Yesterday, we focused on how Arsenal have managed to find themselves in another situation where they’ve embarked on a blurry journey to find the next level. Today, we’re going to move away from the doom and try and paint a picture of what things could look like for the club if they make good decisions over the next 5 years.
Liverpool Football Club is an unbearable institution, of that there is no doubt. However, what they have achieved in 5 years is beyond spectacular. It is a minor miracle. A benchmark for clubs that don’t have the luxury of billions of dollars in sugar daddy cash.
We spent years on here extolling the virtues of using smarts to beat the system while so many people just aped the old Arsenal line of ‘it’s impossible to win with financial doping.’ It has always been weak to believe there is only one way to achieve success and this story aims to uncover how better decision making that starts now could set us on a future path to glory.
Firstly, let’s start in 2015. Arsenal had just lifted their second trophy of the decade, they finished 3rd in the League comfortably on 75 points, things were looking up. We had the makings of a decent squad. It was so good, the only signings we made that summer were Mo Elneney and Petr Cech (lol). People inside the club genuinely thought that FA Cup win was about to spark something at Arsenal.
Liverpool had just crashed to 6th after nearly winning the league the season before but for a slip. Brendan Rodgers squad hadn’t moved forward, and they doubled down on the problems that summer by spending £50m on Benteke, £20m on Clyne, with the only saving grace being Firmino for £45m. They also lost Raheem Sterling to City.
The following season saw Liverpool crash to 10th in the table by October, Rodgers was sacked and they went big with the replacement. They brought in Jurgen Klopp, the charismatic German who’d ended his Dortmund tenure in flames the season prior. This was a spectacular decision.
We finished 2nd in the league with Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester besting us by 10 points. Let’s get this absolutely straight, that season was an absolute disaster for all the teams around us. Every club in the big 6 had cycled through a new manager within a year. Our celebrated stability under Wenger still couldn’t deliver a major trophy
Bold exec leadership would have looked at the context of that years 2nd place honestly. They’d have seen that it was in fact a dismal failure, not a success. The only joy was beating Spurs to 2nd on the last game of the season. It would have been apparent to anyone worth their salt that the clubs around Arsenal were making smart hiring decisions, moving into areas we were ahead of them in, whilst laying the foundations for a brighter future.
So what did we do?
We entrusted Arsene Wenger to make magic happen with the money we were ensured would make the difference to his performance. He signed Mustafi, Perez, Xhaka, Asano, Holding, and Brammal. Mikel Arteta retired and went to City. Serge Gnabry was sold to Germany for £4.3m.
That season was a tipping point for both Arsenal and Liverpool. Both clubs took on very different strategies, one grounded in data and a clear vision, the other in mess of conflicting thoughts and whims.
The top guy at Liverpool for data is a person called Ian Graham. Before we talk about him, it’s worth noting that Liverpool owner John Henry made his money from algorithms way back in the day when he was in hedge funds, Fenway Group also had a successful baseball team (they love the Moneyball numbers game), so they know there’s value to be unlocked in spreadsheets.
Ian Graham is a smart guy, he has a doctorate in theoretical physics from Cambridge, he decided to lend his experience to football, he bummed around at Spurs for a bit though found little luck with the management, then he landed his big break. Liverpool brought him in during 2012 to create a data-centric culture for a club that had lost its way. Famously, it was Ian’s data that led to the hiring of Jurgen Klopp, he correctly assessed that his final season at Dortmund was mostly terrible because of bad luck, the xG numbers were heavily weighted against Dortmund.
Klopp loved hearing that story when they met and immediately connected with him when he joined and the rest is history.
Here’s a snippet from the NYT on how he approaches player identification.
Graham’s weightiest responsibility is helping Liverpool decide which players to acquire. He does that by feeding information on games into his formulas. What he doesn’t do is make evaluations by watching those games. “I don’t like video,” he says. “It biases you.” Graham wants the club that he works for to win, but he also wants his judgments to be validated. “All of these players, there has been discussion of their relative merits,” he said. “If they do badly, I take it as sort of a personal affront. If I think someone is a good player, I really, really want them to do well.”
His data doesn’t just inform transfers, it also helps the club understand the true performance of the team in games and training, it helps them find advantages in areas others aren’t looking, it is a true competitive advantage that is there to support an elite team of coaches with their decisions.
