Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Arsenal after Arsène

This month Arsène Wenger marked 18 years as manager of Arsenal Football Club, an extraordinary tenure in professional sports. He's been in charge for 1,023 Premier League matches, while the next longest-serving manager, the embattled Newcastle United boss Alan Pardew, has served only 171. In the relatively near future, though, Wenger will depart.

This eventuality seems to be dawning on club officials. "The biggest challenge we're going to face as a club is that, when the transition from Arsène to our next manager happens--and I don't know when that's going to be--that we come through that strongly," CEO Ivan Gazidis said in a recent interview on the Arsenal website.

Is succession actually the "biggest challenge"? Bigger than competing with the financial might of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United? Perhaps not. Those issues are structural, will exist regardless of who manages Arsenal in 2017 and beyond, and indeed raise the stakes of the appointment.

For that reason, a thoughtful, thorough plan is essential to guide the club through this important period. This article explores the Board's public pronouncements on the issue and outlines what we should look for as evidence of an effective succession plan.

The Arsenal Board's readiness to plan and to act

The close of the 2013-14 season should have energized the Arsenal Board and Gazidis to intensify succession planning. That's because credible reports suggested that Wenger was prepared to decline the renewal offer had his team not won the 2014 FA Cup. Gazidis's comments at the time showed that the club was in no way prepared for that possibility. (See my personal blog post "And All the Clocks Wound Down".)

So far, the Board doesn't appear to be bringing much urgency to the task. At Thursday's Annual General Meeting of shareholders, Chairman Sir Chips Keswick said, "It's premature to speculate about a successor to Arsène. I'm delighted he has signed a three-year contract. Rest assured, we follow the situation carefully... It's not being complacent--we think about it all the time--I hope when the time comes we will have a solution that pleases you."

I'd rest a lot more assured if the language coming from the board were more assertive. Instead of "we follow the situation carefully," Sir Chips should be saying, "we have launched a plan to guide our decisions."

Even if Sir Chips is only displaying English reserve, it's hardly a strong response to what Gazidis called "the biggest challenge." The approach seems instead to invite problems that befall many organizations in transition.

"They fail to recognize the need for a strategy for this critical business process, they haven't had great exposure to what other organizations are doing, and they haven't thought through what their organization should be doing given its unique set of circumstances." That's Scott Saslow, founder and CEO of a leadership development consultancy, who collaborates with Stanford University on research with senior executives. He could be describing Arsenal's leadership as it appears now.

What would indicate a plan

That passive image is all anyone has to go on at the moment, because no one at the club has detailed its approach to succession planning.

What would a prepared organization look like? According to Stanford Professor David Larcker and Stephen Miles, vice chairman of executive recruiters Heidrick and Struggles (page 14 of the presentation here), the steps an organization should take in succession planning include:
  • Add succession expertise to the board, particularly the person chairing the search committee
  • Think of the succession plan as a multi-person event also involving internal officials not promoted
  • Develop a robust succession architecture that covers time horizons from immediate emergencies to five years
  • Develop and refine a skills and experience profile
  • Use external advisers to assess candidates and work closely with the board
  • Prepare to move individuals off the current management team if they block the development of others
  • Expose internal candidates to the board
  • Engage in a confidential external search
  • Provide ongoing support to entire management team after transition
Using these guidelines, we can assess the club's preparedness. All the club's activities won't be obvious or public, but the Board could start by clarifying who is primarily responsible for the appointment. Is it the full Board, a smaller group, or Gazidis? That's a crucial question. Not only does the authority need to be established, but that individual's or group's experience with these kinds of transitions could determine the search's success.

Another important statement would address Wenger's involvement. Studies suggest he should definitely have a role, perhaps even as far as identifying a candidate within the organization, but his influence on the decision should be minimal. Too much involvement from the outgoing manager can produce successors like Manchester United's ill-fated David Moyes.

Need for a seasoned executive

The search that brought Wenger to the club in 1996 was, by most accounts, a one-man affair, planned and executed by former vice chairman David Dein. He is no longer in a position to shape the board's thinking on Wenger's replacement or to work his network on the club's behalf.

