Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Evaluating Arsene Wenger

Even medium-sized businesses which turn over tens of millions of pounds invest enormous amounts in marketing their grad schemes, so keen are they to recruit the 'brightest and the best' (I was just sick a little too) to their organisations. Yet football clubs which turn over far larger sums continue to hire from a very small talent pool. If you want to become a professional football manager, you generally have to have played the game at the highest level.

What's most bizarre is how few clubs go against the grain in this regard. Particularly given almost all football clubs are competing over a very small section of society (ex-footballers), even if it were true that the average ex-footballer makes a better manager than an ordinary citizen - a highly questionable hypothesis - it still does not mean that no citizens could make a good manager, and clubs would face far less competition in getting their man (or woman). It's hard to believe that training a bunch of bright 20-somethings for ten to fifteen years wouldn't give top clubs a better talent pool to hire from than they currently have, and without paying the large amounts of compensation that are regularly necessary to hire a good manager. Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy, made a similar point with regard to businesses only hiring graduates with a 2.1 and above.

Given modern football is so obsessed with statistics, it is genuinely confusing as to why clubs are ignoring stats which show that over the long-term a change in manager makes no difference in the majority of scenarios. Now this might be because the role of manager isn't actually that important. But this seems implausible given the vastly disproportionate success that certain managers have had at a variety of clubs, at different levels. So the more likely explanation is that most professional football clubs are hiring very badly.

That football remains a 'closed shop' makes life far easier for the top managers. Most managers are simply copying what went on in the dressing room when they were players because otherwise there's very little guidance available on how to manage. Sure, you take coaching badges but if these were actually important then clubs turning a blind eye to people without their badges would not be nearly as common.

How does this relate to Arsene Wenger? Chiefly, it goes a long way to explaining the context in which he should be evaluated - that he is relatively successful is not altogether surprising: he is an intelligent person putting his brain to football, competing against a lot of unintelligent people who also lack the same capacity for independent thought.

So comparing Wenger's success to most other managers - and viewing him as successful in that light - is a false comparative. You don't have to be very good at all in order to be better than most football managers.

That's not to suggest Wenger hasn't been successful. But it does mean you need to do a little more than point out a lack of eligible replacements to prove how good he is: I think many readers of this esteemed blog, with fifteen to twenty years training, could make better managers than most of the people managing in the Premier League.

What, therefore, are appropriate criteria to evaluate how good managers are?

The journalist Raphael Honigstein likes to point to total wage spend as evidence that Wenger has not really over-achieved: Arsenal's wage bill in the last few years has consistently been the fourth-highest in the League, and they have consistently finished fourth. Particularly given there is quite a strong correlation between wages and finishing position in general, this seems to suggest that Wenger has not done anything especially special.

There's three important responses to this. First, Honigstein's argument is contingent upon a view of wages as being entirely merited - that footballers are paid 60k a week as a reward for their talent and performances. But there's an alternative explanation that to me is quite persuasive: particularly between 2007 and 2011, Arsenal handed out a series of contracts that rather than being a reward were designed to be incentives: we'll pay you 60k a week so that you perceive yourself to be as good as a 60k a week player and play better. This is entirely consistent with the general view of Wenger as a developmental coach, who instills an enormous amount of self-belief in his players. It's also consistent with how players such as Denilson, Bendtner and Eboue (the 'deadwood') played the best football of their careers after being handed these contracts, and were therefore so incredibly difficult to get rid of, due to their massive contracts. Getting more out of players by choosing which young players to hand large contracts to is a sign of good management.

The second response to the wages argument is that Arsenal had to pay higher wages to young players to at least be able to compete in the market somewhat: if you cannot afford the fees for older players, you have to be prepared to pay younger players more to get them to sign for Arsenal, rather than a rival club. This empirically stacks up: some of the very best young players have joined Arsenal, at least partly because they could earn more than they do elsewhere. This was a clever ploy: Liverpool tried to copy it and failed, and moreover, there is now far greater competition for young talent than 8-10 years ago, as a direct result of Wenger's methods. It seems unfair to pin wages on him when net transfer spend has remained so low as a result of signing young players.

