Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What Is Wenger Not Telling Arsenal Fans

In sunny Florida, few baseball teams are as anxious to get back to spring training as the Oakland A’s.  Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s, can't wait for his 2013 team to take the field on opening day.  Beane is better known as one of the more popular characters Brad Pitt has played in the movies, (Moneyball).

Across the pond in the chilly dark and damp soil of the English Premier League, Arsène Wenger, manager of Arsenal FC is leading a fifth place team into the last leg of the season, some 21 games behind the leader, Manchester United. The end of the season may not come soon enough for the beleaguered French-born Wenger.

Beane and Wenger share more than a job title and attitudes, they share a philosophy borne out of a need to make their small market clubs competitive in a highly unbalanced sports league. Both teams had once dominated their leagues and were perennially headed for the championships. Today, the Oakland A's and Arsenal need to do more with less -- again.

Both Arsenal and the Oakland A’s play in a league dominated by rival teams that can spend their way to a championship, buying the best players and giving the fans what they want: trophies. 

While Billy Beane has enjoyed his new celebrity, following the film Moneyball and a spectacular 2012 season in which the A's brought a prestigious trophy back to Oakland, Wegner has been all but tarred and feathered by Arsenal fans.  

Mid-way into the season, Wenger could not sign a prized striker and had to let him go to a money-rich Manchester United. Now Robin van Persie is tearing up the league.  Wenger has also failed to sign anyone who could replace Persie during the transfer window.  

All this occurred at the same time as Arsenal ticket prices have increased, annoying fans who were used to watching their team dominate the English Premier League. Nostalgic to a fault, the Arsenal fans have protested bitterly in countless blogs, calling for Wenger’s head because he’s failed to bring home the cherished vanity silverware to the posh North London club.

The taciturn Wenger has shown the strain under the pressure. At a press conference this past week the soft-spoken Wegner parried with querulous sports writers, refusing to answer questions because reporters were conducting it more like a mock trial than a press interview.

Outside the Emirates Stadium, fans were carrying placards calling for a mea culpa and booing Wenger after a home game loss to a lesser club in a lower league. The fan blogs convey a profound frustration over Wenger's refusal to spend money. 

Arsène Wenger has tried to allay their fears but the fans are not hearing what he’s not saying. Wenger refuses to discuss off-the-field business with sports writers or fans.

As club manager for Arsenal the past 16 years, he has been lauded as as a brilliant on-field manager as well as a crafty general manager who has built a career on knowing when to sell a player when his value was high. 

Wenger may be the only manager in English or European football with a degree in economics. He rarely lets on to anyone about the off-the-field role of the manager or how he works with the Board. Because he refrains from disclosing much information it is impossible to understand the constraints Wenger must face.

One of the constraints may be working with an absentee American billionaire owner who asks for a profit. Perhaps Wenger is limited to operating on thin margins and no rewards. Whatever the problems, Wenger is keeping them to himself, which gives rise to more speculation.

The best insights into that role comes from Billy Beane, who can relate to the job of turning one of the poorest teams in baseball into a profitable and competitive team --- at a fraction of the budget of the New York Yankees and other big money teams. 

“When I think of Arsene Wenger," Beane says. " I think of Warren Buffett. Wenger runs his football club like he is going to own the club for the next one hundred years.”

From time to time Wegner has reject the prevailing opinion of the fans, traditional English football pundits and reclusive owners when it comes to buying big name players. The transfer season is an open seller market of players with inflated prices and Wenger admits to looking at players but when the window closed, Arsenal didn't spend a Farthing simple because the data doesn't support it. 

Wenger is smart enough to know that with his budget he could never compete in an era of inflationary paychecks and rising costs. Instead, he may have turned to finding a way through numbers and data to help making the club more efficient. This sounds suspiciously like “soccernomics”, the European equivalent to Moneyball.

In a rare admission during one of the many nasty post-game interviews with sports writers, Wenger was asked about a loss to one of the lower-level clubs and whether it was time to bring in a highly skilled players to challenge the league leaders for the remainder of the season. Wenger shot back,” I don’t think anyone realizes that we are the only team in the Premier League that is making a profit.”

His comment went largely un-noticed and unchallenged by sports writers. Wenger must know that the two Manchester teams are not making enough revenues to service their rising debt, despite Manchester United’s Initial Public Offering (IPO). Manchester City, now in second place, revealed it is spending some $200M US alone on trades, transfer and the like, well beyond its means. Compare this figure to what was forecast in 2013 for all Premier League teams  spending: $300M US in player acquisition. 

Arsenal is not in the same league as Manchester City when it comes to spending money.

Recently, Beane, who is finally getting the attention he deserves at the winter baseball meetings, knows about fan revolts and attacks from sports writers. For the first time in his career Beane is a celebrity among men who had mistakenly discounted him during the past decade.

It seems unlikely Arsenal fans and the Board will give Wenger much more time to prove his methodology: to build a competitive level team without going into bankruptcy. 

After Arsenal's loss in the Champions League on Tuesday, British sports writers and pundits were back in their offices throwing dirt over Wegner’s career. This loss, on the heels of another loss last week, will mean Arsenal will have no trophies from the 2012-13 season. 

Wenger will have failed to bring back trophies to North London. Somewhere, someone will remember in the future that it was Wenger who last delivered a profitable and a winning season.

It is unlikely his critics or fans will ever comprehend Wenger’s lasting contribution at Arsenal. Being a man of few words, he may have to go somewhere else for a while and wait for the rest of European football to arrive at where he’s been all along..

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