The current Arsenal Board falls short of the Dein standard of experience. It's accurate that Josh Kroenke, the newest member of the Arsenal Board, was president of  the NHL's Colorado Avalanche in 2013 when it let head coach Joe Sacco go and hired Patrick Roy. But that doesn't seem like adequate experience for a high-profile Premier League appointment.

(One interesting point about the Avalanche's signing of Roy: It came just after the franchise elevated longtime captain Joe Sakic to lead hockey operations. So there is precedent in Kroenke Sports Enterprises for hiring former players to serve in prominent, decision-making positions.)

Gazidis? He communicates extremely effectively, makes decisions methodically, cares about the club's future, and publicly acknowledges the enormity of the task of replacing Wenger. What neither he nor anyone else at the club has yet displayed is any urgency to set forth the principles and processes to guide the eventual transition. As a result, we're left to wonder  how prepared the club is.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Management the Arsenal Way

The recent, revealing interview with Andries Jonker, head of the Arsenal academy, provides considerable food for thought as the club and its shareholders prepare for Thursday's Annual General Meeting.

Because Jonker does not seem shy about sharing his opinions with the Dutch publication Voetball International (translated on Arseblog in "Jonker: Arsenal scouting must be restructured"), his observations offer an unvarnished view of management practice at the club. In particular, Jonker's descriptions of manager Arsène Wenger's approach to management don't necessarily line up with widespread notions about how the club is run.

The conventional wisdom has long held that Wenger is a micro-manager, someone who must control every aspect of the club's business from transfer negotiations to players' diets to the design of facilities. This is the theory Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher advanced forcefully in their 2009 book "Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub." It also flows from the popular tendency to equate football clubs with their managers. (See "Arsenal, Arsène Wenger, and the Cult of Personality" for my critique of this line of thinking.)

Perhaps Wenger has mellowed in recent years; it's also possible the original portrayal was too stark. Whatever the case, Jonker's interview suggests that Wenger's style is not autocratic and in many ways conforms to models of successful leadership.

The manager's level of involvement

Jonker describes his interactions with Wenger in ways that will seem familiar to anyone who has ever worked for someone else. "Almost every day, Wenger and I go through a number of things," said Jonker. "He is approachable, but I do have to show him what we are doing. We must not go behind his back."

This seems like a reasonable, open-door approach to management.

"What I do see," Jonker continued. "is that everybody at the club has the feeling that they need to have the green light from Wenger before they do anything."

Now, if "everybody at the club," including Chief Executive Officer Ivan Gazidis and the stewards at Emirates Stadium, seeks Wenger's approval, then that's not a functional arrangement. I'm more inclined to think, however, that Jonker is referring Wenger's involvement with the football staff, which is a different and more understandable proposition.

It's not unusual for managers to expect those reporting to them to produce recommendations for their response and approval. This is a standard approach in many organizations and a sensible one in the case of Arsenal.

After all, Wenger is accountable to Gazidis, the club's board, its supporters, and the media, so he should know about and support the actions of his staff. How could he appear before any of those constituents and endorse the sporting direction if he had not understood and supported the original course of action?

Foundations in management theory

This pattern of manager-staff communication falls within what management theorists call "transactional leadership." This facet of leadership focuses on exchanges between leaders and followers; managers who want their staff to provide specific things give those staff members other things that they want in return. (The original idea comes from Karl Kuhnert and Philip Lewis, "Transactional and transformational leadership: A constructive developmental analysis," in Academy of Management Review 10 (1995).)

Wenger seems to be practicing "active" management in the sense that he monitors his staff's behavior, anticipates problems, and creates opportunities to intervene before the problems get worse. (For the details of "active" vs. "passive" management, see Jane Howell and Bruce Avolio, "Transformational leadership, transactional leadership, local of control, and support of innovation: Key predictors of consolidated business-unit performance," in Journal of Applied Psychology 78 (1993).)

