Arsene Wenger, the 'Warren Buffett of Football'?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/04/2011 03:28:00 PM
A few years ago, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane penned the bestseller Moneyball discussing the use of advanced statistics to better assess the performance and hence value of various players. As salaries of baseball players have increased, picking winners--especially affordable ones overlooked by the big spenders--often revealed unheralded youngsters and sometimes "washed up" veterans with much to offer. Even in team sports--usually a money-losing endeavour--you can spend wisely, folks like Beane claim.

In soccer (football), the Frenchman Arsene Wenger has been at the forefront of efforts to improve the gathering of relevant performance metrics. His club successes at AS Monaco and later Arsenal FC are well-known. He's also been a keen talent spotter, recognizing the likes of George Weah, Thierry Henry, and Patrick Vieira before most everyone else did.

However, with his current team Arsenal not having won a major trophy since 2005, the legendary coach Wenger is under fire. Not only have big-spending teams alike Manchester City and United as well as Liverpool and Chelsea overtaken it, but fans have also been critical about his reluctance to sign up big names when the recently closed transfer window was open. To be sure, I admire Wenger's rational, thrifty and nurturing approach. However, for how long can he compete with free-spending peers in the near term? While Arsenal has and still develops stars of the future, the pressure to do well here and now is immense. Conversely, big-spending teams are luring away marquee Arsenal players alike Cesc Fabregas (now of Barcelona) and Samir Nasri (Manchester City). An 8-2 drubbing of an overstretched, injury-hit squad last week at Manchester United didn't help, either.

FT sportswriter Simon Kuper offers this reading of Wenger as he is tries to weather this latest storm. With many star players leaving the club and promising players being hit with injury leaving a threadbare squad, it's make or break time for him:
Eventually [Wenger] suffered the usual fate of brilliant pioneers: others copied him. Rival clubs replicated his international scouting, diets and statistics. Some also outspent him. In football, the team with the highest wages generally wins. Arsenal’s salary bill is now fifth highest in England. Unlike most managers, Wenger only spends money he has. He discovered the teenaged Cristiano Ronaldo before Manchester United did, but United trumped him with a higher transfer fee. Arsenal spend so cautiously that they regularly turn a profit on transfers.

Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team and a pioneer in his sport, says: “When I think of Wenger, I think of Warren Buffett. Wenger runs his football club like he is going to own the club for 100 years.” Wenger masterminded Arsenal’s move to a much larger stadium, the Emirates. Never previously a giant club, Arsenal now rank fifth in global football for revenues. In the short term, though, debt service on the stadium has curtailed their spending.

Worse, Wenger has another fault common to brilliant pioneers: he has become too much like himself. He no longer seems to hear intelligent criticism. He appears to be indulging his personal foibles: a disdain for physical power, a blind spot for goalkeepers, a delight in buying bargains even when he has money, and the quest for perfect passing rather than goals. So dominant has he become at Arsenal that nobody seems able to correct him. “We are not a democracy,” the club’s chief executive Ivan Gazidis has admitted.
It's almost as if he's being punished by the fates for sticking to principle. For instance, Manchester United performs well year in and year out despite being such a debt-laden entity. The intriguing thing to me about sports management is that, unlike with most conventional businesses, you can be sustainable and profitable but not please your key stakeholders alike with Arsenal and its fan base.

Dare I say that it may be worth blowing out the budget for, say, two to three years to go for glory one last time, Arsene? Call it the footballing equivalent of a stimulus package.

UPDATE: Of course, don't forget that Arsenal's better management of its finances may pay off more vis-a-vis its prodigal rivals when UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations come into effect.