Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Who Is This Mythical Striker?

The injury to Arsenal's first-choice center forward Olivier Giroud has tightened the widely held grip on a prevalent myth about the Arsenal squad. It goes something like this: Arsenal did not score enough goals in 2013-14, and the side needs more to contend for the Premier League title, therefore it must recruit a center forward who scores at least 25 goals a season.

As an explanation, this train of thought does have simplicity on its side, a core feature of myth. It also fails to distinguish between correlation and causation of last year's weaknesses, overlooks the historical record, and denies current realities.

Timing of goals was as important as goal total

The final 2013-14 Premier League table makes the obvious point that Arsenal scored far fewer goals than its title competition. Champions Manchester City racked up 102 goals, while second place Liverpool finished with one fewer. Arsenal's total of 68 paled in comparison.

Even Wenger has focused on this discrepancy. "We scored 66 goals," he said before the 2-0 season finale at Norwich gave the Gunners 68 in total, "compared to 100. We have some room for improvement there.

"We miss goals, and that's what we want to improve."

Although Wenger did not say the shortage of goals caused the title challenge to falter, that's the conclusion many critical supporters have drawn and where the error in the premise lies.

It can just as reasonably be said that the context of the goals not scored mattered just as much as the total number. If the team had scored more goals in games that were already decided in its favor, putting five rather than three past West Ham in April, for example, those goals wouldn't have influenced the final standings. Additional goals would have been just as meaningless in those four infamous road contests against Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Everton; Arsenal could have scored 12 more goals arrayed in a certain way and still lost all those matches.

Maybe, then, the issue is not the need for more goals, but the need for important goals in close matches. Aaron Ramsey's emerging specialty. That's Ramsey, midfielder.

The importance of goals against in particular situations

Another route to success would have been conceding fewer goals. Arsenal could have edged out Man City for the title by allowing four fewer goals, the equalizers by Everton, Southampton, and Swansea and Stoke's penalty. The first three turned Arsenal's second-half leads into draws, and the one at Stoke decided that match as a loss. That's eight points forsaken in a campaign that ended with a seven-point gap between first place and fourth.

Sure, several teams could rewrite their league finishes based on fine differences such as these. And the historical correlation between goal difference (not goals scored) and league finishes might make a more probable argument than this counterfactual account in which Arsenal wins the league with a fourth-best, plus-31 goal difference.

I'm willing to see validity in both those points. I just don't want to accept without question the notion that Arsenal's goalscoring inadequacy, which some see as evidence of the squad's poor quality and the manager's incompetence, was an incontrovertible cause of its failure to win the league.

The great man of history

We should also study the records to identify the prolific goalscorers who brought their teams league titles. That's the second element of the myth, that Arsenal must acquire someone to score at least 25 goals to bring that prize back to North London.

With a swift swing, Tim Bostelle of 7amkickoff has batted away that argument. Earlier this week, he answered the question "Do you need a 30-goal scorer to win the league?" with a definitive no. In the 21 Premier League seasons, just six titles have gone to a team with a 25-plus goal scorer.

Tim's examination is pointed and devastating to the myth.

An academic discussion given the situation

If the premises underlying the 25-goalscorer argument are dubious, the realities of August 2014 lay the myth entirely bare. Meaning, even if a prolific, available striker would vastly improve Arsenal's title chances, that player does not exist.

Using the stats on, I searched for players who exceeded the 25-goal threshold in the five major European leagues in the past three full seasons. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are in a class by themselves, all having registered at least 25 goals in each of those seasons. None would be available to Arsenal anyway.

Nor would be others who had netted that many goals at least once:
  • Diego Costa (27 goals for Atletico Madrid in 2013-14), always destined for Chelsea
  • Edinson Cavani (29 for Napoli in 2012-13), massive wages and not leaving Paris Saint-Germain while Ibrahimovic is injured
  • Radamel Falcao (28 for Atletico Madrid in 2012-13), realistically too expensive for Arsenal on a permanent transfer
  • Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney of Manchester United, not Arsenal prospects for obvious reasons
  • Luis Suarez (31 for Liverpool in 2013-14), a sordid case that doesn't bear repeating
There are two strikers from the Bundesliga whose records make them seem more promising, but their careers have likely peaked. Stefan Kiessling scored 25 goals for Bayer Leverkusen in 2012-13, but he's now 30 years old, and 31-year-old Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored 29 for Schalke in 2011-12. By the time either adjusts to the Premier League, he would be well past his prime and unlikely to return to that goalscoring form.

Two players come to mind who are comparable to Giroud, Mario Mandzukic, now of Atletico Madrid, and Mario Balotelli, now of Liverpool. Wenger and his colleagues at Arsenal were not acting unreasonably in declining to pursue those two. Intense salivating has also covered Borussia Dortmund's Marco Reus--great player, not a center forward, never scored more than 16 goals in a campaign, one of the last valuable playing assets at the club. In other words, he's not coming to Arsenal to play center forward.

