Would Arsenal Benefit from a Separate “General Manager”?By: Lachlan | July 31st, 2011
Whenever you follow multiple different professional sports, you inevitably start to notice the unique aspects of each of them. For instance, I remember Martin writing a while back about how odd it would be for an NBA basketball fan to endure various different international breaks during the middle of the regular season. In professional baseball, the manager and assistant coaches wear uniforms just like the players. Imagine seeing Wenger wearing a full soccer uniform, standing on the sideline. Ha. Anyway, as a fan of different North American professional sports, I’ve come to notice something about the typical structure of each team.
As a general rule, in sports like baseball, basketball, American football, and hockey, there are three major figures in each organization. There’s the owner, the general manager, and the head coach (called the manager in baseball). Of course there are various assistants for each of these people, but that’s the general framework. Some owners are more active in personnel moves, while some take a hands off approach. Virtually all head coaches have some input into personnel moves as well, but it’s rare to see a head coach have full power over player contracts, trades, and other personnel decisions. Former NFL head coach and general manager Bill Parcells, while still just a head coach, once famously complained: “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” In other words, he was asking for authority to make personnel decisions while still a head coach as well.
As a general rule, I think the separation of GM and head coach seems to work better. There have been many head coaches who have been given GM power, and have fallen flat on their faces. One reason is that the job is probably too big. They’re supposed to be hands on with the team all the time, but somehow supposed to scout other players, deal with agents, calculate budgets, and so forth. Another problem seems to be that coaches are usually forced to be in “win right now” mode, and they often make GM decisions with only a short-term focus. (Ironically, Wenger can be accused of just the opposite approach.)
Another reason why a separation of GM and head coach seems to work better is that an organization can find a person with one set of skills, and another person with another set of skills. Coaches need to be good with players, tactically innovative, good at motivation, and so forth. General managers need to be able to handle budgets, allocate limited resources, and look at “big picture” sort of things.
Growing up as I did in the U.S., watching North American professional sports, it was interesting to me to learn about how things worked differently in European soccer. As a rule, managers seem to be given the dual role of head coach and general manager. Of course there are others involved. And of course owners give managers a limited budget (except at Chelsea and Man City). But managers, particularly powerful ones like Wenger and Ferguson, basically can handle all the personnel moves.
In my Q&A with Tim Payton from the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, I asked him what the people on the board actually do. I didn’t get as much detail in his answer as I was hoping for, but it does seem clear to me that Kroenke has ultimate power to do what he likes, while Wenger works within his budget and makes whatever personnel decisions he wants. It seems to me that the current board is there to do things such as: 1) handle the business side of things, 2) advise both the manager and owner about things, and 3) carry out duties assigned by the manager and owner. I’m still curious about the exact details of their work, but that’s my best guess based on what I know. But the bottom line is that we don’t have a separate general manager with the power to buy and sell players, regardless of what Wenger wants to do. So the question for today is whether such a separation of powers would be beneficial.
As a coach, I still have faith that Wenger can do a good job. For instance, if you gave him a squad of 25 players, and gave an identical squad of 25 players to various other managers, I think Wenger’s team would compete pretty well. That’s not to say that he’s been without faults as a coach. I mean, how many times have we taken a lesser team for granted, not gotten a result, promised it would never happen again, and then done the same thing again the next time? But still, I’ll take Wenger’s coaching over most of the options out there.
However, it’s mostly on the general manager side of things where I’m constantly in a tizzy. That’s particularly true during the summer transfer window, when there’s nothing else to analyze. I’ve already written quite a few complaints in this area over the last month or so, so I’ll try not to repeat everything. But the nutshell version of it is that Wenger doesn’t spend the resources he has, he spends in the wrong areas, and he doesn’t shore up obvious areas of need. (Name for me one other club where the board would reportedly have to ASK the manager to SPEND money.) On top of that, we have to hear about how bringing in new players would only hinder the development of the quality young players we have. Oh, and that we’re just this close to winning big things, so why make massive changes to the makeup of the team?
Of course the “Arsene Knows Best” crowd would jump in and point out how many young talents Wenger has brought in and developed into star players. And that’s certainly true. However, I have two points of response that minimize that a bit. First, he’s been at Arsenal since 1996, with a mindset of developing young players. Don’t you think that any decent manager at a big club for that long, with that mindset, might develop a few gems along the way? And second, all that youth development doesn’t do much for me when we’re going six years without a trophy, and still counting.
I’m trying to withhold judgment on this summer’s transfer window until it’s complete, but there are a few things that we can seemingly figure out already. While we’re most likely to bring in at least one more defender, possibly as early as this week, we still frankly need three new ones. If Eboue is sold (and he probably should be replaced), then we’ll realistically need another LB, CD, and RB. But what are the chances that we see three new defenders? Roughly zero. In addition, we could use another strong defensive midfielder, rather than gifting that spot to Frimpong already.