But most importantly, even if you don't buy either of these responses, Honigstein's argument seems a bit irrelevant: failing to finish above the enormous wage bills of Man City or Chelsea, or Ferguson's Man United is hardly 'performing to par'. Failing to finish above two of the richest teams in the history of football, and somebody widely admired as one of the best managers in football is not exactly total failure. A better measure might be to compare with teams who spend wages at a similar level - and continue to perennially finish below Arsenal: Liverpool and Tottenham. This seems to be quite a good marker that even if you want to view wages as all-important, Wenger has been at least something of a success. Critically, the logical corollary of this argument is that Manuel Pellegrini has not been a success this season as Man City had the highest wage bill and therefore should finish first. It's pathetic. It basically involves belittling much very good achievement with words like "should". The whole reason football is so watchable is that it is so often unpredictable. Conforming to expectations is something than an enormous amount of even very good managers struggle with.

And critically, even if you think that wages are importantly, they're not the only important factor. The lack of spend in the transfer market at least mitigates Arsenal's wage bill: at the very least, being in less debt is a normatively good thing.

It's for these reasons that I don't think wages is a good metric by which to evaluate managers. Rather, I'd pick two other factors: one is what players say about managers and the other is legacy.

With regard to what players say, it's quite a good way of differentiating between top managers - obviously it's just opinion but when people who played under other excellent managers say that Wenger is the best manager they played under it shows a lot. For one thing, it debunks the media narrative about Wenger not knowing anything about tactics and always playing the same way - if this were the case, ordinarily you would expect players to pick another manager who does 'do' these things as the best manager they played under. To be clear, I haven't picked this factor simply to endorse Arsene Wenger: Santi Cazorla says Manuel Pellegrini is the best manager he ever played under.

But given I've already established that being better than most managers is not enough, it does provide an effective comparison between successful managers. That so many players - Thierry Henry, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Kanu - who have played under pretty much all the best managers of the generation (perhaps bar Ancelotti) say that Wenger is the best manager who they worked with, this means a lot. This isn't me simply selecting people to prove a point: of the players who have spoken publicly about who their best manager was, players who have been managed by Wenger overwhelmingly select him and also praise him. On this basis, it's fair to place Wenger amongst the very best in the business. But lots of players also have kind things to say about Jose Mourinho who I consider an inferior manager to Wenger.

That's why legacy is also relevant. I'd view legacy in terms of two things: first, success the club enjoyed during a manager's time in charge; and second, the position a manager left the club in after he left.

In absolute terms Wenger comes out below many managers on the first metric, and I expect this is the point at which many people will start to disagree with me. To appreciate Wenger's achievements in the last eight years requires a context which is often overlooked. Suffice to say the following: Arsenal have finished above every single Premier League team within the last four seasons, they are not the perennial also-rans which the media portrays them as.

Consistent success - even if it isn't the success people might want most - is still a rare commodity in football. The only team who can match Arsenal's run of seasons in the Champions League is Real Madrid, a club which is subsidised by the local government.

Even the trophies thing is a bit of an anomaly: in his entire managerial career (a season longer than Wenger's time at Arsenal), Carlo Ancelotti - an admittedly terrific manager - has won three League titles. Wenger has won three at Arsenal. That they came ten years ago is not really the point. In the overall context of his time at Arsenal, it is still a great success.

It's certainly a legitimate criticism of Wenger that Arsenal have not taken the domestic cups as seriously as they should have done for the last five or six years, but the flip-side of that is that when a place in the top four has come down to one or two points, the extra fitness players have by not playing in the FA Cup can actually be very beneficial. As ever, few things are simple.

Ultimately, to view Wenger as a failure involves believing a top-four finish is something to be sniffed at. I don't believe it is.

On the second question, that of what followed after a manager leaves a club, this is far more subjective, especially as Wenger has not left Arsenal. A priori logic shows that a manager could leave a club in a great position and they could still flop. But that's not what Alex Ferguson did. Even if you believe David Moyes is a poor manager, Ferguson left United with the fifth best squad in the League. What followed was likely if not inevitable.

If you look at the direction Arsenal are headed in - a squad on long-term contracts, a stadium debt which is mostly paid off, new sponsorship deals - everything looks very positive. Moreover, given it looks like Wenger will stay, the proverbial trophy monkey will surely be lifted.

I don't think Arsene Wenger is necessarily the best coach, the best tactician, the best transfer market operator or the best motivator. But on an overall basis, I think he is pound-for-pound the best manager in world football. Back in your box Guardiola.