As we sit in the middle of the transfer window, tumbleweed crossing the corridor outside Dick Law’s office and moths making a home under his telephone receiver, arguing about how many millions of pounds are available for the manager to spend, we need to pass the time somehow. Inspired by a Twitter conversation I ‘overheard’ this morning featuring my old mate @theN5er, I have passed some time considering the question of whether Arsene Wenger over-achieves or not.
Some say he does, some say he doesn’t. In my not so humble opinion the answer is (as so often) somewhere in the middle. For the purposes of this, I’m not going to add in complications such as whether all available money is spent, I’ll just look at what is spent and what success it’s brought. Arsene is in sole charge of wages for playing staff and, since David Dein left, how much players will be bought for. There is slightly less control over how much they get sold for, but ultimately Arsene decides who he wants in his squad, and therefore who gets sold.
‘Spending’ is both transfers and wages. There is a well-known and oft-quoted correlation between wages and league places, but in my opinion a better one between total spend and league position. (7amkickoff did a big piece on this a while ago.) Where AW scores over most other managers is in keeping net transfer spend down.
For the first few years of his tenure, Arsenal were the second or third largest spenders in English football, behind the Salford Megastore and about level with the once-mighty Scousers. A combination of factors meant that the Gunners’ net transfer spend was low: AW had a knack of buying and developing young players at the time, and managed to sell the few stars who wanted to leave for vastly more than he paid for them. Others came and went for relative peanuts, but there were enough big sales to keep the net figure low. In some cases profits arose from excellent talent spotting, in others such as Overmars it was taking a risk on an injury-prone player and getting perhaps little bit lucky. For several seasons Arsene’s gambles to success ratio was very high (or is it success to gambles? Either way he did well). Luck, skill, divine intervention – whatever it was, it worked. And we finished in the top two, and sometimes first, for eight years straight without total spending being the highest, so that could fairly be said to be overachieving. It may only have been overachieving by one place, but it was the most important place. (Obviously if you’re the second biggest spender you can only ever overachieve by one place, which sets a bit of a limit on any graph you want to draw! It’s quite possible that in this period you could have theoretically limited Arsene to, say, the tenth highest spending and some years he might have overachieved by eight places. We’ll never know.)
Since 2005, the period of fallow years that Joseph warned us of so vividly in his Biblical dream, what has changed? Firstly, Arsenal’s position in the League has changed from first or second to third or fourth, and the FA Cup (the other thing we had got used to winning) has proved more elusive.
In the transfer market not very much has changed. Arsenal still sell star players for more than they bought them. The difference is that we don’t have replacements coming through who are as good or better, so the squad and team have got gradually weaker. But net transfer spend has still stayed in the range that made Stan Kroenke think “I’ll have some of that, sunshine.”
Meanwhile Arsenal’s wage bill has increased – but so has everyone else’s, and the sugar daddy clubs have left us behind in spending of both kinds. So we’re now the fourth biggest spending club on wages, not too far from Man Utd but nowhere near Chelsea and Man City. However, we are a long, long way above everyone else on wage spend – Everton, currently above us in the table, spend about £80m less and Spurs, above both us and Everton, spend £50m less. So we should be comfortably fourth on wage spend alone, and probably still fairly comfortably fourth on wages and transfers.
What Arsene has done – and this is at least partly down to luck – is maintained a position in the top four for his whole reign. Three points here: firstly, well done. Secondly I say it’s partly luck because in any large data set, even one such as league positions relative to spend (that ultimately depends on a huge number of variables that can even each other out), you would expect some outliers, so in some senses it’s a statistical quirk that there aren’t any in this case. Just that steady line on the graph: third, fourth, fourth, third, etc. And thirdly, ‘always in the top four’ is a slightly disingenuous boast, because of course for the first eight years he maintained a position in the top two! If we now slip to fifth or sixth and stay there for the next eight seasons, you could say, “Well he’s kept us in the top six for 24 years, that’s consistency!” But it’s a lower level of consistency than before. Keeping us in the top four is symbolic for the Holy Grail of Champions League qualification, though, so there are reasons to say fourth is as good as second. But I think even the most ardent Wengerite will have trouble putting a rosy tint on things if we have several years of being fifth or sixth.
However, the point is Arsenal’s league position under Wenger has so far been remarkably stable – a feat only equalled I think by 1970s/80s Liverpool and Fergie’s Utd in the whole of English football history. Concurrent with that has been stability in the Champions League: we (nearly) always get through the group, then maybe get a bit further, then get knocked out. On rare occasions we are knocked out of the Group stage or get to the semi-final or final. Given the increased randomness of the CL over the PL you would expect a more random set of results, but then UEFA do make it as easy as possible with seedings and groups increasing the odds of upsets by minnows. The result of all this consistency – and I’m digressing slightly – is that Arsenal fans as a body have become hugely complacent in what they expect as a minimum level of success; consistency is the rod Wenger has made for his own back.
So, have Arsenal over-achieved since 2005? If they have it’s very marginal. Overall, perhaps, as there have been one or two occasions when we have finished the League above a club that spends more, but against that must be set recent defeats to lower league teams in cup competitions. On balance I’d say we have just about achieved par over the period 2006-2012, but the worrying factor is that the trend is downward. Finishing below fourth this season will be below par. Normally a rational person would accept a season of ‘outlying data’, but if below par means – as it does – no Champions League football, loss of £30m-£40m of income and the possibility of longer-term Liverpool-like decline, then it’s a problem.
The overall verdict: I’d say Arsene Wenger is still slightly in credit over his whole reign, but he no longer overachieves and the credit balance he’s built up is rapidly running out.