In Arsène We Trust
However frustrating this season, the numbers suggest Arsenal would be worse off without Arsène Wenger
A Premier League manager's existence is highly transitory. Supporters expect immediate success and if it doesn't arrive, call for the manager's sacking, while managers who succeed seem always to be looking for a better deal at another club. Thus, the average tenure of a Premier League manager is less than two years. Smart clubs know that over the long term a manager and his system matter when it comes to extracting the best value from the money spent on players. When they get a good one, they do everything possible to hold on to him.
It is therefore no coincidence then that the three managers who have spent more than seven years at a single club over the Premier League's twenty years happen to work for some of the most consistent clubs: Everton, Manchester United and Arsenal. David Moyes's Everton sides should be finishing in the bottom half of the table, yet his teams have over-performed on average nearly 3.5 table positions and 5.1 points per season against his club's wage and transfer bills1. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sir Alex Ferguson, without whom Manchester United wouldn't have won nearly as many as the twelve Premier League titles they now have in their trophy cabinet. In between these two ends of the achievement spectrum sits Arsène Wenger, who is now in his 17th year at the helm of Arsenal.
To watch Wenger on the sidelines of most matches is to see a man frustrated by the unfulfilled promise of a team in which he has ultimate faith: the over-the-top gesticulating while wearing an oversized down coat; the haranguing of the officials for perceived fouls by the opposition or missed calls that would have favoured his team; the sullen, inconsolable figure slumped in the manager's chair when his team is behind; and the coup de grâce — the water bottle, which he nurses all match, flying in the air after another late goal conceded by his team.
Wenger, like Ferguson and Moyes, is an anachronism in today's money-filled internationally competitive game in which managers and players alike are always looking for a better deal at another club. Wenger has the trust of his players because the club has trusted the manager to build all facets of its existence as he wishes. Allowing him to build that bond with players has been critical to the club's success at each stage of Wenger's career and in turn has allowed him to succeed as a contrarian within the different phases of the Premier League's history. No matter the manager's level of success — the trophy-laden early years, the trophyless youth project era and during what might now be called the post-youth phase — Arsenal's management, its players, and its supporters have built the club around a supreme faith in their manager.
While Wenger may have arrived to newspaper headlines of "Arsène Who?", the leadership at Arsenal knew that they had hired the one man capable of shaking things up at one of the most British clubs in the Premier League. Arsenal required a change in strategy both on and off the pitch to beat the dominant sides at the time and they foresaw the changes that the game's globalisation would bring to the professional leagues in England. They needed an outsider to institute new ideas and Wenger was their man.
Wenger began changing the club by enacting a well-documented training, tactical and dietary revolution. Out went the Mars bars in the dressing-room and the drinking after the match. In came protein-and-carbohydrate paired menus and an intense focus on recovery time. Out went direct, conservative football and in came fluid passing. Even with all the changes, Wenger's efforts would have been irrelevant if he hadn't been able to change the types of players he had available to him and build upon the solid foundation left by previous managers. It was the outlay in terms of player purchases and resultant salaries in which Arsenal's management demonstrated their full trust in Wenger and his philosophies.
In its fifth year when Wenger arrived at Arsenal in September 1996, the Premier League was already undergoing some modest change in the nationalities of the players who made up its clubs. Over 85% of first-team player registrations were from the UK in the league's first season. That number had been reduced to 77% the season before Wenger's arrival. Who better than the man from Alsace to accelerate the transition to a worldlier Arsenal? In only two seasons at the helm Wenger would take a team that was 84% British the year before his arrival and transform it into one that was one third British and half continental European, with the remaining 16% coming from outside of Europe. He used his knowledge of France's golden generation and advanced global recruiting networks to add Nicolas Anelka, Luís Boa Morte, Gilles Grimandi, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira to his squad. These players were added to a stable of British players such as Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Ray Parlour, David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn and Ian Wright. The combination of an established British core with new European flair would take Arsenal to the top of the Premier League table by the end of Wenger's second year.
That was far from inevitable. Such a drastic change in diet, training and tactics could have gone disastrously wrong even with the best manager leading the way. The key was in getting the whole organisation, down to the individual players, to trust the use of the new disciplines. "At first," Ian Ridley wrote in the Independent at the close of the 1997-98 season as Wenger secured his first Premier League title, "the English players were sceptical when Wenger assembled them for stretching exercises on the morning of a match but the proof of the bread-and-butter pudding has been in the eating. They feel physically fitter and can see their careers — and earning capacity — being extended and respond accordingly."
