Does Arsene Wenger Overachieve Compared To His Spend?

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. 

Follow me on Twitter: @AngryOfN5

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19 thoughts on “Does Arsene Wenger Overachieve Compared To His Spend?

      • I don’t mean that as an excuse for the lack of success, I just mean if he manages to balance the books better than any other manager in the league, whilst paying off that stadium, id take that as over achieving.

      • Article is pretty clear.. what’s factored in is wages and transfer spend. Whatever else club revenue is spent on is irrelevant to how the team is performing.

  1. Looking at credit, AW has done well. The issue for me now, is AW getting the best of out what he’s got? For me, the answer is a clear no. Compared to Wenger’s earlier years, I remember David Dein saying about Wenger “He buys good players and makes them great, and makes great players world class.” That’s the only difference for me. I don’t think it’s so much the players have changed, it’s the way how AW changed in those years – his approach is very different. It’s almost like he no longer wants to use what worked really well. Money I think is just a little plaster on a widening crack.

    • I disagree. The issue is, in my view, the opposite: that his approach is similar to what it was before but the circumstances are different. A couple of examples:
      – It’s undisputably harder to hold onto top players because of the way that the top of the distribution has been distorted by the likes of Man City.
      – There’s clearly more competition for players abroad because all reasonably-sized clubs now have (1) international scouting networks and (2) a genuine desire to buy international players. Neither was the case when Wenger joined, hence all the whinging about Wenger not backing local players (ironic when you consider that he’s now explicitly trying to build a British core to his team).

      I’m not giving the complete story here by any means, but just wanted to put a couple of examples out there.

      • Good points!
        A question for you though. From the days of Pires, Vieira, Bergkamp, Henry all playing together, do you think they would leave the club if the likes of Man City and Chelsea with their money had been around then? (I know it’s not a reasonable scenario to give you as it wasn’t the case, so I’m just asking you to speculate.)

  2. Does his “overachievement” achieve enough for the club? The tranfer kitty funds come from his own pocket, or from fans? These are some question that can be asked upon him as well…

  3. Fantastic article.

    Only argument I have is that arsenal have been fifth highest spenders in most of the previous five years. Liverpool have been higher fourth..

    That would mean, in terms of league position, coming third or fourth is still overachieving.
    Good, consistent CL results make up for shitty domestic cup results in my mind, but that is a purely subjective opinion.

    So overall, AW still has “credits”.. and they’re not decreasing at this stage.

  4. “to add maybe, if possible, two new players”
    My God what does that mean? There are players available that are frankly better than any player we have on the pitch FFS buy them!

    Wenger has been underachieving for years, he has not had a small spend by any means;
    Spending last 2 seasons:
    Man Utd spend 100,000,000
    Arsenal spend. 97,150,000

    That is a difference of 2,850,000, does anyone reading this think we are 2.85 million behind UTD in terms of talent? If you do you are deluded.

    Wenger has been underachieving for years as we can see from our empty trophy cabinet.
    Wenger needs to go now, not in the summer when we lose a CL spot and the chance to attract new players is much more difficult for the manager that comes in to clean up Wenger’s mess.

    There is still time to get a new manager in place that can buy some players in this window.

    Of course we could all sit around moronically chanting Arsene knows best with the vision of a deluded cult waiting for the end of the world. Ironically in this case the end of the world is close for Arsenal fans…

  5. I made a comparison graphic of the manager’s budget for 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 season based on wages+transfer spending: http://benhan8.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/table-budget-r1.jpg

    It’s hard to say some managers overachieved or underachieved just based on the league position and their spending. For example MU finished second last season, and City finished first with goals difference. Can we say Fergie overachieved and Mancini underachieved? Or Fergie and Mancini just on par? What’s the benchmark?

    Because the spending of Mancini for the previous two seasons was almost 1.5 x Fergie’s and twice of Wenger’s.

    But we could also understand for a “new” club like City, they have to invest more to assemble good players because of non-existence of big club history while the establishments could do it easier and already have good players at their team.

    Transferpriceindex has interesting approach in measuring the manager achievement: http://transferpriceindex.com/2012/07/the-201112-update-to-the-all-time-best-managers-versus-the-mxir-model/. And guess who’s on the top.