These behaviors and actions, which amount to exchanges between leaders and staff members, complement other defining characteristics of what's called transformational leadership. These higher-level traits and activities take the form of:
  1. Charisma that appeals to followers on an emotional level
  2. Inspirational motivation that articulates a clear and attractive vision
  3. Intellectual stimulation that challenges assumptions, takes risks, and solicits followers' ideas
  4. Individualized consideration that results in mentorship and attention to followers' needs
These are the four dimensions of transformational leadership described by Timothy Judge and Ronald Piccolo in "Transformational leadership: A meta-analytic test of their relative validity," in the Journal of Applied Psychology 89 (2004) and examined for their correlations with positive performance outcomes.

Wenger as "transformational leader"

Without sinking too deep into the academic theory and language, we can use the four dimensions of transformational leadership to understand how any manager's behaviors and actions create conditions for top performance. In the case of Wenger, we can break down his contributions as follows:

Charisma. Before and after the FA Cup victory in May, current players talked about how much they wanted to win this trophy for Wenger. Many former players came out with impassioned support as well. This is just a recent, prominent episode suggesting that Wenger has built an emotional appeal among many of those who work for him.

Inspirational motivation. The vision of attractive, offense-minded football appeals to many both inside and outside the club. Wenger also displays the optimism that this approach will succeed in the long run, another aspect of inspirational motivation.

Intellectual stimulation. It's fair to say that Wenger challenges assumptions and takes risks, as I recently pointed out in "Arsène Wenger's Risk Tolerance." He allows players considerable autonomy on the pitch. Questions persist, however, about his willingness to entertain other ideas. So we should refrain from making a definitive statement about how well Wenger fulfills this dimension.

Individualized consideration. If you listen to experienced players such as Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky, Wenger emerges as a mentor and model they may follow when their playing careers end. And one of the criticisms levied at the manager is that he responds too much to what players need, granting their wishes to leave Arsenal for more playing time elsewhere, for example. That's definitely an indication of individualized consideration.

This admittedly superficial review does suggest that Wenger fulfills many expectations of the transformational leader. It's hard to conclude that he is not, given that he has guided the sporting side of the club during an 18-year period characterized by significant, and in many ways positive, change.

One last test of Wenger's leadership ability remains: What will happen when he departs the scene?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Arsenal's Next Steps

As the Chelsea defeat came to a close on Sunday, I thought, "That's just great. We've got two weeks to dwell on this."

The second international break of the season affords fans and pundits 13 days--until the visit of Hull City on October 18--to pore over what went wrong at Stamford Bridge. Thanks to social media, blogs, and podcasts, we also have the means to linger over and discuss the squad's shortcomings.

Expect plenty of moaning and armchair expertise.

The professionals weigh in

Fortunately, the professionals see no value in wallowing in defeat. The post-match comments of Jack Wilshere and Per Mertesaker showed a constructive, mature perspective.

The occasionally temperamental Wilshere observed to Arsenal Player, "That's the difference at this level. You're playing against teams who, when you're on top, you have to make it count; otherwise, they'll punish you. And they did."

With a similarly matter-of-fact tone, Mertesaker, the team captain on the day, told Sky Sports, "We have to admit they are better than us--still better--and we have to learn quickly."

This conclusion suggested the squad will take a series of next steps, consisting of:
  1. Analyzing the performance
  2. Avoiding paralysis and blame over mistakes and failures
  3. Applying what the group learned from the analysis
  4. Turning attention to the Hull match

Or, as manager Arsène Wenger put it, "They won. Congratulations to them. And let's go to the next game."

The cold, clear light of day

Assessing the performance soberly and focusing quickly on the next objective do not necessarily appeal to many supporters. They're more comfortable with a prolonged emotional reaction, for several reasons:
  • They can only view the last match and not the process of preparing for the next one
  • They experience an ongoing flood of information about that last match
  • They're subjected to taunts by opposing fans and even fellow Arsenal supporters
  • They can't call on the refined psychological traits and techniques available to elite athletes

I wrote recently about this psychological edge in "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not," and the ability to react to setbacks constructively strikes me as another expert adaptation to the stress associated with high-level competition. It contributes to a mental framework that permits optimal physical performance.