So what about Arsenal? Well, we’re a long way behind, but it didn’t need to be that way. Ivan G went out and bought one of the leading football data companies in the world with StatDNA. We had that in 2013. The problem? Our manager didn’t embrace it, nor his dated staff. The exec team didn’t insist on making it work. They just allowed the investment to sit in the corner gathering dust.
As I wrote about extensively yesterday, Ivan G made inroads with modernising his backroom team, knowing full well we’d neglected his purchase. He hired in Diamond Eyes, a famous data-centric scout. Sadly though, we never saw the fruits of this smart hire because our former CEO quit mid-project and left the German to the ‘contacts’ wolves. So now fast forward to 2020, we’re actually further behind in modernizing than we ever have been. One of the founders of StatDNA has left, a bunch of scouts have been fired, and our leader gets his player updates from a small selection of agents with very average taste.
ACTION ITEM: This summer, the club needs to refocus its energy on making us a data forward football club. We should make it a priority to hire someone at the cutting edge of scouting or empower talent that has shown an interest in the area at the club. Every decision we make should be underpinned by data-driven insights. It should help identify the talent with scouts out in the field to give context well before an agent is asked for an opinion. We need a new Sven and a version of Ian Graham and they should both be given a mandate. Data should not be optional in 2020. That is a backwards approach. If our Technical Director is not technical, what is the point?
We are in a bad place with our squad at the moment, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The first thing you have to do is stop making bad decisions. Don’t give big deals to average players, stop listening super-agents, and build yourself the profile of the sort of player you need to succeed. This is how Ralph Rangnick describes his player profile for the RB group.
The difference between us and other clubs is that when we sign or scout new players, we are fishing in a very small pond. We only interested in players aged between 17 and 23, as from our experience, when you are 23 you are no longer a talent. If you look at other clubs and their development, you can see that players start their careers earlier than 10 years ago and finish earlier too. So we are only scouting those players. The maximum age is 23. The second difference is that in both clubs, we try to implement and play the same style of football and of course between the two clubs, we make use of synergies that can be developed out of those two factors.
The RB business model is predicated on moving on experienced players on so they can fund growth (and buy better kids). The player profile matches their intent. What is our player profile? Does it match our ambitions? Does it suit our finances? Does it get us closer to the Champions League? Arguably, no.
Arsenal is not being honest with themselves. Some people at the club know what we need to do, others are living in a Barca-Lite fantasyland where hobnobbing with the fancy super-agents gives them some sort of weird personal status kick.
We need to be honest about how we navigate the future and stop chasing childish dreams hoping that maybe, by accident, we’ll stumble back into the top 4.
Factors that should shape the profile:
- Our wage bill needs to reduce drastically
- We lack power and pace in a brutal league
- We have a coach that is highly technical
- This is a 5 year plan
All of that points you to a very specific profile of player we should be signing. Young, talented, technical, cheap, and ambitious. Not Cedric Soares on a 4-year deal.
Spending money well now pays huge dividends in the future. The easier it is to sell players for profit, the more money you have to play with each summer. Liverpool sussed this and managed to become Champions of England and Europe whilst being a selling club. Look at the net spends of both Arsenal and Liverpool over the last 5 years (£).
Liverpool’s 5-year net spend is £107m, Arsenal’s is £270m (TransferMarkt)
They are a selling club, raking up £400m in sale, versus our £200m. Worth noting that they haven’t sold less than £37m worth of players a season over 5 years, we had 3 seasons of not breaking £10m in sales.
Liverpool’s ground zero moment was Benteke for £50m in 2015. The Liverpool brain trust managed to keep Klopp’s spending to below zero for two seasons before they went big on two special players that helped them win the Champions League at the second attempt.
There’s also a case to be made for wages as well. Ours sits at £230m a season and we’re barely in the top half of the league. We need to cut that and improve quality. That can only come from great scouting that uncovers value. At the moment, we’re blowing £200k a week on a 33 year that all in cost £24m. Can you honestly tell me there’s not a centre back in the Bundasliga that wouldn’t have cost 30% of his salary and given us some resale value? You can’t.