As the players bought into the system, they also bought into each other. Feeling more comfortable with their new Dutch and French teammates and recalling the tough days at the close of the George Graham era, the English defenders who had earned a new lease on their playing life started the conversation that changed the fate of Arsenal's season. "A team meeting was called [by the players]," Ridley wrote. "Home truths were exchanged; home thoughts on those from abroad expressed… It was never a question of them-and-us, domestic v overseas, conflict in the dressing room; more a meeting of footballing cultures and how best to integrate the two. The French and Dutch were coming to understand the physical demands of the Premiership… while the English were beginning to appreciate the flair that the overseas players could bring to the party, the flair they had pined for as complement under Graham."
Wenger's goal of getting the players to open up, to communicate with each other and not always require him to solve the club's challenges had been realised. He had created a self-sustaining system that permeated the entire club. His master plan had worked.
In executing such a plan Wenger delivered two advantages to Arsenal. The first was the knowledge and use of undervalued talent from continental Europe within the Premier League, which was virtually unique to Arsenal at the time. The only other team in the top half of the table with as much non-UK talent was Chelsea, who not coincidentally were led by the Italian Gianluca Vialli2. Like Wenger, Vialli would manage a team of great European and British players and beat the economic models of the time by delivering 11 points per season more than his player expenditures would suggest he should have achieved3. Where Vialli and Wenger differed was in the aggressiveness with which Wenger was willing to pay for such overseas talent, and this is where he delivered his second deadly advantage for Arsenal.
Simon Kuper's book Why England Lose (known in the USA as Soccernomics) and the Transfer Price Index (TPI) exposed what English football clubs had known for years: there's no substitute for spending big on good players (at least in terms of wages), and those players are increasingly coming from other places than the clubs' own youth academies. Arsenal had the seventh highest wage bill prior to Wenger's arrival and the fourth highest squad valuation in terms of cumulative transfer fees. Within one year he had moved them into the third position for wages and second for squad valuation in terms of transfers. The dizzying investment continued throughout the trophied years and by the early 2000s, Wenger's teams were constantly battling Manchester United for top spot in terms of wages and transfer valuation. Ferguson's United were the only ones who could match Arsenal's combination of financial might and management genius until Roman Abramovich's financial resources arrived at Chelsea in the summer of 2003.
One fallacy is thus exposed: Arsenal haven't always been a financially conservative club. Wenger ended up spending nearly £145 million on player transfer fees alone between the 1996-97 and the 2003-04 seasons (£327M 2011-12 CTPP4), with a net spend of around £60 million (£130M 2011-12 CTPP) due an offsetting £85M (£197M 2011-12 CTPP) in player sales. The player wage bill nearly quadrupled from £13.3M (£61M in today's wages) in 1996-97 to £61.3M (£113M today) in 2003-04. The net effect of the spending, when inflation within Premier League wage and transfer valuations is taken into account, is that Arsenal moved from 1.39 times the median total team valuation (TTV5) in 1996-97 to 2.23 times by 2003-04.
Arsenal's board had put their complete trust in Wenger to spend such sums of money in an effort to transform their style of play and return them to the top of English football. They got everything they wanted from their manager and then some. With a less than 10% chance of winning the league the year that Wenger took over, the new manager's investments and tactics moved the club to be odds-on-favourites for the title with a 30% chance of winning the 2001-02 and 2002-03 trophies. Wenger delivered on such favourable odds, winning three Premier League titles and three of his four FA Cups between 1997-98 and 2003-04. The culmination of Wenger's efforts would come at the dawn of the Abramovich era with the Invincibles' 2003-04 season. On a player valuation basis the club's title chances had dropped to 10% that season given Chelsea's heavy investment, and their odds of completing the season undefeated were less than 0.01%. Nonetheless, Wenger and his side expertly navigated the season's 38 matches, winning 26 and drawing 12 to finish top of the table with 93 points6. At the time it seemed the sky was the limit, but this would end up being Wenger's finest achievement at the club.