"When our brains get caught up in thoughts from the past, or thoughts of the future, it creates a stress response, and we can’t use the part of the brain that keeps us engaged in the moment," Kirsten Race, Ph. D., an expert on psychological awareness, has said. In other words, there's a neurological reason for Arsenal's players to place the Chelsea result in its proper context: Their brains won't be fully geared to succeed in their next match if they're mulling  their last one.

In previous seasons, Wenger praised his team's resilience, which has always been, like anything psychological, a work in progress. The hesitant performances after last season's high-profile disasters suggested that Arsenal team had not evolved mentally to the best effect.

We will see when Hull City visits the Emirates on October 18 how the current group of Arsenal players copes with its first major setback of the season. The good news is, Sunday's 2-0 loss wasn't debilitating, and public statements by the players and manager point to a healthy attitude. That's a better position than many supporters occupy at the moment.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Arsène Wenger's Risk Tolerance

During Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger's press conferences after the North London Derby and before the Galatasaray Champions League match, assembled media asked at least 25 questions. Only one of those questions sought the manager's perspective on a newsworthy item from the 1-1 draw with Tottenham: Why was star signing Alexis Sanchez not in the starting lineup?

Wenger's response was brief. "It was the selection of the day," he said. Was there any medical reason? "No, no, no, no."

That was it on the subject. No one probed the rationale for excluding the £30-million-plus summer acquisition, source of the club's second highest transfer fee, who had already scored four goals for Arsenal account.

James McNicholas (@Gunnerblog) raised this question and offered some potential reasons in his ESPN FC blog post "Sanchez Error Tops the List of Questions to Ask Wenger."  I'm drawn to a related but broader question, "How do you weigh the risk tradeoffs when you structure and select a starting XI?"

This strikes me as a legitimate and germane line of inquiry. Legitimate because, unlike transfer dealings, injuries, finances, and many other issues, the matchday construction of the team falls entirely within the manager's control; that's his core responsibility. It's a germane question because the team soon goes to Chelsea, site of last season's tactical disaster and mauling.

Deliberating risks in the tactical system

The experience at Chelsea, Liverpool, and Everton and continued signs of vulnerability to counterattacks should be provoking serious deliberations among the Arsenal manager and his assistants. In particular, they should be weighing the risks of sending both fullbacks into the attacking half of the field against the downsides of instructing them to remain in defensive territory.

More astute and experienced tactical observers than I have noted that Wenger has chosen the more assertive approach for years. It's still worth asking whether the benefits of extra players at the offensive end, such as the potential of outnumbering the opposition on the flanks, warrant the consistent and therefore predictable forward presence of Arsenal fullbacks. Against some opponents, those advantages are probably worth the risk; against speedy and precise opposition, perhaps not.

Assessing drawbacks to subtle structural changes

A second major tactical risk grows out of the new 4-1-4-1 formation. My colleague Michael Price has argued convincingly in "A Look at Arsenal's Move to the 4-1-4-1" that this change is a response to the pressing and counterattacking that overwhelmed Arsenal in away games against top opposition last season.

The 4-1-4-1 setup could mitigate that risk in the long run as it allows Arsenal players to close down the opposition more quickly. However, it's not a comfortable or fully formed system yet, so for the moment it heightens the risk that the defense will be overrun, particularly if the fullbacks' forays forward continue.

The manager has said that the formation represents only a subtle shift, and indeed it morphed comfortably and successfully into a 4-2-3-1 in the wins against Aston Villa and Galatasaray. In some ways, though, the subtlety only heightens the risk. That's because the players have to understand and execute the approach at a fine level of nuance. These mental and physical demands come on the heels of a World Cup, which taxed most of Arsenal's first team and shortened the period to hone this new approach.

Given that the 2013-14 system produced 79 points and an FA Cup, it's reasonable to ask whether the risks of the new system are worth taking on.

Balancing risks in team selection

The personnel available to the manager, even in light of multiple injuries, creates another series of risk tradeoffs.