The likely outcome

Debunking the myth of the center forward helps us set expectations for the next five days. The world-class striker arriving to save the day, or Arsenal management's inability to secure the services of said striker, are equally unrealistic. That player isn't out there to be had.

Instead, as Andrew Mangan argues on this week's Arsecast Extra, the club might acquire someone more experienced and durable than Yaya Sanogo but less accomplished than Giroud. The hope will be that the player fills out the squad in the near term and develops into real competition for Giroud in the longer term.

That's not as exciting as a headline acquisition as the transfer deadline nears, but it's better than perpetuating a myth.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

We Are All Bean Counters Now

Michael Lewis's 2003 book Moneyball and its 2011 feature film offspring made Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane a well known figure. The story also popularized sabermetrics, the use of specific statistics to guide personnel decisions. With the success of Oakland and the Beane-inspired Boston Red Sox, baseball observers and fans began to examine arcane measures and used those analyses to predict individual and team performance.

It's not a huge conceptual leap from sabermetrics to an ongoing, detailed assessment of the underlying sports business, particularly because Beane's approach was designed to advance a financially disadvantaged franchise through a novel application of statistics. Financial and operational scrutiny do seem to have become the new sabermetrics, as fans of many major sports teams have made fair game of studying their preferred sports businesses.

There's been resistance from the old school and from those who contend that this corporate emphasis saps the passion from sport. For me, examining the business enhances appreciation, understanding, and enjoyment of the competition, but there are dangers in obsessing about the finances and operations of sports organizations in general and Arsenal FC in particular.

The business as the source of performance risks and rewards

As it happens, Billy Beane is an Arsenal fan. This makes sense given the parallels between his approach and manager Arsène Wenger's penchant for seeking players undervalued by consensus opinion.

In an expansive conversation on last week's Arse America podcast, Beane also made a strong case for paying close attention to the underlying business. Bad business decisions can be catastrophic in European football, Beane said, because they heighten the risk of relegation and perpetual decline. The recent histories of Wolverhampton and Portsmouth in England indeed serve as cautionary examples.

Rewards on the pitch also have their foundations in the business. In particular, a strong correlation appears to exist between a Premier League club's expenditures on transfers and player salaries and its finish in the league table. (See the Pay as You Play blog and Twitter observations of Zach Slaton @the_number_game for deeper analysis.)  

Wenger recently noted this relationship and associated it with Arsenal's prospects in the league, saying "I would say that the balance of power is a bit more even than it was five or six years ago, in the Premier League. That's because of Financial Fair Play, added to us having more financial power than five years ago, that gives us a better chance."

These positive and negative effects on performance justify widespread interest in clubs' operations and accounts.

The business as a storytelling device 

Supporters should understand a club's business for an additional reason: The management of affairs expresses a value system, which should guide club officials' words and actions (I wrote about this dynamic in "The Brand's the Thing" two years ago.) When they don't, supporters are right to criticize.

Fans are reasonable, too, in their pride when business developments provide direct evidence of principles that carry meaning for them. CEO Ivan Gazidis evoked this pride to Sports Illustrated's Jeff Bradley when he emphasized the courage it took the Arsenal board to build Emirates Stadium.

"Most people would have just sat back and said, 'This is great. Everybody loves us.' But what do they do?" Gazidis said. "They throw all of that up in the air, a massive risk. They say, 'We're going to commit all the resources of this club to building a stadium that we think we are going to need 15 and 20 years from now if we want to be a really global football club.'"

Gazidis is skilled at emphasizing this compelling part of the Arsenal story, and it's worth our effort as fans to pay attention. If we as individuals share the values captured by the story -- planning for the long term, resisting the urge to rest on laurels, etc. -- we feel more closely connected to the club. At the same time, though, we should be wary that the story of the business isn't used to gloss over poor performance and unmet expectations. 

Dangers of shallow analysis

The same level of vigilance should also apply when we're faced with faulty analyses of the business. For example, even the casual Arsenal fan has probably heard that the club had more than 100 million to support transfer activity this summer.

That hefty balance seems to have convinced many that all the club needs to do was write some big checks and, presto, world-class players would arrive in droves. They draw up their own lists of targets and then criticize the manager and the club when those players don't end up donning the red and white. (A recent culprit was Elliott Smith, @YankeeGunner, who often has interesting insights but set forth completely unrealistic expectations in the season-opening Arse2Mouse podcast.)

We're wise to resist another urge when we focus on the business side of the Arsenal Football Club, that impulse to make the business a story in itself. This tendency turns the financial affairs of the club into another competition, pushing observers to view different clubs in an arms race for resources.

What's the reason to manufacture a contest on this level, stacking statements of accounts against each other? We already have contests to watch, from mid-August to mid-May. All the financial and business activity matters only if it plays out on the pitch. That's where the real drama and meaning of football happen.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Forward, Upward, or on Some Generally Positive Trajectory

There's something newly bold about the Arsenal.

My recent piece "Suddenly, This Summer" assessed the club's current position and paid particular attention to manager Arsène Wenger's public stance and the strategic importance of signing the young defender Calum Chambers from Southampton. Another way to analyze the club's direction is to reexamine the factors I identified in August 2013's "Platform or Plateau."