Two substantial changes that would diminish Arsenal's ability to win additional trophies came at the end of that season. The club had decided that if it were to make its annual challenge for the title permanent, it must generate the match-day and commercial revenue of their chief rivals, Manchester United. Arsenal had certainly grown into a worldwide presence with their attractive football and multiple trophies, but they needed a bigger home to house the club's growing ambitions. What wasn't initially clear was how extravagant the stadium might be and thus how much it would cost to build. Xavier Rivoire's Arsène Wenger: The Biography contains an account of the debate about the stadium from the perspective of Alex Flynn, a British specialist in the business of football. "I don't think Arsène wanted all the money from this partnership with Emirates [Airlines] to go to this new home," he said. "I think he wanted a functional rather than a luxurious home… Wenger and [vice-chairman David] Dein certainly wanted the stadium to be built, but… they didn't want it to be at the expense of transfer monies."
The Emirates would indeed be built as a lavish home for Arsenal, with nearly 60% more seats than Highbury and a great increase in the number of luxurious executive suites that would raise match-day revenue to more than £90 million per year. The stadium and redevelopment of Highbury would come at a cost of nearly £380 million, with £260 million paid for by various term bonds. "The stadium initially cost us a lot," Wenger said in Rivoire's biography. "Now, though, the financial situation will improve given the size of the arena we have moved to and the off-field benefits it will bring. It is true that it has been a painful few years, though. We have steadily had to cut the wage bill and invest less in transfers."
The wage and transfer bills were also cut due to the second major change — the rise of Chelsea via Abramovich's resources. While Abramovich had invested heavily before the Invincibles' 2003-04 season, he and the club went into overdrive the following off-season. The purchase of Didier Drogba for £24 million (2011-12 CTPP of £48 million) was part of a nearly £100 million (CTTP of £200 million), nine-player buying spree that would raise Chelsea's TTV to £333 million (or equivalent to £757 million in current wages and transfer fees). The 2003-04 Chelsea squad had blown away the previous record for TTV on a constant valuation basis by more than 63%, and the club then surpassed their own record by another 33% in 2004-05. In two seasons they had more than doubled the previous TTV record valuation and showed no signs of slowing down under Abramovich and José Mourinho. Not even Manchester United could keep up; Arsenal had even less of a chance.
The lack of money due to the stadium project and the lack of inexpensive quality players due to the spending by Chelsea and other clubs meant the Arsenal board had to ask Wenger to do more with less, hoping that his managerial genius could carry the club.Wenger needed not only to mine the furthest reaches of the globe for talent but to find it less polished and much younger than before if Arsenal were to be able to afford it.
Slowly the club lowered its wage bill, selling players like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry for profits while bringing in younger, less expensive players like Mathieu Flamini, Cesc Fàbregas, Gaël Clichy, Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott. The change in player strategy would move Arsenal from a buying club into one that sold talent. They would spend £220 million (CTTP £272 million) buying players between 2004-05 and 2012-2013 while the departing players would generate £254 million (CTTP £316 million). Comfortably situated in the top two positions for TTV in the early 2000's, Arsenal found themselves sliding to fourth position by 2007 and sixth by 2009. What had been a Big Four — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United — had become the Big Six with the rise in spending at Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur as the Premier League completed its second decade of competition.
The purchase of such young, untested talent meant Wenger had to have faith in the rapid development of the new players. In turn, they trusted him to give them opportunities they might not get elsewhere. "It was him who placed his trust in me, and Arsenal the club which gave me the confidence I needed," said Fabregas in Rivoire's biography. "Other teams talked about taking me on, but none of them did. Now it is my turn — I want to give something back… I want to help construct the future team."
It wasn't just the older players who moved out to make way for younger, less developed talent. In 2007, Dein resigned as vice-chairman over differences in how he saw future direction. He'd been at the club since 1983 and was instrumental in changing every facet of it via the recruitment of Wenger and faithfully backing each of his initiatives. If the club and its management were content not to spend the money that Manchester United and Chelsea were then spending, there was no future for a man like Dein at the club. Wenger was now the sole man guiding Arsenal's fortunes.
Dein's concern about Arsenal slipping off their pedestal due to a lack of spending was prescient, if not obvious. The Gunners haven't won a trophy since their 2005 FA Cup triumph. There have been a number of up-and-down campaigns in the Premier League. Arsenal's championship odds from 2005-06 through to last season were no higher than 3% given their player expenditures, while their odds of making it into the Champions League have hovered between 20% and 25% over the last four seasons. Premier League title aspirations had been replaced by ones centred on Champions League qualification and the desperately needed revenue it brought to the club.