The threats of being outnumbered in midfield and the defensive zone could, for example, be dealt with by moving the wide forwards closer to the back line, which is an approach we saw late in the 2012-13 season and early in the 2013-14 campaign. The risks in that are passivity and ceding possession, but the speed of new players Sanchez and Danny Welbeck and the returning Theo Walcott would worry the opposition even if it does control the ball.

Let's accept, though, that Wenger prefers a more proactive approach, and his knowledge, success, and teams' flair make me hesitate to question that philosophy. What I would nevertheless ask about is the omission of Sanchez from the starting XI, especially given the objectives of the evolving system. If the 4-1-4-1 seeks to follow Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich and its coordinated pressing, doesn't Sanchez seem the perfect player to harry the opposition from a wide forward position?

Perhaps the balance Wenger was trying to strike against Tottenham was between what his team did with the ball and what it did without it. As Tim Stillman (@LittleDutchVA) observed in his weekly column for Arseblog last week, Sanchez attempts daring moves that often result in losing the ball. If the manager is prioritizing ball retention over offensive creativity, then that's a case for leaving Sanchez on the bench. It's also a reason to leave out Jack Wilshere in favor of Santi Cazorla in midfield, but Wilshere got the start against Tottenham.

These decisions have faded from view after the team's exhilarating performance against Galatasaray. That game -- and the role Sanchez played in it -- makes a compelling argument that his playing style represents a risk worth bearing.  Otherwise, we'd have to entertain the possibility that the club spent more than £30 million on a player before its manager reached the conclusion that his style is too cavalier. That seems like an even more worrying proposition.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not

After an unproductive start to the 2014-15 Premier League campaign and a subpar Champions League performance against Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil told the German news agency DPA, "I don't play to prove others wrong, I play for Arsenal."

Many observers, though, do think that Özil has something to prove, needing in particular to display "passion" in the traditional English sporting sense. After all, that's how they would react if they were faced with the pressure associated with elite athletic competition. The expectations tied to a club-record financial outlay would intensify the pressure they'd feel.

Yet Özil does not give the impression that he's under any stress at all. This behavior, infuriating to some fans, is one of the psychological strengths that combines with amazing physical gifts to foster success at the highest level of competition.

There's an entire field of psychological research devoted to identifying the differences between these elite performers and the rest of us. The message from many of these studies is that what we laypeople consider shortcomings might actually be competitive virtues.

Inviting and overcoming stress

Most individuals experience stress from exposure to traumatic or negative events, such as violence, natural disasters, or the death of a loved one. By contrast, elite athletes choose to put themselves in stressful situations partly because they believe the experiences can improve their performances. They see stressful conditions and events as opportunities to grow and hone their competitive edge. (Many of these ideas come from researchers David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar,  "A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions" in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise 13 (2012).)

Handling stress and pressure requires high levels of what psychologists call resilience. Summoning this characteristic, elite athletes prove able to succeed in situations that would paralyze most of us with fear of failure or awe at our surroundings. Fletcher and Sarkar have also learned that world-class sportswomen and -men are adept at using psychological techniques on themselves; as examples, they can easily step outside themselves and visualize their actions, relax, and shut out distractions.

Calling on psychological strengths

These techniques enhance the psychological advantages elite athletes already possess. By nature and by active cultivation, top sports performers have developed highly refined, advantageous psychological characteristics. Those are:
  1. Confidence
  2. Focus, especially on themselves and on process
  3. Perceived social support
  4. Discipline
The first seems obvious and understandable: elite athletes have to believe they will succeed, or they would have never made it to that level. Focus involves stepping outside themselves cognitively, planning and evaluating their own performance. Top athletes are adept at looking at the process, rather than the outcome, and their own roles in that process. (Findings from Natalie Durand-Bush and John Salmela, "The development and maintenance of expert athletic performance: Perceptions of world and Olympic champions," Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 14:3 (2002).)

The third characteristic, perceived social support, is interesting because it casts player entourages in a different light. These cliques surrounding professional athletes strike many of us as weird and parasitic, but the research suggests they can be essential to overcoming stress and achieving top levels of performance.

