Billionaire Usmanov Blames Arsenal’s U.S. Owner Kroenke For Team’s Woes

  • Usmanov says board also to blame for club’s lack of progress
  • Wenger should help pick his eventual successor, Russian says

Alisher Usmanov on April 6.

Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Arsenal’s tepid season on the soccer pitch has exposed again the animosity between the Russian and American owners off it. 

Alisher Usmanov, who owns more than 30 percent of the London club, voiced his opposition to Stan Kroenke, the biggest shareholder, saying he’s also responsible for the team’s performance in the English Premier League. Embattled coach Arsene Wenger, whose future is under scrutiny, should have a say in picking his own successor, Usmanov said.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 02:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal is dejected after the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on April 2, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Arsene Wenger

Photographer: Clive Rose/Getty Images

"I don’t think the coach alone is to be blamed for what’s happening," Usmanov said in an interview last week at his office in Moscow. The board -- from which the Russian billionaire is excluded -- and main investor “bear huge responsibility,” he said.

Arsenal is currently outside the qualification places for Europe’s elite Champions League, a competition it played in every season for the past two decades and which brings in millions of pounds. Wenger, who has led the club since 1996, has faced more calls to quit from fans as the team failed to challenge for the domestic league title it last won in 2004.

Usmanov also called for an overhaul of Arsenal’s commercial operations. While Arsenal’s full-year revenue of about 350 million pounds ($434 million) is the third-highest in the Premier League, it’s about 30 percent less than rival Manchester United, which generates more commercial income from jersey-sponsorship rights and its branding.

Critical Owner

The Russian, whose assets include miner Metalloinvest Holding Co. and Russian telecommunications operator MegaFon PJSC, has long been critical of Arsenal’s management, saying as long ago as 2012 that a lack of investment was holding the club back from competing for top honors. 

He offered to underwrite a rights issue he said would have provided Wenger with the money to try and buy the very best players in the sport. Shareholders instead opted to sell their majority stake to American sports team owner Kroenke. A spokesman for Arsenal contacted on Monday declined to comment on the issues raised by Usmanov.

It’s been a clash of styles, to say the least. Usmanov is a soccer fan and a regular attendee at games. Kroenke believes in his hands-off approach.

“If you want to win championships then you would never get involved,” he told the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last year. “I think the best owners in sports are the guys that sort of watch both sides a bit. If you don’t have a good business then you can’t really afford to go out and get the best players.”

Divisive Club

Fans, meanwhile, are also split over the future direction. During a game last month, rival groups chartered planes to fly banners expressing support for Wenger and calling for the Frenchman’s departure. He has a contract until the end of the season.

The Arsenal Supporters Trust has long called for an overhaul of the team’s board. A majority of its members wants Wenger to go, said spokesman Tim Payton.

"We believe that as a significant shareholder of Arsenal he should have a seat on the board as part of complete boardroom shakeup," said Payton. "Our own analysis has shown commercial revenues are flat and well behind other major clubs."

Arsenal Chairman Chips Keswick told reporters in March the decision over Wenger’s future would be “mutual,” without elaborating. Wenger is now English soccer’s longest-serving coach, after Alex Ferguson retired from rival Manchester United in 2013. Ferguson’s chosen successor, David Moyes, was fired after less than a year.

“Some continuity is needed,” said Usmanov. “This includes the need to prepare a successor for Wenger, but in a very respectful way. I can suggest that Wenger himself can prepare a successor." 

As well as Wenger’s future, media reports in the U.K. have suggested Arsenal is readying to offload several members of its squad and that star player Alexis Sanchez may quit.

"I personally, unfortunately, am fully isolated from decision making in the club," Usmanov said, adding that Keswick is the only board member that he speaks to. "All the responsibility for the fate of the club rests with the main shareholder."

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