Arsenal chief 'not happy' with season, predicts tougher road to UCL ahead

BURNLEY, England -- With the biggest trophies set to elude Arsenal again, chief executive Ivan Gazidis is "not happy" with the season overall but optimistic the recent resurgence indicates the team's future prospects are brighter.

A potential obstacle to Arsenal's ambitions, though, is the rise in television cash. Gazidis believes the Premier League will become even more competitive and harder for Arsenal -- and their usual top four rivals -- to maintain a perennial presence in the Champions League qualification places.

The Gunners have not won the league since 2004 but have been propelled to second this season with their first eight-game winning run since that title triumph. Earlier setbacks, though, for Arsene Wenger's second-placed team have contributed to Chelsea establishing a seven-point lead with a game in hand.

And Arsenal's shortcomings were exposed in Europe again with a round of 16 elimination in the Champions League, which it has never won.

Asked to assess this season, Gazidis said: "We are not happy but we are going to keep pushing to the end and see how far we can go."

The season could still end in silverware by defending the FA Cup, which produced Arsenal's first title in nine years last May. But the competition's status has diminished and it is the biggest prizes Arsenal wants to be collecting.

The talk for the last decade from Arsenal's leadership -- particularly during the costly process of building the Emirates Stadium -- has been that the team are on the verge of clicking and matching the success enjoyed between 1998 and 2004 again.

Can Arsenal be a force again?

"We are happy with the way the squad has developed and we are very focused how we can make a positive end to the season," Gazidis said. "After that it will be a question of how can we progress the team further so that we can have an even better season next year. We have a squad that's clearly coming together. It's a relatively young squad so it will continue to improve."

More than $180 million was spent on players in the past two years, largely on attacking players Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.

"We had a lot of new players this year who are beginning to gel together," Gazidis said. "We had a lot of injuries at the beginning of the season as well. Also coming off a World Cup year there are a lot of complex issues.

"We were trying to put the jigsaws into the right places at the beginning of the season. I think everyone can see those pieces are now beginning to fit. It gives us great optimism for the future."

But even Manchester City have discovered that heavy spending does not offer a guaranteed path to glory, with the Abu Dhabi-owned club set to fail to defend a Premier League title again. And Southampton have been the surprise package of the campaign, sitting in fifth place despite seeing many of their stars prized away by clubs in the offseason.

"I think the league is going to get more and more competitive," Gazidis said, responding to a question about City's struggles. "I do think that is a long-term trend. People talk about Financial Fair Play inhibiting competition.

"I think it's completely the opposite because what it means is, you are going to see more Southamptons, more challenger teams coming in because revenue has gone up."

A 70-percent leap in domestic TV rights to $8 billion for the three seasons starting in 2016-17 could see even the bottom-placed finishers earn $140 million in broadcast revenue. The champions could rake in more than $200 million.

"Most of this new revenue is shared very, very equally around the league," Gazidis said. "We are going to have teams ... who will to be able to sign top class players. There will be teams that do it very, very well and they are going to be challenging for those top four places.

"So I think it's going to become more competitive which is going to be more challenging for clubs like us but I think it's going to be great news for broadcasters."

Gazidis spoke to The Associated Press ahead of Arsenal's 1-0 victory at Burnley on Saturday, a game shown live on broadcast television across the United States. It is the growth in international revenue that has cemented the Premier League's status as the world's top domestic soccer competition.

NBC is paying $250 million under its current three-year deal with the league -- a figure that is likely to soar for 2016-19. The league is currently selling those international TV rights, which analysts have said could generate an extra $5 billion.

What makes the league so attractive is being a magnet for leading players. But the English Football Association is trying to impose restrictions that would see Premier League squads restricted to 13 non-homegrown players from 17 by 2020. The FA has already convinced the government to tighten work permit rules for players coming in from outside of the European Union.

"In England we are interested in the development of English players and the development of the England national team, but I think our global audiences are primarily driven by the intensity of the competition and the quality of play," Gazidis said.

"I don't think the new rules make a very significant directional change. I think the rules will rework to make them a little bit more objective. Whether that will lead to fewer non-EU players coming in or not, or whether the players coming in will be of lesser quality than the ones we have had in the past, it's too early to say."