Sunday, January 19, 2014

Arsene Wenger and the Ship of Theseus



I hadn't known about the story or the paradox of the "Ship of Theseus" before I watched Anand Gandhi's critically acclaimed film last year. I found the film both interesting as well as mildly boring in parts, but here we are talking of football. 
Can we phrase the paradox behind Ship of Theseus in footballing terms as follows, by putting Arsene Wenger as Theseus ? 
As the components of Arsene Wenger's team needed change, it was replaced player by player, up to a point where not a single player from the original team remained in it, anymore. Is it, then, still the same team ?
Of course, what is happening at Arsenal,  happens at every other football club. Players will come, and then they will go, either transferred out or retire. However, with Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement at the end of last season, Arsene Wenger, now in his 18th year in charge of Arsenal, is by far and away the longest serving manager in the premier league. As of today, the second longest serving manager in the Premier League is Alan Pardew, who has been some 4 seasons at Newcastle. The average duration for Premier League managers is now 1.76 seasons only.


And it is this longevity of Arsene Wenger, that allows us to pose the paradox of Theseus for his teams. There is no doubt that Arsene Wenger, firstly when he came to England, helped bring about a lot of positive change to English football. This from 2008, by the cricketer-writer Ed Smith captures it nicely:
What is the nature of Wenger's achievement at Arsenal? After Bruce Rioch was sacked in 1996, Wenger's first task was to connect with Arsenal's existing culture, which was red-blooded, to say the least. Heavy drinking and gambling were as central to the culture as the pragmatic, puritanical style of play. Wenger's temperament is the opposite-drowning his sorrows with a few pints and a large punt is scarcely his style--and he must have been tempted to make radical and immediate changes. But Wenger stuck with much of the existing squad and still managed to win the Premiership-FA Cup double in only his second season.Since then, Wenger has turned evolution into revolution. Arsenal are now synonymous with a brilliant, athletic and refined form of the game. Wenger's business acumen and eye for talent have become legendary: the list of players he has bought cheap and sold for millions is endless. He is also resilient when big names make contractual demands. Most managers pay lip service to the idea that no player is bigger than the club. But Wenger holds his nerve--mainly because a conveyor belt of young talent is a major negotiating weapon. At Arsenal, there is always someone ready to take your place.
Ed Smith talks about Wenger sticking with much of his existing squad which won the Double in 1997-98. I looked at all the squads of Arsene Wenger over the years, here are some interesting things I found:
  • Wenger came to Arsenal at 1996-97. The longest continuing player in terms of seasons from that squad was Dennis Bergkamp who played till the 2005-06 season. So in a way, from the time he came, all the parts of his ship were finally replaced once Dennis left.
  • Wenger has won 3 League Titles at Arsenal: 1997-98, 2001-02 and 2003-04. Only four players played key roles in each of these 3 title wins: Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Martin Keown and Ray Parlour. 
  • There were 8 players who played in the first and second titles: the four mentioned previously along with Lee Dixon, David Seaman, Giles Grimandi and of course Tony Adams.
  • However, there was a much bigger overlap between the second and the third titles as can be expected with the two titles coming in three years. 
  • Since then of course, Arsenal have won just the one FA cup (2004-05) and have been trophyless post that. When did the last parts of the Invincibles leave ? My data tells me that it was Gael Clichy, who won a Premiership medal in 2004 and was at the club for the longest duration after that, who played till the 2010-11 season for the Gunners. Of course, there have been cameo appearances made by Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell and even Jens Lehman post their initial departures.
Those were the glory years of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal and Zonal Marking captures the tactical view of this team here in his lookback at the great teams of the 2000s.

One of the things about the great exodus of players post the Invincibles was that it led to the team being in a state of transition (and that too for a prolonged period of time). Within two years of that record breaking season came the 2005-06 seasons which is till date his worst in terms of league performance. And this came because the club did not have stability.  In 2003-04 Arsenal had a ‘stability index’ of 83%, versus just 64% in 2005-06- Arsenal’s lowest points total under Arsene Wenger. This data point along with tons of others are brought out in this  most comprehensive of analysis titled: Arsene Wenger: What is he good for (PDF Link), done by the good folks at Sporting Intelligence (commissioned by The Arsenal Supporter's trust).

