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Wednesday, 23 January, 2019

Arsene Wenger was successful for Arsenal even when he was told he was not

Wise words from the soccer boffin

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger
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Arsene Wenger is a great football manager. He is great not so much for what he has achieved as for how he achieved it. With style, consummate style.

One morning in October 1996 I was in the Racing & Football Outlook office. “Is this right?” someone shouted across the room. “Arsenal’s manager is called Arsene?”.

A racing writer had glanced at a proof on a table and wondered whether they had spotted a misprint. We football writers confirmed that the spelling was right. None of us, though, knew much more about Wenger. We were like other English football journalists and football fans.

Nearly 22 years later Wenger has watched his last match as manager of Arsenal.

He arrived in England – from France via Japan – with new ideas. Professional athletes should not eat bad food or get drunk. That sort of thing. Those ideas sounded revolutionary then in England, though they probably would not have done in many other countries.

Between 1997-98 and 2004-05 Arsenal won the Premier League three times and finished second in every other season. They also won the FA Cup four times. Since then they have won the FA Cup three times but not won the Premier League.

It was not Wenger’s fault, though he had many critics who said it was. They did not understand the most basic reality of football. Arsenal were no longer spending enough on players to give themselves more than a small chance of winning the Premier League.

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There were two reasons for this. In 2006 Arsenal moved into the Emirates Stadium. Paying for it prevented them from keeping up with the playing expenses of Manchester United. And Manchester United were joined – and at times overtaken – by Chelsea and Manchester City.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich had bought Chelsea three years before Arsenal moved to the Emirates. Two years after Arsenal changed address one of the rulers of Abu Dhabi bought Manchester City.

A manager can set the tone for a club: standards of behaviour and the style of play. Results are determined mainly by the quality of the players, which is determined mainly by what the club can or will pay, which the manager does not control.

Over the 12 seasons since Arsenal moved to the Emirates their payroll has been almost one and three-quarter times the Premier League average. My analysis of pay and performance in the Premier League suggests to me that teams with a payroll at that level should score 64 per cent of the goals in their games. Arsenal scored 64 per cent of the goals in their games.

Put that another way. Teams who score 64 per cent of the goals in their games average 71 points a season. Arsenal averaged 73 points. Yet another way. Teams with 71 points will typically finish fourth. Sometimes higher, sometimes lower. On average, though, they will finish fourth. Arsenal’s average finishing position in the Emirates seasons has been fourth.

So Wenger delivered what his employers paid for. It is rare for a manager to do more consistently. Jose Mourinho as a manager in England, Italy and Spain has delivered results that are bang on the average for the budgets he has worked with. He has worked with bigger budgets than Wenger so he got better results.

Arsenal could have employed 12 different managers in the last 12 seasons and overall they would probably have got similar results, though probably there would have been more variation in them. But would the teams have been such fun to watch? Wenger deserved so much praise during those last dozen seasons for delivering the results Arsenal had paid for with teams that played beautiful football.

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Seven years ago Arsenal scored twice in the last ten minutes to beat Chelsea 5-3 in a see-saw game at Stamford Bridge. It was a rare victory over those richer rivals. Afterwards I spoke with Racing Post editor Bruce Millington. I cannot remember exactly what I said, but it was something like this: “I do not care if Arsenal never win another trophy. I just loving watching them.”

Cesar Luis Menotti won the World Cup in 1978 as manager of Argentina. He understood, though, that in every competition all but one team must lose.

He declared: “To those who say that all that matters is winning, I want to warn them that someone always wins. Therefore, in a 30-team championship there are 29 who must ask themselves: what did I leave at this club, what did I bring to my players, what possibility of growth did I give to my footballers?… I start from the premise that football is efficacy… but I believe that efficacy is not divorced from beauty.”

Efficacy means producing the intended result, and the only reasonable definition of the intended result is what the owners are paying for. Wenger for nearly 22 years married efficacy to beauty.

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In 11 of the last 12 seasons the Premier League was won by a team with one of the top three payrolls. Arsenal during that time had mostly the fourth or fifth-highest payroll. This season they had the fifth highest. And although this season was their worst they finished no lower than sixth. There were no reasonable grounds for complaints against Arsene Wenger.

A team without one of the top three wage bills can win the Premier League but their chance is usually small. Two seasons ago Arsenal finished above four teams with higher wage bills, and everyone else except Leicester, who won the Premier League with a much smaller wage bill. It can be done but it will not be done often. And when it is not done nobody should be surprised or disappointed.

Arsenal’s payroll across the last 12 seasons was almost one and three-quarter times the Premier League average. The payrolls of the 12 champions represented double the Premier League average.

To become serious title-challengers Arsenal would have to be able to sign players who justified a significant rise in their wage bill – at today’s prices by about £40 million a year. On top of which they would have to pay even more in transfer and agent fees.

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Wenger delivered what his employers paid for. It is rare for a manager to do more consistently
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