We need to get back to basics because here’s another harsh slap in the face, Liverpool landed where they are spending just £100m a more on wages over 5 years (Swiss Ramble). Sounds a like a huge difference, but it’s basically one Mesut Ozil for 5 seasons.
The byproduct of right-sizing and building on a plan grounded in reality is that as you get more success, you can offer more money to talent. Those big jumps in salary came as a result of more prize money and winning trophies. We are stuck in rut, throwing big money at temporary solutions as our revenue disintegrates. This approach started in 2017 and it hasn’t worked. Time to face the music and try a new way.
Raul, Edu and Arteta need to be aligned on what it takes to get back to the top. It was clear from Emery’s complaining that was not the case for him. It would seem from out business so far this year that once again, it’s a Raul/Edu production and the agents are the stars again. That is not going to be successful.
There is simply no excuse for not being at Liverpool’s level when we’ve had more resource to play with. Stan K and his KSE operation are not cheap, they have invested £163m more in transfers than Liverpool over 5 years. The problem with our owners is they keep letting visionless people spend their money. We arguably have the most broken squad of the past 20 years, we are lower in the table than we’ve been in living memory, and we are looking at team that finished 8th in 2015 lift the Premier League and the Champions League trophies 5 years later.
It is possible to get back to the elite, you just need a plan.
- Get a grip on the contract issues so we stop losing high-value talent for next to nothing
- Focus on buying younger players with higher ceilings so we can grow value
- Become a better selling club by enforcing the 2-year deal rule
- Offer market rate contracts so players don’t get fat and stay with us if things don’t work out.
- Ban super-agents from the exec box
I won’t labour on this point for too long, but Liverpool pulled off a masterstroke with Jurgen Klopp. He was the right man for the right moment. He wanted to rebuild a fallen giant. That meant he was happy to work with a brain trust, he understood that success wouldn’t be overnight, and he was happy to play the net spend game until the clubs finances repaired.
Arsenal didn’t hire Klopp. We blew the chance for that sort of coach when our ‘experience’ hire ended up being Emery. We let the Spaniard spend more in 18 months (£161m) than Klopp has spent in his entire Liverpool career to date (£75m).
Now we’re in a new moment. The club has little to no money, it has a broken squad, and the wage bill simply has to be crushed if we’re to survive the next 3 years.
Arteta, if things go well, is the correct coach for this moment in time. He loves Arsenal FC, which means he’s committed to restoring it. It’s his first job and he’s extremely ambitious, that means he has extra capital invested in making sure he doesn’t fail. He’s an exceptional coach, which means he’s is perfectly suited to helping our young squad of kids grow into their careers. The ceiling for him is the very top.
The expectations are also at an all-time low for Arsenal fans. No one is expecting much from the club at the moment. That sort of environment relieves a bit of the pressure on a green coach and it certainly gives the young players a better environment to work in.
Arteta has worked in a high-performance culture. To thrive, he needs to work with like-minded people with the interests of our great football club at heart. Those experts should be on Arsenal’s payroll. Decisions should never be influenced by grifters. Every single person needs to be pulling in the direction of an exciting agreed-upon vision. That is the only way it works.
- Allow the coach to do his thing and support his vision for how we grow the team
- Back his aggressive push for a high-performance culture. Ship out players and staff that don’t meet the standards.
- Build an infrastructure around him that pushes him to be better. He has no bad habits as a coach, there’s no legacy, that means he’ll be open to new ideas and ways of working.
- Find the very best people in the game and bake them into the project. Who is the new Sven? Who is the new Ian Graham? Who are the elite young coaches in the game that could bring fresh thinking to the squad? Are there any cool ideas we can borrow from The Rams?
- Support the manager with players that fit the profile of how he wants to play football. Fast, intelligent, mobile and hungry to be the best at what they do.
So to conclude this monster.
There is always hope. We are a beast of a club. We have the name, the training facilities, great staff, and more than enough revenue to do great things if we get creative this summer. We just need a bit of honesty about where we are as a club, we need a strategy to get back to the top, then we need to make sure every single action we take as a club is in support of the vision.
The success story at Liverpool has shown Arsenal the way forward, the question is, can Raul and Edu step to the occasion, or do we have to search out a new leadership team to help us finally make the jump?
We’ll find out very soon.