Last weekend, to a sigh of relief from this little corner of Brighton that might just have been audible in China, Arsenal and Liverpool lost. This wasn’t merely schadenfreude. I was starting to worry that one (or indeed both) of these teams might go the whole of the season unbeaten, and there was something pleasing about the fact that they both conspired to lose against decidedly mediocre opposition, in the form of Reading and Middlesbrough. What has been interesting to see, however, has been the howling of the media in the aftermath of these defeats. For clubs of the insane size of Liverpool and Arsenal, defeat is no longer something that merely “happens” several times every season. It’s now a matter of crisis that teams like Reading or Middlesbrough, who only pay their players £20,000 per week, can have the temerity to turn up for matches, not read the script and outplay and out-think them for ninety minutes.
This can be seen in a broader context in the supposed “pressure” that Rafael Benitez is under at Liverpool. Never mind that he has taken Liverpool to two European Cup finals in three years, making him their most successful manager since Bob Paisley (and, in that respect, it doesn’t really matter that they haven’t won the Premier League title – in an economic sense, there are effectively four Premier League titles now, one for for each team that gets to feed at the Champions League trough). He has dared to criticise the board, saying that the money that he was promised for new players hasn’t been forthcoming, and now he needs to win every single match that Liverpool play or the insane speculation that his job is on the line starts again. The back page of this morning’s “Metro” has a headline about Benitez having to win in Marseille tonight if he wants to keep his job. This Liverpool team might not be good enough to win the European Cup or the Premier League this season, but to say that he under pressure after his team’s defeat of the season in the middle of December is, of course, ridiculous.
As ever in modern football, though, it’s not about what is going on on the pitch. It’s all about the poilitics. Liverpool, this time last year, had a failrly manageable debt (in the region of £70-80m). As soon as Gillette and Hicks got involved, because this is a leveraged buy-out, in which the club effectively pays for its own take-over, that debt at least trebles. Not only that, though – they’ve also promised to build the club a new stadium at a cost of at least £300m (and possibly closer to twice that amount), and the new owners don’t seem terrible interested in their putting their own hands in their pockets. All of this contrasts interestingly with Arsenal. They were just as bad as Liverpool in losing at Middlesbrough last Sunday, and their manager hasn’t brought them their holy grail of the European Cup yet, either. However, Arsene Wenger is about as unsackable as it is possible for a football manager to be (even more so, I would argue, than Alex Ferguson). The contrast can be seen most clearly in the ongoing aspiration of Alisher Usmanov to take over at the Emirates Stadium – David Dein would most likely be Usmanov’s “front man” in the event of a successful take-over, largely on the basis of the one thing that he can say that he did. He was the man that brought Arsene Wenger to London.