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The Evolution of Wengerism

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.

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  1. Dlink04

    September 7, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    God please

  2. Phenoum

    September 7, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Interesting article, and I think you’ve left out a very important aspect of financial responsibility that seems to be left in the dust by an entire generation that is up to their eyeballs in debt.
    Also note that Arsenal may leave transfers until late because anytime a club makes public (breaking UEFA rules?) an Arsenal interest and bid, you see a flock of the newly $$ infused sides rush in to overpay for that same player they were apparently too inept to find through their scouting. They let Arsenal scout the players, wait for some club to illegally publicize the interest, and then jump in like a vulture with a bag of cash…

    That aside i couldnt help but be underwhelmed by your understanding of scientific theory and “laws”

    “Once e=mc^2 is proven true, no quantum theorist in the world can supplant it.”
    That’s an outright false statement. “Proven true” generally means that we have not yet found a case in which it does not occur, but it does not remove the possibility that it is in fact incorrect in some cases.

    “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.”
    Theories are exactly that – theories. And yes – they can be proven false and are all the time. Particularly in physics and the current search for the grand unification theory (much new information being collected at the LHC by CERN are contributing to exactly this)

    So you chose a particularly poor analogy for this piece, seeing as scientific theories are (for the good of science) constantly being both utilized in their present state, and being questioned as to their overarching veracity.

    This would actually relate to your discussion of “Wengerism” quite well – if not for the fact that you seem to think of them as absolutes and phrase your argument as such.

  3. Les

    September 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Well, couldn’t some of this just be that it is just not probable
    for anyone to sustain this kind of success over such a long period.
    Some might do it, but is it fair to expect. Shouldn’t he have a
    year or two to rebuild. The sky was falling in Liverpool last year.
    Also, doesn’t arsenal have a tremendous amount of young quality? Is
    it really a catastrophe, just because Asharvin thinks it is? So,
    maybe wenger made a few mistakes. Even the very best do. Go

  4. Aaron Gordon

    September 6, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Thanks for the feedback everyone. I think you’re right, I could
    have been clearer. First, there’s a difference between taking a
    position and admitting you’re arguing for a developing situation
    that has no conclusion as of yet. With the title “Evolution of
    Wengerism” I was hoping to convey I’m not convinced he HAS
    subscribed to some quasi-religious self-belief in his own
    managerial skills; its evolving. He may have, he may not. But it’s
    certainly the darkest time in his Arsenal tenure thus far, and part
    of it seems to stem from his belief that he didn’t need to keep the
    world class talent of Nasri and Fabregas (he even convinced the
    board to sell of Fabregas well below their perceived value of his
    ability), and that he could trot off teenagers all along his
    starting XI and still compete. He only conceded this point when the
    team suffered its worst loss in a century. I thought that narrative
    would exemplify his stubbornness, since it cost him dearly both in
    monetary value in transfer fees and psychological value in the
    team’s potential.

    • AM

      September 6, 2011 at 11:06 am

      Hang on there, I think you’re making a lot of assumptions there. I
      am positive that Wenger wanted to keep both Fabregas and Nasri but
      he’s smart enough to realize that there is no point in keeping an
      unhappy player. There is no doubt Arsenal’s dealings in the
      transfer window were poor but I would think this has more to do
      with the board and inflated prices than Wenger.

      • Aaron Gordon

        September 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm

        Fabregas was captain of the club last year. He couldn’t have been
        that disruptive or unhappy, I would think. Nasri was unhappy
        relative to his pay scale. Maybe I’m missing something, but Nasri’s
        discontent seemed to have evaporated when his paycheck quadrupled.
        You can entertain debates about whether he’s worth what City is
        paying him, but that’s separate. He wasn’t fundamentally unhappy at
        Emirates. As for inflated prices, the board at Arsenal and
        Barcelona have admitted they paid less than market value, with the
        price lowered by Wenger himself.