The last, discipline, points to the ability to set goals and exercise self-control (See Nicholas Holt and John Dunn, "Toward a grounded theory of the psychological competencies and environmental conditions associated with soccer success," Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 16 (2004).) It's subtly different from focus, which seems more process-oriented. Discipline helps athletes ward off distraction and use their emotional energy to positive effect.

Implications for players we love and loathe

Enough egghead mumbo-jumbo.

What does all this mean for the Arsenal and its supporters?

For one thing, we need to stop demanding that Özil and his teammates show they care in the same way that we would. In all likelihood, Özil's on-field demeanor isn't a sign of apathy; it's an expert adaptation to stressful situations that provides him with a competitive advantage.

The alternative is storming around the pitch, looking intense, flirting with losing control--showing the passion the British have long valued. Far from producing an edge, this kind of behavior actually signals a surrender to stress. The most recent example is Wayne Rooney's tirade as his Manchester United team gave up a two-goal lead to Leicester City.

NBC Sports analyst Robbie Mustoe praised Rooney's outburst, and many of us can relate to his behavior because that's how we would react in that situation. But we are not elite athletes whose training and development have made them experts at managing stress and succeeding under incredible scrutiny.

One of the most volatile characters in sport has reflected on his behavior and now sees the advantage in acting differently. Joey Barton, in a fascinating interview with Henry Winter of The Telegraph, credited psychological consultant Steve Black with changing his outlook and performance. He said: "I visualise stuff now. When I get out of the car on a match-day, I walk into this 'bubble of no reaction' that no one gets in, nobody. I don't waste energy arguing with refs or other players...I'm in control now. I'm empowered."

The Costanza Principle: Do The Opposite!

Supporters of the Arsenal should be further encouraged by Özil's descriptions of the club's extremely supportive environment. That's one of the psychological conditions enabling elite performance. Manager Arsène Wenger should also maintain consistency of expectations because that allows top-level athletes to engage in planning, goal-setting, evaluating, and focusing on the process.

As Michael Keshani (@RoamingLibero) points out in his piece "Appreciating Mesut" for Arseblog, the recent shift to a 4-1-4-1 formation may have failed to take advantage of Özil's physical contributions; worse in my analysis, the change may have undermined Özil's need for consistency and thus his ability to capitalize on his psychological strengths.

The major lesson, though, is that we should stop expecting that Arsenal players show emotion as we would. Their success actually depends on not acting like us at all.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Arsenal's Experienced Youth Movement

Manchester City's visit to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday displayed two contrasting approaches to building and enhancing a professional football squad.

That's no revelation to anyone who's followed the game over the past five years. Man City, propelled by the oil riches of Abu Dhabi, has spent lavishly on experienced world-class players and has been rewarded with two of the last three Premier League titles. Meanwhile, Arsenal has doled out less than it has brought in, selling many of its top performers, acquiring young but unproven talent, and amassing a sizable cash balance in the process.

Many will look at the average ages of the two squads and see confirmation of these long-held perceptions: City has the oldest squad in the Premier League on average; Arsenal, at 25.4 years, the third youngest. (Figures from the September 8 SoccerEx Transfer Review by Prime Time Sport.)

In my view, this conclusion is no longer valid. It ignores significant shifts in Arsenal's methods, which are becoming more apparent with each transfer period, as well as the striking changes instituted by other top clubs.

A core of experienced, valuable youth

Arsenal's youth policy governed the management of the club's playing resources while it paid down the debt and endured the commercial arrangements connected with the Emirates Stadium. Those financial conditions don't exist now. As a result, the type of players the club is acquiring and retaining has changed.

In particular, the youth of today are experienced. The headline signings of the past two off-seasons, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, are now just 25 years old, but they've earned 62 and 71 international caps, respectively. Overall, despite its relatively low average age, the first-team squad has made 877 international appearances. The latest was by 19-year-old Englishman Calum Chambers, another summer 2014 signing. Among 25 first-team players, only four have no senior international experience. That is hardly a callow squad.

