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Moneyball and how and why Wenger lost the magic touch

I'm re-reading Michael Lewis' Moneyball for the third time. If you haven't read it, or you've just seen the film, check it out, it's fascinating and really well written. The premise of the book is how the General Manager of the baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane (below), built one of the most successful teams in the States on a shoestring budget and consistently beat teams with three or four times the budget of his own.

Beane used a myriad of approaches to achieve this. However, the starting point was to challenge the essential foundations on which major league baseball was built and then by analysing specific data to isolate which aspects of the game led to a winning team, buy players who would fit the team's modus operandi, at a heavily discounted price, dictated by his meagre budget.

Therefore, a realisation of what is actually critical to winning matches and exhaustive player analysis was crucial to the continued success of the project.

The similarity to the earlier years of the Wenger project at Arsenal is quite compelling here. Wenger is feted as being responsible for revolutionising the way clubs trained and prepared for games and never spent "big" on players, as his competitors did. The question of interest is why has Wenger abandoned the player acquisition rules of Moneyball and has instead drifted to the dark side, spending £77 million on two footballers? It feels that only players of established high value are being brought into the club, and more pointedly and of more direct concern, when these players aren't available, no one is brought into the club. So what changed?

Wenger's addiction to his laptop and the player performance figures he craves is well known, I assume that this tendency to fire up ProZone is still a big feature of his analysis and preparations. It's when you examine Arsenal's transfer policy, that the ground-shift becomes clearer. Billy Beane's Moneyball policy is dictated by budget, but also a draft system which he played to his enormous advantage. European football, is in a more privileged position, as players can be transferred for a fee whilst in contract, as opposed to a system in MLB which is based on a a players serving a six year lock-in post draft and then being available as a free agent, or players moving between teams depending on their wage demands. This system has been in place since the 1970's.

To Beane risk is mitigated by purchasing numerous options at a low price, as opposed to the one-off superstars that he can't afford anyway.

Since Bosman became law in Europe in 1995, the canny manager was able to plunder undiscovered jewels from the market, if his club's scouting policy and ability to move quickly was equalled by a supportive board. This was definitively the case at Arsenal, who bought brilliantly, below is a selection of player's bought in the 1996/97 season alone:

Marc Overmars bought in June 1997 for £7 million.
Patrick Vieira bought in August 1996 for £3.5 million.
Manu Petit bought in June 1997 for £2.5 million
Nicolas Anelka bought in February 1997 for £500,000          

These four players were bought for £13.5 million and sold for £68 million. Each was a risk in some way, they were either young and untested, or in the Dutchman's case, deemed to be a massive injury concern, but it was classic Moneyball, they were bought on the cheap, because they each offered Arsenal something different, but something the club needed, furthermore, their re-sale value was huge.

When you scroll through the seasons, the footballers of this vein, brought into Arsenal include Thierry Henry (an unloved substitute at Juventus), Freddie Ljungberg, those two for a combined fee of £13 million, and the list goes on; Lauren (£7m), Edu (£6m), Pires (£6m), all five were Invincibles.

At this time, Arsenal had a massive asset, one overlooked and given little or no credit by anyone at the club these days, including the current manager, David Dein (below). Dein loved the Wenger project almost as much as he loved the club itself and was formidable as a sounding board, hustler and deal maker. He was exceptional at getting the transfers across the line and used his considerable influence repeatedly.

When I consider why Mr Wenger didn't buy one single outfield player this summer and why, of his seven purchases last summer, only Sanchez has featured as a regular, I can only conclude, that were David Dein still at Arsenal, things would be fundamentally different. 

Dein wouldn't put up with the manager's dithering. Arsene Wenger is now in his mid-60's, but his ineffective transfer policy isn't down to age, sadly, it's down to arrogance. The relationship he enjoys with Arsenal's absent owner and the way he is able to dictate to the CEO and the board, has allowed him to occupy a position where he has to answer to no-one. When you lose accountability in an organisation, you lose effectiveness and decision making, you create a vacuum.

Therefore, the days of the Wenger (Moneyball) project aren't numbered, they've gone.

Come back David, we miss you.

By Ian Byrne

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Arsenal Transfer Window - Incompetent and Ineffectual

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - the more that things change the more they stay the same.

In an article from Arseblog from last October, which introduced Arsenal's new Head of Academy, Andries Jonker, he highlighted that it was critical that the club completely overhaul it's scouting network. After a transfer window, in which Arsenal bought one player, Petr Cech, this necessity has been brought into even sharper focus, or has it? Arsenal needed a keeper, Cech wanted to stay in London, did we need an extensive scouting network to spot that one?

The purpose of a scouting network is to provide a list of targets and for the management to decide which is the highest priority. I assume that the scouts are doing their job, as there are frequent references in the press and the blogs, of scouts being present at matches to check out a specific player. I also know that players like Koscielny, for example, were scouted on numerous occasions, I think he was watched over 30 times. So the scouts are in place and presumably fulfilling their obligations. There was an interesting line in the interview with Jonkers, when he said a crucial aspect of the scouting network was to find players "who are at the right age to work with Wenger immediately".

To me, that would point to footballers of an age and experience to go straight into the first team squad, but Jonkers is Head of the Academy and therefore, the more worrying undertone, is that the club's scouts are prioritising players who are the right age for the Academy, therefore in an age group of 16-20, as opposed to established footballers.

At the start of the window, Arsenal needed to sign three players, the keeper was signed, but there was only speculation about signing a centre forward and Arsenal were never linked in any meaningful sense to a holding midfield player. After the early move for Alexis Sanchez in 2014, who was secured in early July of that year, supporters would be forgiven for thinking that there had been a shift in the club's transfer policy. The events of this window confirm that it's a case of plus ca change...

The most impressive team this term has been Manchester City, who have spent £158 million in this window, most notably signing Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, for £49 million and £54 million respectively. City have a similar scouting network to Arsenal, but the fundamental difference is that they have an executive tier that reviews progress and meets regularly to decide the steps required to prioritise player purchases and take action. At Arsenal, Dick Law is the principle negotiator, but it's the manager who has the final say. He prevaricates, he gets cold feet, he changes his mind, we lose players, again and again. You could win a World Cup with the footballers that Arsenal have missed out on.

When questioned about Arsenal's lack of transfer activity, Wenger preferred to shift the conversation to dissecting Manchester United's signing of Anthony Martial. This transfer has raised eyebrows, £36 million for a 19 year old who scores a goal in every four appearances? It does reflect however, a club that is willing to take a qualified risk. Because taking risks is central to running a business, when we recruited a manager who had been sacked in France and was managing a club in the Japanese J-League, that was a huge risk.

When the Glazers bought Manchester Unite the reaction from the supporters was so fierce, that it forged the creation of a new football club for disenchanted fans to channel their fury. Ironically, under these owners, United have spent enormous, eye watering amounts of cash on players of varying quality - over £250 million in just over the last year and pay weekly wages of £300,000. Which leads me to question what lies at the heart of the problem for Arsenal and it's lack of new recruits. Is it the scouting network, or is it the ownership model?

The simple truth is that Arsenal are owned and led by a small group of individuals who have turned the club's home ground into a corporate shopping mall (Myles Palmer), by prioritising match day attenders as customers as opposed to supporters and have managed to discard the essence of a very proud football club in less than ten years. In all businesses, the strategic direction comes from the very top. Arsenal chooses not to compete with the major forces in European football on acquiring the very best, because it doesn't want to. We don't need a new scouting network, we need a new ownership model.

By Ian Byrne

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