Taking a look at recent history, the concept of Wenger leaving us dreadfully thin at key positions is nothing new. The most glaring example for me would be in 2009-10 at the CD position. Senderos was still technically on the team, but Wenger let him sit there until he was loaned to Everton in January. With Djourou injured, Silvestre was the only CD option behind Vermaelen and Gallas. In January of 2010, we also re-signed 35-year-old Sol Campbell, who wasn’t even playing for anyone at the time. Yet he still played much better than Silvestre.
The fact that we entered the 2009 campaign so thin at CD is simply inexcusable. It’s doubly inexcusable when you consider we’d just sold Adebayor and Toure, so we had plenty of money to invest in the market. And it’s triply inexcusable when Wenger did the same thing in January 2011, refusing to shore up the CD spot when it was obvious that Vermaelen was out long-term, and Squillaci was awful. Even Tim Payton lamented that gaffe in his Q&A the other day.
I could go on and on listing examples of times in recent memory when Wenger let us down as a general manager, but I’ll try to keep this blog from turning into a book, since I still have several more points to make. Suffice it to say there have been many recent examples. Anyway, now I’d like to answer a question someone recently asked me in the comments’ section. Do I really think I could do a better job of making personnel decisions than Wenger, considering he’s able to train with the squad every day? I really don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but YES, I really do. While sitting at my computer in Granbury, Texas. And not only that, but I would imagine most of you readers feel the same way as well.
To attempt to prove my point, I’ll engage in a little exercise that I see fans commonly enjoy. That is, the exercise of “what if we sold player X for ___ amount, then we could use those funds to buy player Y and Z for ___ amount.” So for the purposes of my giant exercise, I’ll make a couple of introductory remarks. First, I’ll try to be as conservative as possible in my estimations. In other words, I’ll try to assume purchase prices would be on the high side, sale prices would be on the low side, and money in the existing transfer kitty would be less than what is widely reported. I’ve read estimates saying our budget is over £35 million, but I’ll assume a kitty of “merely” £20 million for my exercise. Second, for the purposes of this exercise, I’ll go with a large-scale turnover of players, with as many sales as possible. I’ll pretty much assume a sale of almost every player who’s been rumored to be leaving this summer. It can be done a variety of ways, so please don’t try to quibble about the fact I listed Player X or Y in my list of transfers. Even though I know you will anyway. And third, I know this is probably too simplistic, and not all of these deals would work out in one summer. But the point is that it’s an illustration of how I’d approach things if I were given the chance.
Ok, without further ado, here’s what I would propose to do as general manager this summer, with all prices listed in pounds:
1) Fabregas, if you want to dream about sitting on the bench at Barca, and if you want to go hang out in Spain while the team you captain plays it’s final game of the season, then you can go. We’ll take 35 million and move on.
2) Nasri, if you don’t want to sign what’s been reported as a 115,000 per week pay raise, then you can go too. We’ll take 23 million for you.
3) Bendtner, if you want to complain about your role, you’re gone too. Let’s call it 8 million for you.
4) Clichy, you can go be ambitious and win trophies for Man City, and we already have the 7 million there.
5) Eboue and Arshavin, y’all can go to Galatasaray for about 12 million, which is still a lot less than the 18 million I heard recently in the news.
6) Almunia, Squillaci, Diaby, Denilson, Vela, y’all can also find a home somewhere else. I’m not sure about the combined price here, but I’ll say a total of 12 million to be as conservative as possible.
OK, so I just sold a full lineup worth of players – 11 total. And I just raised 97 million. I’ll add that to the transfer budget of 20 million, for a total of 117 million, and now I’ll go on a spending spree that would make Sheikh Mansour blush.
I’ll start with a discussion about the right back position, since we’ll need to replace Eboue. I haven’t read any rumors about right backs this summer, so I don’t know much about anyone. But with confidence in Sagna, we only need to spend around 5 million for a suitable backup. We don’t need anyone who’s a superstar – just someone hopefully better than Eboue and Jenkinson. So to pick a random player at that price, we’ll go with Roman Shishkin from Lokomotiv Moscow. He’s 24, has played in the Champions League, and has 5 caps for the Russian National team. Blackburn reportedly bid 4 million for his services, so let’s assume 5 million gets it done here, and we have a backup for Sagna.
Several others have been much-discussed, or have already happened. So let’s keep the Gervinho and Jenkinson deals, which total 12 million. And then we’ll spend 15 million for Baines, 20 for Vertonghen, and 20 for Mata. I recently blogged about my admiration for Lukaku, so let’s get him for 22 million. And finally, we’ll need a replacement in the middle for Cesc, and we have 28 million left. We could attempt to go for Hamsik at that price, but let’s save a little money here and pry away Mario Goetze for 15 million from Dortmund.
