, bravely railing against the sheikhs and the plutocrats by playing naive but glorious attacking football. Those days are gone. Latterly, they're a sad collection of journeymen of limited talents and no resale value. After years of fans and pundits demanding experience, Wenger relented, seemingly abandoning his trust of his own instincts with young players at the same time. The problem was that by that time, no experienced players capable of mounting a league challenge were prepared to join Arsenal, and the kids they were supposed to be looking after had grown up and fled the nest.
Not only has there been a conspicuous failure on Wenger's part to identify cut-price young talent, but there have been some terrible wastes of money thrown in as well, on the likes of Gervinho and André Santos. Santi Cazorla is the sole success story of the new policy, and it's not enough, being in a position Arsenal were already strong in anyway. Per Mertesacker has been a decent purchase too, but other than that, Lukas Podolski has been as inconsistent as he always has been outside a Germany shirt, Laurent Koscielny has gone from great-but-error-prone to error-prone to simply bad, and Olivier Giroud has been acceptable but simply not at the level Arsenal require, an acceptance of mediocrity.
At the same time all this has happened, Wenger has been upstaged by Alan Carr's dad. Newcastle in 2013 appear to be a team consisting entirely of players Arsenal should've signed - how the Gunners could've used the goals of Demba Ba, or the steel of Cheik Tiote in recent years. Or benefited from taking a chance on Hatem Ben Arfa. Or profited from buying Yohan Cabaye rather than Mikel Arteta. Not only are they all superior players to the ones Arsenal went after instead, they were cheaper and have far better resale value.
That doesn't even include the results of Newcastle's spending this season. Before they embarked on that, getting in yet more sensible buys which would've been excellent signings for Arsenal - Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Mathieu Debuchy, and Moussa Sissoko chief among them - they finished five points behind Arsenal and spent £110m less on wages, vastly reducing their bill from what we shall grimly refer to as the Michael Owen years. That's how you deal with austerity, and that's how you deal with losing your best player.
Of course, speculating on youth and players needs a bit of leeway to work. Newcastle's breathing space comes from not being in the Champions League in the first place, and therefore not being able to drop out of it. Their only real gamble was assuming that they were certainly good enough to avoid relegation. Disastrous form and an injury crisis almost put paid to that theory, but in the end, they've been proved right. Arsenal's margin for error, conversely, used to come simply from being a big club. Now they have to turn a profit every year, they can't bank on being good enough to effortlessly coast to fourth even if things do not go their way, and that appears to have finally forced the change in policy from Arsenal. Unfortunately, it looks increasingly like a bad decision.
None of this was in the pitch for the Emirates Stadium. Paying the prices they do now to witness what is taking place on the pitch, Arsenal fans are entitled to wonder why they bothered moving from Highbury in the first place. "If you build it, they will come" sounds somewhat less enticing when the 'they' being referred to are Gervinho and Metalist Kharkiv on a Thursday night.