I had a massive tech fail yesterday on my podcast, so we’re looking at a huge sound quality problem. The Simon Kuper chat won’t see the light of day, so instead, I’ll run through the best bits in a winding post instead.
My interest in Simon and his co-authored book Soccernomics is it explains partly how we landed where we did under Arsene Wenger and at the same time exposes some of the glaringly obvious flaws we have at the club.
First we chatted through FFP. We’ve been power bombed by Ivan Gazidis and co over the last few years like this new financial structure is going to put Arsenal in pole position in Europe. Simon was relatively scathing when it came to this. He believes it won’t be rigorously enforced because damaging the biggest competitions will damage UEFA sponsorship revenues. Clubs like PSG will have revenue streams brought in from mysterious companies countering the rules, to uncover the issues will take years… so they’re unlikely to ever down a team. Especially as clubs like PSG and Monaco will have spectacular players everyone will want to see.
We chatted about Madrid and their situation with FFP. Again, more refreshing honesty…
‘People should stop thinking about football clubs as rational businesses; they’re not there to make a profit. Madrid need to entertain their fans. They sold a player as good as Ozil for a newer shinier one’
… and that approach works. They’re a monster of a business model. People massively inflate the debt they have and forget they’re on course for a £500m revenue this year.
He then went on to make the killer point in all this…
‘Big football clubs never disappear. Not since the thirties when Wigan Borough went bust have we seen a major English club disappear. No one major in Europe has been lost during this debt crisis.’
He’s bang on. I wrote 3 years ago that the Premiership doom mongers were wrong. Big teams always have a beneficiary waiting with a pot of gold at the bottom of the table. At the heart of it, you always have thousands of loyal customers who can’t switch product. There’s always a revenue stream and always a certain amount of glory associated with being a football club owner.
As I’ve explained on here many times before, football has moved on. The power structure currently in place at Arsenal has always been an illogical one. Simon explained that it has been in place since the sixties when a group of powerful British managers wrestled control from the boards of some our most famous clubs and took total control. Arsene Wenger, is arguably one of the best one man band managers in the game. An expert generalist. When he arrived here, according to Simon, he didn’t really have a modern approach when it came to structure; he has an old fashioned way of doing things. The skill Arsene had was being a master of the transfer market. He had free reign in France and he made hay whilst the sun shone on French football.
His approach to data was pretty revolutionary as well. He was a master of maths and data. He took cues from Lobanovsky (read more here), the famous Soviet coach who used statistics to manage players. This next quote is insightful…
“There is no such thing as a striker, a midfielder, a defender. There are only footballers and they should be able to do everything on the pitch.”
That could easily be a Wenger quip…
The more you dig around this character, the more you see that he was indeed the inspiration for Arsene Wenger. This is an excerpt from his book when talking about the application of cybernetic techniques to football training.
What, you don’t know what cybernetic techniques are?
‘Football became for him a system of 22 elements – two sub-systems of 11 elements – moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two sub-systems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, they would win. The aspect that Lobanovskyi found most fascinating was that the sub-systems were subject to a peculiarity: the efficiency of the sub-system was greater than the sum of the efficiencies of the elements that comprise it. That, as Lobanovskyi saw it, meant football was ripe for the application of the cybernetic techniques being taught at the Polytechnic Institute. Football, he concluded, was less about individuals than about coalitions and the connections between them.’
Hello Arsene… how about this quote?
“the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play. If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counterplay, then we need to find new a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game. You have to go forward in such a way and with such a range of attacking options that it will force the opponent to make a mistake. In other words, it’s necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area.”
So basically, Arsene was the first to adopt these techniques in British football. Simon referred to the time when Arsene Wenger regularly pulled Dennis Bergkamp off late in a game because data suggested he fatigued in the latter stages of matches. Wenger was the master of data back in the day. However, what Arsene Wenger has failed to do over the last few years is adapt to the modern era. Everyone had caught up. Data isn’t a new thing anymore. New models have evolved. AVB is a massive numbers nut. Spurs have a hugely impressive data department. Clubs now adopt in game video analysis. Arsenal don’t do this. Using an old Soviet model of playing football, without layering it with a more modern approach has meant we’ve stagnated as a club on the playing front.
What’s made our approach even more laboured, according to Simon, is that we’re one of the last major clubs in Europe to adopt a ‘one man band’ football club model. Wisdom of the crowd is the best way to operate a business and a football club. Arsene’s decisions on player transfers over the last few years haven’t been what they once were and that comes down to him not taking on enough outside opinion. That’s unlikely to change until he goes. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t ever win a trophy under him… but it does mean we’re unlikely to. Being an amazing generalist in the world of the expert specialists these days is a tough job…
We also spoke about Billy Beane and his influence on baseball and numbers. I’ve already told you that Billy Beane was against signing kids. He’d rather have best in class at 20 than take a 17 year old who was an exceptional youth team player. Simon said if you have a 17 year old playing great football for the first team, he’s almost a dead cert to make it. However, our approach of stealing Europe’s best youth players has largely been a failure because the ramp up to quality first team player is so troublesome. That’s why our record of bringing through top talent through the ranks is so weak… and look at it, it really is poor. He also touched on football and baseball scouts sometimes looking at the wrong attributes. Sometimes being the best athlete isn’t the killer asset. Look at Messi. Super fast, but would he have made it through the British youth system? He’s tiny… British scouts always loved a massive player. I went to school with Ryan Garry. Was he the best player in our school team? Not a chance. Was he the biggest? Absolutely. I didn’t grow to his height for about 4 years after he left to go to Arsenal.
Football is a game of false assumptions… we’re starting to come out the other end now. The idea that managers have to have been incredible footballers is slowly losing sway. That’s exciting. You can be a career manager. Maybe in 10 years’ time, we’ll have got to a point where anyone with a vision and a great understanding of the game can make it. Despite what Wenger says, you don’t have to have played the game to a high level to get the game. Quite the opposite. It might have been a Mourinho quote… but it was something along the lines of, why do you think people who weren’t good players often make good managers?
‘More time to study’
Great answer whoever said that. (confirmed it was Mourinho)
Final part of the conversation was around the strength of the league. Has it got weaker or has it got stronger?
Simon was pretty emphatic… it’s still incredibly strong. He believes people have got far too caught up in the romance that two German clubs made the Champions League final. There is one club that is usually preeminent in Germany. Two clubs in Spain, the rest are broke and have sold their best players. Two clubs in France can now compete financially with the European giants. No clubs in Italy currently competes with the best in Europe. We’re still top of the coefficients and we have at least three clubs that can compete for the Champions League and 4 or 5 that could feasibly compete for the league this year. We’re the most attractive and rich league in the world. Don’t buy into the outside hype that we’re a falling star…
Anyway, apologies that this couldn’t be podcasted. I hate PCs and all the sh*te tech associated with them. I’ll try and snare Simon when he’s in England next and get another 30 minutes. In the meantime, read the book, Soccernomics, it’s brilliant. Check out Football against the enemy as well
We’re playing Marseille this evening. I won’t labour on it… but it’s a must win. The team sound confident. Shame Wenger is concerned about the size of his squad now.
It’s important we get some players back, we cannot play with the next two months with the squad we have at the moment.
‘The situation of other players is that we had some small knocks and bruises. Of course I’m concerned, we have three games a week for the next two months.’
… it’s not like he didn’t have 90 days to prepare. Perhaps he needs a copy of Soccernomics?