Supports of the platform

What has reinforced or undermined the sources of Arsenal's progress over the past year?
  1. The club's own financial strength. The advantages continue to accrue. Although updated figures won't be available until late September's annual report, the Puma kit sponsorship and the blockbuster Premier League television deal have expanded the club's coffers, while costs of Arsenal PLC overall have declined. The Arsenal Supporters Trust has estimated that the result is a £140 million cash balance, the bulk of which might be deployed to fund transfers.
  2. The different level of transfer target. Success. The term now should be acquisition, because the club isn't just targeting world-class performers; it's landing them. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez are top talents in their positions brought in from Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively. The persistent links to Real Madrid's Sami Khedira are further evidence that Arsenal is a serious contender for the world's best players.
  3. Unrest elsewhere. A missed opportunity. Manchester United was decidedly weaker in 2013-14, and neither moneybags Manchester City or Chelsea proved a juggernaut in the league. In that context, Arsenal's fourth-place league finish represented a failure to capitalize on the situation.
  4. Continuity in Arsenal's management and playing squad. Reinforced. Wenger has agreed to extend his stay for three years, while the changes in the player development staff have been methodical and promising. In raw numbers, there's been considerable turnover among players, but only the Bosman transfer of right back Bacary Sagna has had a meaningful effect on the first team. There's a strong case to be made -- and 7amkickoff makes it on Arseblog -- that quality improves with the arrival of Sagna's replacement Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle. The integration of Debuchy and Sánchez will be a major factor in the team's performance in 2014-15.
  5. The winning mentality of this squad. We won the FA Cup.
  6. The exits of unwanted players. More additions by subtractions. Although most of this summer's departures have been from the youth ranks, cutting ties with Niklas Bendtner and Park Chu-Young has had a material impact on the reserve squad and the financials. Their salaries might well offset part of what the club will be paying Sánchez.
  7. The impact of Financial Fair Play (FFP). Mixed results. UEFA, European football's governing body, did punish Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, among others, for failing to meet financial requirements. The sanctions reduced their squad sizes for the upcoming Champions League competition and levied multimillion-euro fines. The squad restrictions may not matter much, though, especially because specific instructions on home-grown players appear not to be harsh. (See sports law expert Daniel Geey's explanation here.) Meanwhile, the fines aren't material amounts for these clubs or even definitive. Indeed, PSG continues to spend like mad, breaking the record transfer fee for a defender to acquire David Luiz from Chelsea. That same transaction shows Chelsea's different reaction to FFP; it has stopped, at least for now, indiscriminate spending.

Conditions on the plateau 

How have the five forces suggesting stasis played out over the past year?
  1. The existing distance between Arsenal and the top of the table. Narrowed but persisted. The team amassed 79 points in the 2013-14 league campaign, its highest total since 2007-08, and finished just six points behind champions Manchester City. Not since that 2007-08 season has the team finished closer to the top in points. And yet. Against leading competition, the team's performances were again found lacking. Arsenal secured only 13 of 36 possible points (W3, D4, L5) against other clubs in last season's top seven and only three of those points came away from home, the 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane.
  2. The risk-averse transfer approach. Loosened. This has been one of my biggest concerns, partially because skittishness about transfers has affected the quality of play but even more because it's risked damage to the Arsenal brand. I'm less concerned now. The purchases of Özil and Sánchez indicate looser purse strings; the clearest sign, though, is the risk the club took to pay as much as £16 million for Chambers. As a result, mitigating transfer risk no longer appears to be a guiding policy in building the team or in running the business.
  3. Lack of experience in transfers at the high level. Dealt with. Acquiring Özil and Sánchez from the two Spanish giants shows that CEO Ivan Gazidis, Wenger, and chief negotiator Dick Law can close deals on world-class talent with top clubs.
  4. Uncertain enforcement of FFP. Continues. UEFA did not expel any clubs from European competition. Still, Manchester City agreed to sanctions without contest because they must have concluded that the potential of a ban was real. Neither City nor Chelsea has continued its transfer profligacy, suggesting that at least the English clubs are now taking compliance seriously. Wenger has observed that this development tightens the Premier League title chase and enhances Arsenal's chances.
  5. The composition of the Arsenal board. Barely changed. The retirement of longtime director and former chairman Peter Hill-Wood and the arrival of Josh Kroenke, son of majority owner Stan Kroenke, have reduced the board's average age and introduced some youth. Still, the board is small, white, and male, so it continues to represent the Arsenal fan base poorly, while it's just as unlikely to benefit from differences of opinion. 

What progress looks like

A review of these 12 factors points to the conclusion that the club has made progress and is on a promising trajectory. That's not to say conditions are perfect, that success is inevitable, or that every result and bit of news will be positive. Life doesn't work that way, especially in professional sport, which could be the most publicly competitive environment there is.

What can reasonably be said is that the Arsenal's fundamental position is as strong as it has been in a decade and that the prospect of highly entertaining football is real and immediate. I'm not sure a reasonable person can ask for more.