Arsenal, Brazil, Moneyball, and Other Random Thoughts

A number of fairly random things that had been swirling around in my head all came together a bit for me this past Saturday night.  A few friends and I had just come from the DC United match against the Philadelphia Union and were hanging out for a beer or two post-game at the Capitol Lounge.  If you'd have asked me, I'd probably have told you than if/when my mind wandered at that point, I'd be thinking about my MLS bigamy in the wake of another live United/Union match-up.  Instead, I was transfixed by a Fox Soccer Channel airing of the highlights of the 2001-2002 FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea. 

My first thought was that it was nice to see Arsenal winning some silverware even if it required me watching something almost 10 years old.

My second reaction was to think fondly back on the club legends of that era.  Tony Adams was still leading the team out.  David Seaman and his sure hands (and hilarious porn ponytail/mustache) were anchoring the net.  Campbell, ACole, Vieira, Wiltord, Ljungberg, Bergkamp, and TH14 were all young and at or near their best. Romantic times.

My third reaction was to remember that while domestic silverware has been lacking, those great teams from the early 2000s didn't ever really amount to much outside of England.  Here's a reminder of the European exploits of the silverware-winning group up through the Invincibles season.
  • 2000-01: out in the first knockout match
  • 2001-02: didn't make knockout stages
  • 2002-03: didn't make knockout stages
  • 2003-04: won 1 knockout match
  • 2004-05: out in first knockout match
Not exactly covered in glory until that next season when they made it to the Final only to lose to Barca.

So What? 

All of those things got me thinking about the plight of Arsenal and how a team that seemed to be doing so well (at least in domestic terms) has gotten better on the big stage in Europe since the Invincibles season (Finals, Quarterfinals, Semifinals, out to eventual champions in Round of 16).  That got me thinking about this article from Simon Kuper that discusses the rise of statistical analysis in soccer, Wenger as an early disciple, and the plight of the most celebrated early practitioner Billy Beane (of baseball's Oakland Athletics).  Here are a few conclusions that those topics yielded:

Fading Advantage: If Wenger had a competitive advantage in the early 2000s in identifying inexpensive foreign talent and crafting tactics based on statistics and others are catching up to his methods, he, like Billy Beane must continue to pioneer new methods to stay ahead or others will eventually catch up given superior resources.  In baseball, Beane's Athletics haven't been very good for a number of years because the advantages are harder and harder to come by.  Arsenal has superior resources but not enough to continue winning by virtue of resources alone.

Increased Competition: When Wenger was successful domestically, there really wasn't that much competition.  Manchester United and Arsenal had a duopoly on the Premier League and no one else had the combination of money, reputation, and innovation to catch up.  In the interval Chelsea and Manchester City have acquired enough resources to build reputation and ignore innovation.  Liverpool and Spurs have caught up in identifying inexpensive talent to make up for resources that are more scarce than ManYoo, Citeh, and Chelsea's.  This inevitably makes it harder to win at home despite Champions League results generally improving.

Style over Substance: Arsenal like to style themselves as England's answer to Barcelona of the current day or Ajax of the 70s.  The thing is that while Arsenal's has molded talent at a relatively young age, they have never really developed a superstar from the earliest stage in their academy system.  Players like Cesc, Walcott, and Ramsey on the current team have been purchased very young but most of their formative years were spent elsewhere.  While Barca is churning out Messis and Thiagos (and Fabregas') Arsenal's youth players like Bentley, Pennant, and Larsson are riding out their careers in the middle of the table.  As teams become increasingly adept identifying talents like Lakaku, Hazard, Mata, Thiago, Neymar, etc. at very young ages the clubs producing those talents will ask higher and higher prices for unproven players and render Arsenal's previous strategy ineffective.  In the modern football transfer market it seems you must build your own or buy at retail.  There aren't many Javier Hernandez-like buys left out there.

Brazil?: How did they make their way into this post? It was funny (not in a "ha ha" way but in an ironic way) watching them over the weekend in Copa America because I saw much the same fall from grace from them as I've seen from Arsenal over the last few years.  Brazil possessed the ball a lot, had lots of players with big reputations and/or big proposed price tags.  What they couldn't find was a result.  I felt like I was watching Arsenal against Stoke or Sunderland.  They made mental errors.  They didn't cash in clear opportunities (I'm looking at you Robinho and Pato).  They seemed not to have woken up to the fact that the world has caught up to them just enough that they can't just win by showing up in those intimidating green and gold kits and being themselves - even at the early stages of a regional tournament. 

As for quick fixes at Arsenal, I'm not sure I have a specific answer unless UEFA actually makes Financial Fair Play a serious deterrent to the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester United, and Real Madrid (and maybe PSG as we figure out just how wealthy they have become).  Failing that, one wonders if any club in England can consistently challenge City/United/Chelsea for anything other than the odd Cup title without a pretty serious infusion of cash or Barca/Ajax-like youth system that produces exceptional talent in assembly line-like fashion.

