Arsenal, Clubs, English Premier League, Story

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss Mesut Ozil’s decision to refuse a pay cut in the coronavirus crisis.
Gab Marcotti commends Arsenal’s transparency and fairness with club wage cut decisions.

LONDON — First, there were 14. Then there were “the Rebel 7.” Finally, it was down to two, a pair of players who have decided not to participate in the requested 12.5% pay cut for a year. Some teammates privately expressed their disappointment. Of course, they might change their minds down the line when the financial picture becomes clearer, but for the moment, Mesut Ozil and one of his teammates, a player on a more modest salary, have decided to sit this one out.

Sources tell ESPN that the players didn’t opt for individual negotiations regarding the cuts but dealt with this as a squad led by 25-year-old Hector Bellerin, the club’s PFA representative. The overwhelming majority have accepted a 12.5% pay cut until March 2021, which will reduce to 7.5% if the team qualifies for the Europa League next season and to zero if they secure Champions League football. It remains to be seen how qualification will play out, but in the meantime, in the absence of football, there is a victory here for the club and the majority of its players.

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Arsenal were the first Premier League club to announce pay cuts rather than deferrals, but it took time for the players to unite. That they eventually came close to consensus on the move was a strong statement by the club and one that flew in the face of the players’ union, the PFA, which had been advising professional football players to accept neither deferrals nor salary cuts.

To convert 14 rejections to two in the space of four weeks tells you this is a club united in adverse and uncertain times. Arsenal posted losses of almost £30 million last year and with a number of income streams stopped or at risk, including the obvious losses of matchday revenue, this represents a good result.

Club director Josh Kroenke, who has already addressed Arsenal staff and is in regular dialogue with his executive team, expressed his personal thanks and pride in a call to players this week, sources have told ESPN. Mikel Arteta, the first-team head coach, joined the call and was instrumental in lobbying players to make this statement of solidarity. The 39-year-old’s intervention proved key in convincing the players to take the cut and showed his commitment to the club where he spent five seasons, from 2011 to ’16, as a player.

In the Spaniard’s rallying call, he reminded his players what Arsenal stands for, the spirit of togetherness and what it means to be part of a club where everyone takes care of each other and takes pride in what they do. At an extraordinary time in history, he supported the request that came from the top. The message from Kroenke and Arteta to the players was very consistent.

Mikel Arteta addresses Arsenal players during training.
Mikel Arteta was instrumental in getting Arsenal’s players to agree to a pay cut.

Arteta, who also agreed to the pay cut, has been exceptional during this extremely stressful period of confinement and uncertainty. The dialogue between him and the club hierarchy, who took their own pay cuts of around 30%, is strong and the attention to his squad is unquestionable. He has been working hard tactically via video calls, spending 90 minutes rewatching individual clips and games with each of his players, but he has also made sure that their mental health is in good shape too. The Spaniard excels at man-management; by contrast, Thomas Tuchel, his PSG counterpart, recently revealed that he was having very little contact with his players, which is the case for many top clubs.

Arsenal were at the heart of this crisis when Arteta was the first person in English football to test positive for the coronavirus, an event that kicked off the football world’s lockdown five weeks ago. The club have been decisive and measured throughout, with the anticipation of tough times to come not lost on the Arsenal hierarchy. Supported by the Kroenke family, the Arsenal chiefs revealed they would not use the government’s furlough scheme — a job retention initiative that sees the UK government covering 80% of an employee’s salary (up to £2,500 per month) — even before the agreement with players was announced.

It’s no easy task to convince a group of players with varying salaries, different cultures and backgrounds to take a salary cut for a club whose owner is a billionaire. They had to understand the financial picture and what was right for the club and its staff in the long term. Arsenal’s majority owners, KSE, have a number of sport properties across the United States — the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and their MLS team, the Colorado Rapids — all affected by the coronavirus. With KSE’s support, cost-cutting initiatives and careful cost control, Arsenal are doing what they can to weather this crisis. KSE have provided guarantees around the club’s financial commitments to shore things up. Arsenal’s reported annual wage bill is the fifth highest in the Premier League at £240m, which is 60% of their turnover, underlining the gravity of the situation and the importance of getting this deal over the line.

The door remains open to the two remaining players who have yet to commit to the salary cut while the final paperwork is drafted. Ozil, who reportedly earns £350,000 a week, has made it clear he may still change his mind once the full impact is known.

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