The long barren spell for Arsenal post the 2004-05 FA Cup win has been difficult for him. The many reasons behind this are of course well documented and we will not enter that discussion here. In 2010, Barney Ronay suspected that Wenger might finally be going mad
There has always been a suspicion, even during his early flush of success, that madness would one day claim him, that this would be his flaw. It is partly a physical thing. Wenger has peculiarly long arms and legs. Aloof in his touchline rectangle, cloaked in his floor-length quilted gown, he seems to be always on the verge of some burst of frighteningly angular expressiveness. There is also a sense that we have never quite forgiven him for turning up and making us all look so dim and retrograde all those years back, parading his oversized spectacles, inventing pasta, and suggesting a single glass of sparkling mineral water as an alternative form of recreation to leaping up and down in a lager-fuelled circle inside a wine bar called Facez.
The thing about Wenger's low-level madness is that it is very specific. This is the madness of the ascetic and the idealist, one that narrows with age. Wenger has only one way, interpreting all he sees through the prism of frictionless, nimble-footed, free-market Euro-Wengerball. Life has become very simple. If his team loses this is now due to some imperfection in the footballing universe, a failing in his opposition or in the game's administrators that has allowed this ideological catastrophe to occur. Such all-consuming zeal can be deeply seductive. There is a sense that his opinions on everything – on whimsical west coast acoustic coffee shop music, or supermarket own-brand yoghurts – will all be robustly, even angrily infused with this galvanising belief in supra-national sideways-pinging soft-shoe spreadsheet football.
There is a beauty, as well as robust economic good sense, in his absolute one-note convictions. Wenger has gambled all on being right, on refusing, for example, to spend jarring sums of money on an essentially unexciting, non-shirtsleeved, unspiky-haired goalkeeper with a tedious expertise in catching footballs. He remains convinced that the world will ultimately bend his way. And perhaps it already has a little. Wenger will take the journey into the promised new world of Fifa fair-play rules and revenue-based austerity with an ideology in hand and a set of self-drawn maps. He may or may not be allowed to get madder from here. But for the mad-curious neutral it would fascinating if he could be proved right just one more time.
Roll a couple of years forward and by the end of 2012, Arsenal were deep in trouble in (once again), as they were dropping behind Tottenham in their annual quest for the Champions League spot. The great Brian Phillips wrote this brilliant piece on the decline of Arsene Wenger, on whether it was time for Wenger to part ways with the club. While the entire article is actually quotable, this is probably the most poignant.
If Arsene Wenger’s late-game anguish-face has become a universal signpost among soccer fans, it’s because Arsenal has become so familiar with late-game anguish. And early-game anguish. And halftime anguish. If there is such a thing as bus-ride-on-the-way-over-to-prematch-warm-ups anguish, I feel confident that Arsenal has experienced it repeatedly since 2005 (Wenger staring out the rain-streaked window of the motor coach, all the leaves of autumn falling behind his eyes).
The only criterion by which we can judge a coach is what he accomplishes with the resources he has. And with Wenger, the background is so complicated that we simply don’t know exactly what he’s had. He’s soccer’s quantum uncertainty. He’s a terrible coach whose decisions have ruined Arsenal, and he’s a brilliant coach whose balancing act has saved Arsenal’s future. We have no way of measuring which of those things he really is, so to us, he’s both at the same time.
My personal opinion around that time as well during those dark days was that yes, it is time for Wenger to go. On another point, the guys at Sporting Intelligence have proved otherwise what Brian Phillips says of we have no way of measuring Arsene Wenger's reign.

And as we know today,  Arsene Wenger has managed to turn things around since those days of negative spirals and minding the gaps. Arsenal sit on top of the Premier League with 22 games played this season, and while they may not win the League, they are certainly competing for it as well as they have in a very long time. And Arsene Wenger has done this by changing things within himself. The signing of Mesut Ozil on British transfer fees and having a more pragmatic approach to his game plan are all signs that Arsene Wenger is changing again. If you are to believe one fan, it all changed one night when Bayern Munich came to the Emirates and Arsenal were given a clinic in modern football. Sure, Wenger being Wenger will have his own quirks and idiosyncrasies. Barney Ronay (yes again !) talks about his latest obsession with Attacking Midfielders.
In the past four years Arsenal have spent £13m on functioning centre-forwards. In the same period Wenger has spent £120m on attacking midfielders – not to mention £15m on left-backs, including £6m on the now-departed "false three" AndrĂ© Santos. There is a sustained plan here, the entirely logical behaviour of a man for whom there is only one answer to every question – when he has a burst pipe Wenger doesn't call a plumber: he calls an attacking midfielder – and a coherent tactic in its own right. Arsenal have certain strengths – ball retention, short triangulated passing, attacking through swift transitions from defence – and it is these strengths Wenger is always seeking to feed. Diversifying into other kinds of strength would, in his opinion, be dilution not addition. To improve the current team is simply to try to do the same thing even better......
For the neutral the most fascinating part is watching Wenger become more entrenched with age, more absolute in his hair shirt adherence to the basic tenets of Wengerball, that dream of football as a fluid, frictionless, thrillingly homogenised property, and stalking the touchline in his quilted floor-length gown with an expression of fond, tolerant disapproval.
But while this piece is entertaining, it is not entirely accurate, in my view. For all of Wenger's preference for attacking midfielders vs strikers today, it is to be remembered that he has had squads with 5-6 strikers at one time more than once in the past. And while it still fashionable to talk about Arsenal's passing and possession and of Wengerball, this current side's ability to defend collectively, to press and withdraw as appropriate and its overall play without the ball has improved significantly from previous Wenger editions.

And so to come back to the question, with part by part of his old teams being changed, is it still the same team, the same club that Arsene Wenger coaches ?

The answer to that is of course both yes and no. Arsene Wenger had inherited a club which was known more for its mental toughness and character (the famous back four for example) rather than its collective technical excellence. Wenger's tenure has seen a pursuit of technical excellence at the club, playing an aesthetically pleasing brand of football (for most). It's highest points were reached in the seasons of 2001-2004 culminating in the unbeaten league season. Since then, while technical excellence has remained top priority, we have seen a slipping of standards, both in terms of mental fortitude as well as physical toughness. Perhaps finally, we are seeing the signs of a team, which will be able to find the right balance, not the exact same one as the past, but the right balance between the technical, the mental and the physical. This latest model: The Class of 2013-14 of the Ship of Wenger may yet give Arsene one final chance of glory. But for that, there is a lot of sailing still to be done.

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