While Arsenal players have built their credentials with national teams, they've also been deepening their familiarity with each other. The squad boasts the third highest stability in the League, having played together on average 2.7 years, according to Prime Time Sport's report. That's vital to the Arsenal style characterized by interchanging positions, quick ball movement, and in-game instinct.

Indeed, manager Arsène Wenger and his colleagues have constructed this squad in a distinctive fashion, but perhaps not in the way most observers assume. Arsenal spent the fourth-highest amount in Premier League transfer fees this summer, while acquiring the lowest number of new players (5). This leads to several conclusions:
  1. The £56 million net transfer fee (from the Arsenal Report Transfer Centre) shows that the days of building the team with a severely limited budget have passed
  2. The club is no longer fighting inflation of player salaries, refusing to pay what the transfer market demands
  3. The club is deploying its increased resources to acquire the players it wants but is not spending indiscriminately
  4. The approach focuses on a tight, unified team over potentially problematic star characters (See "Will Wenger's Roster Gambit Pay Off?")
  5. The team is composed of highly accomplished, highly compensated, but still relatively young, professionals

The core home-grown

With home-grown players at the foundation.

Arsenal now has a reasonable claim to eight home-grown players on its first team roster, the highest number in the League, including six Englishmen. According to "The Premier League's Home Grown Player Rule, Explained," Martin Tomlinson's (@Heisenbergkamp) skillfully researched and argued piece, this makeup gives Wenger considerable roster flexibility.

That's because any 25-man Premier League roster can contain only 17 players who are not designated home-grown. Arsenal's eight home-grown players represent a full contingent, and all but two of those eight, midfielder Francis Coquelin and third-choice goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, compete for starting roles.

In other words, Arsenal can be at almost full strength and depth under the regulations, while many competitors have to carry smaller squads or compromise on quality to comply.

The opposition makes other choices

Arsenal's direct competition has for the most part not sought advantage in experienced, young, home-grown players. Last year's winners Man City lists only two home-grown players on its Premier League roster, meaning its full squad can consist of just 19 players. Now, those 19 are top quality, but perhaps this setup doesn't maximize the club's resources. It's also been dancing around UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations and sanctions, which appear to have slowed the club's transfer spending and, according to some reports, caused City to move out striker Álvaro Negredo and halt its pursuit of Radamel Falcao. (Read Ian Herbert's "Radamel Falcao: A Symbol of UEFA Shackling Manchester City in the FFP Era").

According to manager Manuel Pelligrini, City also sent Negredo to Valencia because UEFA's sanctions capped its Champions League squad at 21 players for the 2014-15 campaign. Pellegrini said that "it all starts from the restriction about the number of players. We have restrictions about the number of players and the money we can spend." Don't cry too much for Pellegrini, though, because UEFA seems to be cutting City considerable slack, allowing it to field only one non-club-trained home-grown player among the five (disproportionately) required under the settlement.

Meanwhile, Chelsea is essentially outsourcing player development. It has loaned 26 of its players to other clubs, mostly outside England and Wales. That can remove these players' salaries from Chelsea's books for the purposes of FFP but does not work toward either the Premier League's or UEFA's home-grown requirements. Chelsea has also turned to a much more circumspect spender in 2014: Its net transfer spending was just £10 million in summer 2014.

The tacks of two other clubs do seem similar to Arsenal's in some ways. The most alike is Liverpool's, which was the third highest spender on a net basis and now has a squad whose average age (25.2 years) is even younger than Arsenal's. The main difference is that Liverpool brought in 11 players to Arsenal's five. Manchester United, like Arsenal, has a large home-grown contingent and a relatively young average age, but those traits are secondary to United's net expenditure of £122 million on an assortment of attacking talent, which looks like a desperate rush to return to a Champions League position.

That might work over 38 matches--who can predict? But it seems far more risky financially and less designed as a long-term response to the new Premier League and UEFA regulatory regimes than does Arsenal's approach.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Arsenal, Arsène Wenger, and the Cult of Personality

As the summer transfer deadline approached Monday, millions of keys were called into action to lambaste Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.