(Depressing) Conclusion
If you were looking for a bright and cheery post implying that things are all looking up at Arsenal and we're just a few players away, then this wasn't it.  We may be able to hang on to the current group - RvP, Cesc, Nasri, etc. - for a little while longer and get some silverware out of them as Wilshere and Ramsey rise to the occasion.  The problem is that over the long term, the players that I was so happy to see in the replay of that 2001-02 FA Cup Final would never come to Arsenal in 2011-12 (or even 2008-2009). 

Sylvian Wiltord equivalent Florent Malouda went to Chelsea at a price Arsenal couldn't afford.  Next French stud forward Karim Benzema went to Real Madrid for a price Arsenal couldn't afford (and flopped).  Next Vieira Yaya Toure went from one high priced acquisition (Barca) to the next (Citeh) while never being a realistic target for Arsenal. You get the idea.  I'm quite sure that Arsenal know who the really good young prospects are going to be just like they did in 2001-02.  The difference is that a lot more people know the same thing now and some of them have a lot more money to spend on them. 

Wenger's next trick will have to be his best yet, he's going to have to do what Billy Beane hasn't been able to do yet.  Find a source of untapped value that everyone else out there has missed so far despite the widespread hiring of very smart people in search of that value.  Failing that, he'll have to create it himself at the academy or hope than Mr. Kroenke is willing to break away from running Arsenal as a "real business". 


  1. Denny Z6:22 PM

    It's amazing that Arsenal fans are sooo off the mark in judging their team's talent.

    - Wiltord was not even half as good as Malouda is
    - Campbell, ACole, Vieira, Wiltord, Ljungberg, Bergkamp, and TH14? I'll give you some of them but Wiltord, Ljunberg and Bergkamp do not qualify as great players. Good maybe... but not great. The only ones that were truly something from that list are Vieira and TH14 - however, given TH's performances in the last few years, that is debateable as well
    - Style over substance? I don't think so... United and Chelsea play much better football than Arsenal and manage to get results. Any neutral fan would rather watch a United or Chelsea game over an Arsenal game

    Please stop flattering yourselves - Arsenal were never a good team to begin with. Yea, they might have won a couple of trophies here and there but that was mainly luck. It was not deserved and it's surely not greatness.

    -Denny Z

    PS: I think the biggest thing you got right is the conclusion - Arsenal are a shit team and will continue to be shit for the next few years

  2. bergkamp an average player is way off.

  3. You a Man Utd fan by any chance Denny? Hahaha. You're definately not a fan of football if you can honestly say Bergkamp wasn't a great. I'm not an Arsenal or a Dutch fan but....Bergkamp was...magic.

    I'll never forget that now you see me now you don't move he pulled on Dabizas against Newcastle among the hundreds of other moves he did.

  4. Arsenal's Invinvible season contained one of my all time favourite games - The FA Cup semi final at Villa Park.

    You're forgetting that Fergie did this back in the mid-90s too. He found Schmikes and Kanchelskis and he has continued to do it with Ronaldo, Anderson, Hernandez, De Gea. (We will skip over Poborsky, Cryuff and Djemba x 2)

    This is easy to say from a non-Arsenal fan but what Arsenal really need is a new manager.

  5. "Arsenal's youth players like Pennant"

    Pretty sure Arsenal bought/stole Pennant off Notts County when he was 15, but other than that a good interesting article

    As for Denny Z
    "Chelsea play much better football than Arsenal"

    Is this a joke? Chelsea just go through the motions and grind teams down. They had ZERO flair and creativity last season, just strength and power. I'd say Chelsea were close to being described as "boring" last season.

  6. @Birty - agreed that SAF has done a nice job of finding the occasional bargain transfer but he's also had the ability to bust the budget for big names like Rooney, Rio, Veron, Berbs, etc. They were all at or near transfer fee records at the time of purchase. He did that while bringing up superstar quality in Becks, Giggs, Scholes, and the Nevilles from the youth ranks. Arsenal has shown no willingness to pay for the former types of acquisitions nor the ability to bring high quality players through the youth ranks.

    @DennyZ - I'd be curious to know who you consider to be great footballers if you don't consider Bergkamp, Campbell, and ACole. They were all among the best players at their position in the world in their prime. Not sure what other standard you'd apply. Ljungberg and Wiltord were both exceptional role players - not superstars but I'd apply the same to Malouda who has had two strong half-seasons to his name in the Prem and has also disappeared for long stretches to the extent of being benched on multiple occasions.

  7. Anonymous7:12 AM

    DennyZ, tell your carers its way past time for your medication! Bergkamp not great, Manure play entertaining football, you are one seriously deluded chap! And when did Malouda ever win the league by scoring the match winning goal away at Old trafford like Wiltord did?