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Billy Beane and Arsene Wenger: Geniuses in Decline

Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke – known on these shores for owning the Rams and no longer officially owning the Nuggets, the Avalanche and the Colorado Rapids – gave embattled manager Arsene Wenger his vote of confidence. In doing so he highlighted the connection between Wenger and a kindred spirit, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane. The connection is fitting. Disturbingly for Arsenal fans, it’s far more fitting than Kroenke intended.

English soccer journalists treated Moneyball as a new development when John Henry bought Liverpool, but Arsene Wenger has been applying similar principles since he arrived in the EPL in the 1990s. Both Beane and Wenger have the same goals, exploiting market inefficiencies to extract maximum value with minimal expenditure. Their careers from success through eventual malaise dovetail to an eerie extent.

Taking over the Oakland A’s, Beane used statistics to find attributes overlooked in the marketplace (on base percentage, college players and later defense) his cash-strapped team could exploit cheaply. He found hidden gems. He fleeced big clubs of their best prospects and high draft picks. For years, he sustained a level of success far beyond his objective means. From 1999 to 2006, the Athletics won at least 87 games every season and made five playoff appearances.

Arsene Wenger employed a similar philosophy at Arsenal. English players were overvalued, so he invested in scouting and bought abroad. Established veterans were overvalued, he bought teenagers and invested in his academy. He also enhanced the value of his own players by replacing pies and pints with a quality fitness regime and a Japanese-inspired diet. Like Beane he succeeded well beyond his expenditure. Arsenal broke Manchester United’s monopoly. From 1997 to 2005, the Gunners won three EPL titles (never finishing below second) and four FA Cups.

Both men are geniuses who deserve spacious accommodations in their sports’ ivory towers. We can speak of their accomplishments in the past tense, however because their greatness, by any sober analysis, is behind them. Since 2007, the A’s have averaged 76 wins and failed to make the playoffs or even finish above .500. Since 2006, Arsenal has not finished higher than third in the EPL, has not won a trophy and looks in danger of missing the top four Champions League places for the first time under Arsene Wenger. They are closer to relegation than the title.

Why did Wenger and Beane decline? Part of it is external factors. By changing their sports so noticeably, both inadvertently ironed out the inefficiencies .

Baseball teams are smarter than when Beane took over at Oakland. Virtually every team has hired stats guys. Player evaluations are better. Prospects are valued more. Teams treat the draft more seriously and make better trades. If Billy Beane calls about a seemingly innocuous AA catcher, every team knows not to trust him. The good ones know exactly why he is calling. He has taught teams most of his tricks. They are deploying them against him with far greater resources and margins for error.

Similarly, English soccer has become smarter since Arsene Wenger arrived. Every high-level club has improved players’ fitness. Clubs have radically expanded and improved their scouting networks. When Arsenal’s scouts find an elite caliber French Academy player, Chelsea’s and Manchester United’s are right there with them. If those clubs aren’t there, the kid’s agent is leaking Wenger’s interest to the media to try to start a bidding war for him. The fact he is interested in someone now drives up that player’s value.

EPL clubs are smarter and with the arrival of Chelsea and Manchester City, they are spending more on transfer fees and wages, which has sucked for Arsenal. Arsenal tried to sign Juan Mata. Chelsea pushed the bidding beyond their breaking point. Arsenal offered Samir Nasri a raise to $140,000 per week at last season’s end. Manchester City offered him $285,000 per week. In the past, Wenger would sell a player on his terms when he was past his prime. Now, he’s selling key players in their prime and replacing them with teenagers.

Another part of it is hubris. Both, to an extent, bought into their own hype and vision, discredited outside variables that led to their own success and assumed they could recreate it. For Wenger, it became almost a moral crusade. Winning “the right way” through his vision became more important than simply winning.

Beane was brilliant during his great stretch, but also quite fortunate. Future MVPs Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada were already in the farm system (and in proximity to BALCO). The club also hit the lottery on three of their top picks in four years. Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito each became All-star caliber players. That’s great scouting, but that’s also a lot of dumb luck. Even elite organizations make many mistakes evaluating Beane could just as easily have drafted three Chris Enochs. The A’s have returned to Earth with their draft success. Prospects have not emerged. The A’s don’t have the money to account for mistakes. The team has stalled in perpetual rebuilding mode.

Arsene Wenger was magic. He wore a magic hat. He took down Man United. He made some A-plus signings, including Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. He also developed some elite players, such as Ashley Cole. However, he inherited the core of his team when he arrived. Arsenal had a hardened back four led by consummate leader Tony Adams. He had Dennis Bergkamp, one of the finest players in the sport. His effort to rebuild Arsenal almost entirely through youth development has failed, because he has produced neither a sound defensive core nor another Dennis Bergkamp.

Billy Beane and Arsene Wenger were luminaries. They innovated. They exploited the market. They irrevocably altered their respective sports. Their time, however, has passed. The market has turned and the rich, with improved methodologies, are still rich. Both eschewed better jobs (Boston, Real Madrid) that would have granted them shots at their sports’ brass rings to see out their visions. Those visions and their clubs’ performances have become stale.

The one difference is their circumstances. Beane may be at peace being the sage who is not truly expected to field a competitive baseball team, but Wenger has tangible consequences for failure weighing on him. ($60 million lost from missing the Champions League). He won’t be afforded that luxury.

[Photo via Getty]

 

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