"He's still cheap."

"He's a ditherer."

"He's too loyal to current players to acquire anyone who might replace them."

These are well-worn, superficial explanations of the club's transfer activities, criticisms that transform the perceived personal traits of one man into the guiding principles of a multimillion-pound sports business.

It's not just the amateurs making this association. Marketing professional Alex Fynn and Arsenal fanzine innovator Kevin Whitcher called their 2008 study of the club "Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub," essentially equating the organization with its field manager. Even more striking was Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis's recent characterization of the club as run-of-the-mill, save for Wenger. He told Sports Illustrated's Jeff Bradley: "There's nothing that really distinguishes us from other clubs in England, other than this man."

To me, this line of thinking is simplistic, misleading, and damaging to the spirit of the game.

The full-blown obsession with managers

The overemphasis on the character and power of the football manager doesn't affect Arsenal alone. Although it's easy to identify Wenger with the club due to his extraordinary tenure, to say nothing of the spelling connection between his first name and the club's, observers are just as likely to limit their analyses of other clubs to the perceived traits of their managers.

The English media are particularly sycophantic toward Jose Mourinho of Chelsea, hanging on his every word, giving undue credence to all of them, and buying the image that Mourinho wants to present of himself. The fawning press then depicts Chelsea as a worldwise, ruthlessly practical organization; an equally legitimate characterization would be decadent and inhuman, but those descriptors don't comfortably connect to Mourinho's accepted public persona.

Then there's the case of new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal. He presents himself as larger than life, which made him a good fit for a while at the similarly grandiose Barcelona and is in line with the hubris at Old Trafford. Van Gaal benefited from good fortune as Netherlands manager at this year's World Cup, where many touted his tactical genius based on the Dutch defeat of an aging Spain squad and a goalkeeper substitution that could've just as easily gone wrong. The fawning led to predictions that van Gaal would bring Manchester United the title, notwithstanding the squad's midfield and defensive deficiencies and the questionable performance of the club's executives.

Manchester United may, despite its slow start, contend, but it'll be more down to money and good fortune than to the brilliance of van Gaal.

Easy but inadequate analysis

This focus on the manager as the sole representation of a club makes work easy for those who craft the stories through which we understand matches and campaigns. All writers and broadcasters have to do is perform some amateur character analysis or copy those of others; they don't have to ask players any hard questions about their decisions or performances. That'd be too uncomfortable and complicated.

As a result, we get fed and regurgitate a line of analysis that is simplistic in three main respects:
  1. It ignores structures, systems, finances, and club culture that make particular actions by individuals possible and comprehensible
  2. It creates a story we quickly relate to and understand by focusing on one individual
  3. It permits a knee-jerk critique based on a contrast of how that individual has acted and how I as an individual would have done differently in the same circumstances

 Deeper factors and dramatic outcomes

The character-based drama is indeed attractive, partly because it is so easy to grasp. Nobody wants to think too hard about a pastime. However, as a means of explanation, the personality-driven narrative falls short.

What's much more influential is the minimal degree of regulation defining football's culture and structures. In contrast to American professional sports, which have governmental oversight and self-imposed salary constraints, European football as a business is a free-for-all. This encourages the financial frenzy, which itself drives player acquisitions, which threatens to trump the game itself as the object of attention. (See Rory Smith's excellent piece for ESPN FC on this perversion.)

In this unregulated financial environment, the apparatuses driving clubs' commercial and player acquisition activities have a greater effect on results than the personality of one man. I have cautioned in "We Are All Bean Counters at Arsenal Now" about paying too much attention to the business side, but that doesn't mean the organization supporting the players and the manager isn't important; it's just not the reason to follow a sporting endeavor.

The competitions themselves are that reason. And at pitch level, thousands of individual decisions and actions, as well as twists of fate, occur that no one person controls. Any one of those small events can be decisive. That's because football matches are tight-scoring affairs contested by elite athletes of similar talent.

It's also why the matches are inherently dramatic. We don't need to psycho- or otherwise analyze one person sitting in the manager's chair to make that drama any more enjoyable.