  6. The biggest difference to the second half of the ‘Wenger years’ analysis is that during this period clubs with the financial clout could come in and recruit our stars, the players we have lost/sold were stil playing for Arsenal we would still be right up there in 1st or 2nd,
    With Cole,Clichy,Nasri,Adebayor,Fab,Song RVP all stil in the squad We are still serious contenders,our opponents have strengthened where we are slightly weaker hence a yearly contest for 4th, Its just life blame should not be apportioned,the playing field has changed and expectation must also.

  7. A beautiful piece you have written here. Supporting arsenal back in d days, all I wanted to know was WIN WIN WIN, didn’t care about the books or who gets paid what..but after reading this,I realise that managing a club isn’t easy. AW has done great for this club but times have changed, its either he gets on the boat or drown…we r alredy sinking as it iz

  8. “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. ”

    Weird statement. Finishing above Chelsea and Man City in the league, knocking out higher rated teams in the Champions League is compared to losing to Bradford in the toy cup. Not very honest, as I don’t think you’d honestly compare the two or weigh them equally.

    For most of the years since 2005 Arsenal’s UEFA coefficient has been significantly higher than several bigger spenders. I haven’t seen Real Madrid’s current coefficient or ours, but we were consistently higher rated. So overperformance was in all areas.

    Even in the league cup where the two defeats to lower league teams occurred, Wenger has a very good record above par without winning it.

    It’s a strange quibble you’re on. You’re trying to fit his record to your displeasure.

  9. Good piece. People who are ‘anti’ Wenger use the Arsenal wage bill as an argument that we’re underachieving and people who are ‘pro’ Wenger use the transfer bill as a counter argument. It’d be nice to see the 2 figures totalled up and then compared to other teams to see how we sit over the last 5 years. Would our combined transfer and wages figure be higher or lower than some of the clubs around us ? I’m guessing that if we’ve been spending £50m more a season than Spurs on wages, then that more than outweighs the additional amounts they’ve spent on transfers.
    Other points when discussing wage bills, do all clubs include their non-playing staff ? Does Arsenal’s include a CL qualification bonus which wouldn’t be paid if the team didn’t finish top 4 ?

  10. We are a Big Club in a spiral of accelerating decline and everybody is miserable. Who is to blame? Leaving all the ‘arithmetic’ out of it, Phil, that is the gist of this piece. And your verdict seems to be: Arsene Wenger. Basically, he was all right in the first half (a mixture of inside knowledge and luck) and poor in the second half (his luck ran out and the competition caught up). Well, miserable or not, let’s try to be fair and level-headed. Arsene was better than good the first half, he was brilliant, the most successful manager in the Club’s history. And to put that down mostly to luck simply does not wash.
    Okay, what went wrong in the second half? In three words: lack of money. Now I don’t have any inside knowledge of what goes on in the corridors of power at the Emirates – like whether or not Arsene controls players wages, who to buy, who to sell (or who to keep), but one thing I DO know for sure: he does NOT control financial policy. He is a paid employee, and his paymasters decide financial policy. So if he DOES decide on wages and transfers, it’s within the parameters of a budget given to him. And with respect to transfers, that budget NETT has been zero. So yes, he may get to choose who to buy, but his budget does not extend (for example) to Mata, Hazard, Jagielka. So we end up with Gerv, Merts, Caz. And we know that he was desperate to keep Naz and Robin – so what kind of power does he have with regard to keeping players. Very little, evidently, if Ivan thinks the bid is high enough. Confirmed by the sale of Alex Song: a player he’d developed, nurtured, at his peak, why would he choose to sell him?
    Wages? Imput perhaps, but not the final say. The panic raises to the Brits (to buy their loyalty) – Ivan’s magic negotuating touch, entirely alien to Arsene. And Arsene described the ‘level’ wage structure to a reporter as ‘socialist’: if anything tells us that it is NOT his policy, that he believes it’s nutty,it’s a comment like that.
    Arsene is a great manager but even he cannot win trophies without money to spend, when his best players are sold off. Give him the budget that SAF has had and he will win as many trophies. So to return to the gist of the piece, who is to blame? The owners, past and present.

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