        • AM

          September 6, 2011 at 12:39 pm

          I think it’s pretty obvious that Fabregas forced a move away from
          Arsenal. The man took a paycut to be at Barcelona so it’s clear
          that he wouldn’t be “fundamentally happy” at Arsenal this season.
          Arsenal did the noble thing by selling Fabregas to the only club he
          was willing to go to. Maybe not good business, but it only seems
          fair after his 8 years of service.

        • jm

          September 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm

          It is not entirely separate though. I have no idea what really went
          on with the Fabregas saga, such as whether Wenger promised to sell
          him if he stayed one more year or what. With Nasri, though, I think
          that was the right economic thinking with Nasri. Nasri was unhappy
          enough not to sign a new contract, and it sure seems as if Arsenal
          could not meet his wage demands without breaking their wage
          structure. Now, one might object that they should have broken the
          wage structure, but that’s certainly not the Wengerism-belief that
          he could get rid of him. On the other hand, while losing Nasri
          certainly hurts from a football perspective, it basically
          bankrolled bringing in 5 players (in transfer fees, though not
          wages) in exchange for one year of Nasri. For a team that has a lot
          of youth in its side, that’s a good decision, and even if one
          disagrees with it, there are at least serious economic reasons in
          favor of it.

  5. jm

    September 6, 2011 at 9:03 am

    There are a few things I don’t quite follow here: 1) Allow me to
    rephase one of your sentences: “akin to saying that Isaac Newton’s
    theories could be proven false by a rising star…” Even if
    economics is not a science, theories in physics are not sacrosanct.
    2) This matters, because I don’t follow the point about tactics.
    The history of football is a long history of tactics being
    invented, and then being made obsolete (at least in that context)
    by changes in other team’s tactics. This is the running story of
    Inverting the Pyramid, for example. Tactics, and the
    tactical minds with them, are often out-innovated. 3) Do you think
    Arsenal overpaid for their veteran players at the end of the
    window? If that’s false, then your whole point collapses, but it is
    not argued for here. 4) Where does the “Wengerism” stuff come from?
    The point up to that part of the article was that Wenger made an
    economic mistake – failing to rectify his squad’s flaws before the
    widespread publicity of information that would inflate the cost of
    fixing those mistakes (that information being communicated
    resoundingly by the defeat at Old Trafford). None of that implies
    that Wenger is blinded by a quasi-religious conception of his own
    genius, or that he failed to recognize the flaws in the squad.
    After all, your thesis was that he failed to *fix those flaws fast
    enough,* not that he did not recognize them. Yet, all of a sudden,
    at the end, you start trotting out this odd and unsupported
    religious trope.

    • jm

      September 6, 2011 at 9:04 am

      Does the comment system not support paragraphs anymore? I apologize
      that my post is so hard to read, I put breaks in between those

      • The Gaffer

        September 6, 2011 at 9:17 am

        Thanks jm for making me aware of that. Let me look into it.

        The Gaffer

        • The Gaffer

          September 6, 2011 at 9:18 am

          It seems to be working OK for me. If it happens again, let me know. Thanks.

          The Gaffer

          • jm

            September 6, 2011 at 4:37 pm

            Strange! Perhaps it is my browser. Well, I am writing this one from
            a different machine, so if it shows up as two paragraphs, then that
            will indicate the problem is somewhere on my end (running the
            latest Chrome for Ubuntu).

  6. Liam

    September 6, 2011 at 8:43 am

    This is really quite bad. Hard to read ramblings, no definitive
    thesis, and contradicts it self in several spots. Edit, edit, edit.
    A Paraphrased Example: Wenger is an economist. When will the others
    catch up to him”? Economists are wild animals feeding of the
    success of others. So which is he, an economist feeding of the
    success of others, or someone who’s one step ahead? My guess is
    that he’s a bit of both and because you’ve tried to paint the
    subject using such black and white terms like “Economist” and
    “Tactician” you simplify the idea far to much and cant help but
    contradict your self. Does this site not have an editor?

    • goonie

      September 7, 2011 at 12:47 am

      because no one has read a blog post about bashing wenger at all.
      its like a giant bandwagon. let the man do his job. hes do so much
      since 1996, i figure you can give him some time to turn it around.
      nothing here we havent heard before.

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