Dein's frustration would soon show up in the players on whom the youth project was based. Clichy, Fàbregas, and Van Persie were all recruited when Arsenal were still winning trophies and they were to be the centrepiece of a more youthful Arsenal that was to continue such successes on a less expensive basis. Season after season they would come up short, only to be promised that a few more signings would be made each summer to push them over the line the next season. Instead of seeing more proven players added to their ranks they saw teammates like Flamini and Adebayor leave for what were perceived to be more ambitious clubs. By the summer of 2011, the core of youth players had reached their breaking point. Clichy left for Manchester City with the younger Samir Nasri, while Fàbregas left for his boyhood club Barcelona — the club whose youth-centred development and tiki-taka style seemed a more effective model of wat Wenger was trying to do. Fàabregas, long the Arsenal talisman, had lost his faith in the club's strategy, but not his former manager. "It wasn't really the losing, it was the routine," Fabregas explained. "Year after year, it was always the same story. Fighting until the end only to see we didn't have the energy, in the semi-finals, the finals, to arrive in the final sprint… Wenger is a special person to me. He'll always be a second father to me… I'll never be able to find the words to express my thanks for what he did for me. I think he has been given a bad image here, and that shouldn't be the case. If I'm here, a big part of that is thanks to him."
With the departure of Fàbregas, Clichy and Nasri, there was a sense of finality about the youth project. Arsenal would trudge through the 2011-12 campaign, barely qualifying for a fifteenth consecutive Champions League after their worst start to a season in nearly a century. All of the struggles during the season made last summer's departure of Van Persie all the more inevitable, with the transfer of Alex Song further confirming that Wenger's experiment to win championships on the cheap was dead.
The failure to win trophies has led for many to call Wenger's attempt to buck the money-driven nature of the Premier League a failure, but is it really, given the club's expectations and resultant expenditures? "At a certain level," the Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood said earlier this season, "we can't compete. I don't think [the majority shareholder] Stan Kroenke is going to put in the sort of dollars that Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour are putting into Chelsea or Manchester City… That's not the way he thinks clubs should be run. Luckily, Arsène understands that. He got an economics degree from Strasbourg University so he's certainly no fool… We're ambitious enough but we're not going to end in the same plight as Rangers [who were bankrupted]… That is a fact of life. So my advice is, don't get miserable about it."
While some may debate whether or not the club has spent every available pound on players, what's not debatable are the results Wenger has been able to deliver on such a limited budget. He ranks first overall against player expenditures for all managers with more than one season of experience in the Abramovich era, earning nearly half a point more per match than expected resulting in an average overperformance of 18 points per season. His teams had a less than 1% chance of making more than six straight Champions League group stages during that same time period, yet this autumn they showed up for their ninth straight group stage since Abramovich's arrival in English football. In the long term, clubs who spent as much relative to the rest of the league as Arsenal have in the last four seasons averaged a table position of 7th, while the Gunners never finished lower than fourth. Wenger has done the virtually impossible: he's continually earned a top-four position while five of Arsenal's rivals outspend them every year and their relative player expenditure advantage over the rest of the league has shrunk — which is exactly what the board has expected of him.
At some point Wenger may decide to leave the club he seems to love enough to guide it through a trophyless transition while getting far less gratitude than he deserves from the club's supporters. Perhaps it will only be then that those on the outside will fully appreciate what he's done for the club, perhaps watching his successor struggle to maintain the former manager's record even if other clubs' spending is reined in via Financial Fair Play. They'll be able to look at the physical monuments to the financial prudence his man-management allowed and his club management drove — the Emirates Stadium and London Colney training ground — and see the trust the club put into him. They'll continue to read about the love ex-players have for the man, the club and his training systems. Some day they may even gain some insight into Wenger's most difficult hours via his long promised post-retirement memoir. The Invincibles, the Emirates, the players, the culture — all bear the mark of a professorial Frenchman who has always insisted on doing things differently and in doing so has earned the love and trust of the club, the players and the supporters along the way. The supporters' banners couldn't be more accurate when they say "In Arsène We Trust".
Wage data from the Companies House via Stefan Szymanski. Transfer data © Paul Tomkins and Graeme Riley via www.transferpriceindex.com. Analysis © Zach Slaton via www.abeautifulnumbersgame.com.
The author would like to express his gratitude to Paul Tomkins and Graeme Riley for the use of Transfer Price Index data, and to Professor Stefan Szymanski who provided the critical salary data used by the Index's models.