There are certain topics in life that you are expected to have a position on. Religion and politics tend to dominate the root of these issues. But, in the coverage of the world’s favourite sport, one such debate is polarising Arsenal fans and neutrals alike. Are you ‘Arsène Wenger In’ or ‘Wenger Out’?
Much like a recent political event in the United Kingdom, the simplistic binary choice has created camps of fanatics. Arsenal fans have been seen fighting in stadiums while, in the game against West Bromwich Albion, a ‘No Contract #WengerOut’ banner was flown over the stadium in a plane, only to be followed minutes later by one reading ‘In We Trust. #RespectAW.’
Recently, the tide of favour has turned strongly against Wenger, whose Arsenal side are unlikely to finish in the top four for the first time since the 1995/96 season and were embarrassed by Bayern Munich in the first round of the Champions League knockout stages.
Any reasonable position on Wenger must be based on two things: expectation and output. To those calling for Wenger’s head, Arsenal should be doing better than they are or have been. Fans that grew up watching their club compete for the Premier League title and become invincible are justifiably frustrated by their repeated inability to mount a challenge over the last decade.
Expectation v output
The problem is who they have focused their frustration on. The lack of a title challenge recently is a product of two simple facts. The clubs that spend the most win the most and Arsenal do not spend the most. Since 2009/10, only one team has won the Premier League spending less than the third most on salaries. That was Leicester City last season. For last campaign to have been a fairytale, the trend must be our story of reality.
Reiterating the findings of Soccernomics, a team’s spending, particularly its wage bill, is the most valuable predictor of its footballing success. From the 2009/10 season to 2014/15, roughly 76 per cent of the variance in Premier League finishing positions can be explained by differences in relative wage bills (as reported by the Guardian) and transfer spending (as reported by Transfermarkt). To account for inflation, spending in each season is divided by the league average for the campaign. There are also diminishing returns to spending, so the cost to pull your club from 18th to 17th is much less than to push them from fifth to fourth.
Using the amount that Arsenal spent on player wages and transfers, the same model can be used to predict the range of possible finishes that we might have fairly expected from Wenger given his inputs. In other words, using a range rather than a single value allows us to express the fact that the model does not make perfect predictions.
The black points on the visual below represent where a team finished. For Arsenal they express the Groundhog Day-like tale of third or fourth. The red lines show where the team might have finished based on their relative spending.
At both ends of possibilities the results are striking. Based on their relative spending on player wages and transfers there is no season in which Arsenal spent enough to justify even an optimistic prediction of winning the league.
At the same time, due to the diminishing returns of spending at the top of the league, the club might have done a lot worse than they did. Wenger’s consistency has probably underplayed the fact that things can go badly even if you spend a lot, as is evident from the unlikely, but nonetheless possible worlds where the club might have finished eighth or ninth.
Even evaluating their performance in the Champions League, Arsenal’s inability to reflect their financial might in European competition is not their problem, but one that the whole of English football is suffering from.
Money is one (important) factor in CL success, but just one. Except for English clubs; being rich is a norm & they punch below their wealth. pic.twitter.com/72MCcyoaa7
— Nick Harris (@sportingintel) March 16, 2017
Liverpool are a club with similar expectations in terms of league position based on spend. But the Merseysiders have a wildly different strategy in aiming to achieve this target.
Supporting Liverpool over the last decade has been a roller coaster. Brendan Rodgers’ 2013/14 team were one of the few within the sample to meet their most optimistic prediction. Given that, in signing Luis Suárez, the club got what was to become one of the best players in the world for less than they spent on Andy Carroll, it makes perfect sense that the season was exceptional.
It doesn’t help that 2016/17 is likely to feature Tottenham Hotspur finishing above the Gunners – a result of Daniel Levy’s continued ability to implement a structure that maximises its output relative to its spending.
But Spurs are the exception and not the rule. If they want to challenge for Champions League football consistently they are going to have to tie down the players who are producing significantly more than they cost before another team pays them what they deserve.
Business like no other
There are undoubtedly a handful of well-known managers who could improve Arsenal’s performance. But who is it that would hire them and how much would they cost? Stan Kroenke, Ivan Gazidis, and other decision makers at the club are clearly content with their current strategy of spending like a team that challenges for the Champions League spots and expecting just that. Wenger plays a part in the pantomime but Gazidis and Kroenke should be the real villains to those who expect more.
The situation for Arsenal fans is symptomatic of the continuing commercialisation of the sport. Football has become a business. Nowhere is this truer than in the Premier League where the astronomical explosion in the value of broadcast rights has turned the competition’s weaklings into global corporations. Manchester United even became a publicly traded company in 2012, creating stocks that anyone can purchase.
Despite this, football clubs do not behave like normal businesses. This month José Mourinho launched a typically snide attack on Manchester United defender Luke Shaw. “I cannot compare the way he trains, the way he commits, the focus, the ambition. I cannot compare [to my other players]. He is a long way behind,” said Mourinho.
Given that United paid a reported £27m for Shaw, and will presumably look to recoup some of this expense if he is eventually sold, it seems bizarre to criticise him publicly. What sort of business would behave in this way?
Sports economists have long been fascinated with European football clubs, who regularly incur financial losses in the pursuit of greatness. In the English Championship, for example, only eight teams spend less on their wage bill than they receive in revenue.
Mourinho’s remarks may seem counter-productive through a business lens. But in a footballing world as obsessed with winning as United and its manager may be, they merely represent his process for success. One that, at least for the moment, it looks as if the decision makers that hired him have bought into.
The corporate nature of modern football creates an inevitable divide between the interests of fans, who are the real drivers of a win-at-all-costs culture, and club decision makers, who are increasingly figures from mainstream business. Should a football club aim to improve or preserve and capitalise upon its current standing? Depending on whether you are aiming to maximise profit or winning, you may get different answers.
The Global Sports Salaries Survey publishes Premier League wages per player on their squad. For the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons Arsenal’s average player salary was the fourth highest. According to Transfermarkt’s estimated fees, the club’s transfer spend in during this season is also the fourth highest, while in the frugal year before they spent the third least.
If fans are angry about the monotony of their situation it is not an issue to take up with Wenger. The Frenchman has achieved output that has always met or surpassed any fair expectation. Any anger should be directed at the people at the club that dictate what is fair to expect.