Engineers build things, economists study efficiency, and kids who live above pubs learn a lot about soccer. These three backgrounds are the source of Arsene Wenger’s managerial success at Arsenal. He builds clubs, finds players from every corner of the world in a cost-effective manner, and teaches them the art of soccer. After the sales of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, combined with the humiliating defeat at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger’s professorship is under question.
Traditionally, true brilliance reveals itself in repetition. Wenger had proven his brilliance before, but recently it has been called into question, with the 8-2 lashing at the hands of Manchester United serving as a punctuating question mark. However, the question mark wasn’t invented by his critics; it was drawn by Wenger’s own actions. Pundits and supporters can debate Wenger’s decisions all they please, but over the last decade and a half, Wenger must have forgotten one of his basic economics lessons.
People often include Wenger’s background in economics as a side note, an interesting tidbit about a man who was clearly destined to become a world-class manager. This preoccupation with the sport itself misses a key insight into Wenger’s managerial success. One could even argue he has been primarily an economist, with a secondary expertise in soccer. Like the best economists, he discovered a market niche and exploited it.
Although Wenger’s nickname is famously “The Professor,” he’s more of a practitioner than an armchair economist. By now, you probably know the Wenger story. Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Kolo Toure, Nicolas Anelka and the aforementioned Fabregas and Nasri are a handful of Wenger’s most successful ventures. Under Wenger, they excelled on the pitch, but they also excelled in the boardroom books; they were astoundingly successful investments for the club. All of the above players were sold at massive profits. Overall, Wenger was the only Premier League manager to strike a profit on transfers from 1996 to 2007, which is infinitely more impressive when considering the hardware that complimented the profits.
Unlike Billy Beane who essentially identified one market niche and then fizzled out, Wenger was constantly revealing inefficiencies in the global player market. First, it was simply an intricate knowledge of his home country. Then, it was nutrition experts to get the most out of his players. He then evolved to tactical adjustments and expanded his scouting prowess well beyond France and North Africa. The question evolved from “Why is Wenger so good?” to “When will others catch up with him?”
Some believe that time is now. Wenger is constantly pointing out the increased competitiveness across the EPL in postgame interviews. To be sure, there are fewer easy victories now than in Wenger’s prime at the turn of the century. This confirms any belief that Arsene Wenger is primarily an economist; brilliant tactical soccer minds rarely get out-innovated. After all, a brilliant tactical mind is always one step ahead of all the others. To imply a tactical expert could be out-smarted on the pitch is akin to saying Albert Einstein’s theories could be proven false by a rising star in quantum theory.
Instead, economists are constantly getting lapped, because economics isn’t a science. Once e=mc^2 is proven true, no quantum theorist in the world can supplant it. In economics, a market efficiency is revealed, and the rest of the world catches up to it in a flash, often times surpassing it while the innovator is still patting himself on the back. Scientists and tacticians are ladders, constantly building off their own ideas. Economists are animals in the wild, feeding off the success of others.
Wenger now finds himself bidding with other smart managers who recognize young talent when they see it. Young talent is harder to come by, and more clubs are looking to North London for their youth, willing to pay a premium for Wenger’s scouting and tutelage. Others are feeding off the success of The Professor.
It was clear even before the 8-2 thrashing that Arsenal didn’t have a championship caliber squad. Calls for a roster upgrade were abound. Wenger may have been actively searching for the right transfer, but evidently didn’t find it. The economist in him wanted the perfect deal. Instead, he waited too long. After the rout, every manager in the world knew Arsenal was desperate to buy, like a man whose house was just blown away in a storm. He needed water, food, a generator, a defender, midfielder and striker. Every manager in the world raised their asking price.
Wenger likely could have had the resultant transfers for much less, had he simply taken advantage of asymmetric information. The rest of the world suspected Arsenal wanted to acquire veteran players, but nobody knew for sure except for Wenger. After the destruction at Old Trafford, there was no more asymmetric information. Wenger’s role switched from the used-car dealer to the customer.
The Professor was no longer the teacher, and the engineer saw his creation collapsing. Instead of home-grown talent evolving into loyal Arsenal minions, he’s allowing inexperienced teenagers to roam the field in an aimless display of raw skill, not the technical and cerebral superiority The Professor has become accustomed to seeing in North London. Is this a sign Wenger is no longer an economist, but a believer in Wengerism? As long as they’re his investments, they must be wise investments?
Perhaps time will prove Wenger was indeed one step ahead, still innovating ahead of the others. But I fear Wenger has subscribed to the religion of his own genius, and like most religions, it’s either proven false or never proven at all.