Now, we still have 13 million left in our budget, and it could be a good bit more than that if my estimates were too conservative. So we could splurge here and bring in Oxlade-Chamberlain with the rest of the money. But let’s save that for the increased wages we’ll have to pay for our new players. Hopefully the salary figures should be about the same though, since we just sold 11 players and brought in 8. But with our money left over, we have a chance to increase RvP’s wages and make him our captain. This plan will also leave room in the first team to promote three new young players – something Wenger should be thrilled about. And we can still go out in the January window and do something if we see a big need.
But for now, let’s assess where we are after all that crazy transfer movement. Position-by-position, let’s see if we’re better or worse after all the dealings:
1) Goalie – Not much change here, since Almunia wasn’t in the picture anyway. Hopefully Mannone sticks around and serves as our 3rd choice guy. But I’ll count this one as neutral.
2) Central defense – We added Vertonghen and sold Squillaci, so we’re clearly better here.
3) Right back – We added Shiskin and Jenkinson, and sold Eboue. Hopefully we’re slightly better.
4) Left back – We sold Clichy and added Baines. I’d certainly like to think we’re better.
5) Defensive midfield – We sold Diaby and Denilson, which should be addition by subtraction. We’ll get Frimpong and Ramsey more playing time. But the other big plus is that Vertonghen can play here too, so I think we’re certainly better here.
6) Forward/wing – We sold Arshavin, Vela, and Nasri, and added Gervinho and Mata. Also, Bendtner played there some, and Lukaku can play there some as well. Overall, I like what we did, and would consider it a clear upgrade.
7) Center forward – We sold Bendtner and added Lukaku. Plus, Gervinho can play there in a pinch. That has to be an upgrade.
8 ) Central attacking midfield – Ok, we’re worse here, since we replaced Cesc with Goetze. Still, we have a young player who’s getting better, and hopefully will stay healthy more. And also we have someone who perhaps wants to be at Arsenal more.
After all the purchasing, this would be our first choice 11, plus 7 subs on the bench: Wojo, Sagna, TV5, Vertonghen, Baines, Song, Wilshere, Goetze, Gervinho, Mata, and RvP. Subs could be Flaps, Koscielny, Gibbs, Ramsey, Lukaku, Walcott, and Chamakh. Whoa. This is a serious lineup. And we haven’t even put Frimpong, Djourou, Rosicky, Shishkin, Jenkinson, Miyaichi, or Mannone on the bench.
Overall, we just got a little younger, although one could argue whether that was needed or not. But we most certainly got better at almost every position on the field. We have what should be at least one solid backup for every player in the starting 11. We offloaded our complainers and those who weren’t happy at Arsenal. And we hopefully replaced them with players who are eager to prove themselves at the highest level.
I don’t think any of the above analysis was any sort of rocket science. And I don’t think it’s anything that a devoted fan couldn’t have figured out. So now, to try to wrap up this ridiculously-long blog, I should at least discuss the impact of David Dein. He was Vice-Chairman of Arsenal from 1983 to 2007, so his tenure started well before my fandom began, and ended before I started following the club really closely. As usual, my remarks are based on internet research.
A few things about Dein seem pretty clear though – he once owned as much as 42% of Arsenal, he was a powerful figure on the board, and he was instrumental in bringing Wenger in as manager. He’s credited with being an important figure in the recruitment of everyone from Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp to Fabregas and van Persie. Not only was he a key advisor for Wenger, but my guess is that since he was the one who actually brought Wenger to the club, Wenger felt obligated to listen to him. Now, however, my impression is that Wenger feels bigger than everyone on the board, and doesn’t need to listen to any of them. I mean, do you really think Wenger cares what Ivan Gazidis thinks about anything? Because I don’t.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that in a recent Arsenal Supporters’ Trust survey, 69% favored a return of Dein, while only 17% opposed that notion. AST members probably think, as I do, that Wenger’s just not in touch anymore with what is necessary to build a title-winning team. To use his own recent words, he’s dizzy at the money being spent in the transfer window these days. He’s on a personal crusade to win “his way,” which means constantly trying to develop and promote young players from within, while never spending more than maybe £12 million on any one player. And that’s if we’re lucky.
I don’t want anyone to confuse my criticisms of Wenger as evidence that I’m not a supporter of the club. I mean, the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care, right? (Mid-90s song reference there.) But anyway, I do care about the club. And I hope I’m proven wrong, both in the transfer window and on the field. And if we end up sticking with Gibbs as our starting left back, with Traore backing him up, then I hope they become superstars. It would be better for me to have egg on my face and have Arsenal winning trophies, than for me to say “I told you so” at this time next year. But if we all had to be honest about what’s been going on in the personnel department over the last several years, I think we’d all agree that Wenger hasn’t been getting it done. He hasn’t put us in the best chance to succeed, and he can’t blame it on a lack of money either. So maybe in an ideal world, someone else could step in and act as a general manager, while Wenger could stick to coaching. Maybe if that ever happened, I could join the Wenger supporter’s club again.
And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. John 6:35.