There’s only one way to find out…
The prize for the winner of this Anglo-Italian tie is a place in the last four of the Europa League. But it might be cold comfort even for the winner, since these two sides are more accustomed to the Champions League than its lesser sibling .
Arsenal have competed in five of the past seven Champions League group stages, while Napoli have been in six, including this season’s. There is good reason for their recent consistency of competing among Europe’s elite: money.
Both the Neapolitans and the Londoners have been among the richest revenue generators in their domestic leagues, giving them the platform for investment in the football team, as can be seen from the graphic below:
Unusually for elite European clubs, both Arsenal and Napoli saw their revenues fall year-on-year between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. This was down in large part to stagnating broadcasting revenues for both teams, the overall impact of which for Arsenal would have been greater were it not for the £15m (€12.9m) of property sales they achieved during the year.
Such declines in revenues reflect a relative weakness in football performance. Arsenal missed out on the Champions League altogether and it cost them; for Napoli, the failure to emerge from the groups into the knockout phase (where in 2017 they had lost 6-2 on aggregate in the round of 16 to the eventual champions, Real Madrid) shaved £23m (€27m) from their revenues.
Might this have been down to a case of reckless prudence? It is certainly possible. Both sides were among the most profitable clubs in Europe in 2016-17. Arsenal’s profit before player trading was £122.2m (€141.8m) that season, while Napoli’s pre-tax profit after player trading was £86.7m (€100.7m). As respectively the second- and the seventh-most-profitable clubs in Europe, they both earned honourable mentions in UEFA’s Club Licensing Benchmarking Report, but there are no trophies for being the balance-sheet champions of Europe. (Which neither were in any case, that went to another football under-performer, Manchester United.)
The profits came at the expense of investment in the playing staff. Although Arsenal made a hefty transfer commitment of £88.6m (€102.8m) in 2016-17, contributing to a cash outlay on transfer-fee instalments for the year of £102.5m (€119.0m), the Gunners kept the lid on the wage bill. This fact suggests that the players being added to the squad were perhaps not of a calibre sufficient to propel Arsenal forward among the Champions League elite. The bulk of the fees committed that season went on Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez, of whose contribution to Arsenal history will be the judge.
Napoli also rejigged their squad that season, harvesting huge fees from the sales of Gonzalo Higuaín to Juventus and Manolo Gabbiadini to Southampton. In all, it contributed to a net transfer profit for the Italian side of £89.9m (€104.4m) and careful management of the wage bill as neither side allowed salary commitments to rise much beyond 50% of turnover.
Yet this strategy did not last as both sides seemed to recognise that football punishes the prudent. Arsenal’s investment in the wage bill rose more than 20% year over year, Napoli’s by over 16%.
This much can be seen in the graphic below:
Arsenal now have two proven strikers to rely on in Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, while Napoli successfully replaced Higuaín with the Poland international forward, Arkadiusz Milik. They are currently the ninth-, third- and fifth-highest scorers in their respective leagues.
Which of them will be celebrating at the final whistle would not be a matter of conjecture, if football were down relative resources alone. Arsenal are streets ahead of their opponents in financial terms but as every football fan ought to know, it is not about how much you’ve got but how you deploy it.
Arsenal are rated by the betting markets as 45% likely to win the match at the Emirates Stadium, with Napoli having a 30.7% chance and the draw 24.3%. To progress to the semi-final, though, Napoli are firm favourites, deemed to have a 62.3% chance against Arsenal’s 37.7% as things stand.
Still, whoever wins tonight, there is no doubting who the favourite is in the popularity stakes. With a combined social-media audience of 67 million against Napoli’s 5.77m, Arsenal win that one hands down.
Unfortunately, though, there’s no trophy for that, either.