Sign in / Join

Another Zen Master

Add the name of Arsene Wenger to the list of Zen Master managers of sports teams: Jackson, Beane, Belichick.

Wenger is the manager of Arsenal, who sit comfortably atop England's Premier League with a run of 26 unbeaten games since the start of play in August. Since he joined Arsenal in 1996, he's had them playing what some say is the best football in Europe. England's sportswriters take turns showering him with praise followed by invective laced with hints of xenophobia (they're English, he's French, enough said).

An article in today's Daily Telegraph (you may need to register) includes some delicious details on how talent is judged at the Arsenal camp. His striker Dennis Bergkamp, aka "the Dutch Master" showed signs that age was catching up to him last year. Wenger saw what any observer could see on the pitch, and more:

"Wenger noticed a dip in results in speed, power and endurance tests in which the demanding Frenchman places so much store.

Then there was the data spilling relentlessly from ProZone, a favourite toy of coaches that assiduously records during the course of each game the precise movement and mileage of every individual.

There it was in plain black and white. The Dutch master was no longer able to threaten the space behind defences. He wasn't getting about the pitch like he used to."

Two lessons in this. First, what can you say about ProZone but Wow! That takes sabremetrics to a whole new level. Can you dream up an "instanteous reaction range factor" statistic? Might get there applying ProZone to baseball.

Second, Bergkamp's decline in these tests did not cause Wenger to send him packing. He re-signed Bergkamp, and somehow, some way, he's back to his exquisite best, terrorizing defenses with skill and guile.

Two more points on this episode. 1) Money doesn't make champions. In the game discussed in the Telegraph link, Arsenal saw off the title challenge of Chelsea, who have spent over 100 million pounds in transfer fees alone this year trying to catch them. Manchester United, the Yankees of England, also trail in Arsenal's wake.

2) Wenger shares something in common with Belechick, his football counterpart on this side of the pond. They are both innovators who are known for a cerebral approach to their craft. Recall Belechick going for it on 4th down from his own 43 in the AFC championship game? He was reading from the book of Romer the economist, not Parcells when he made that decision.

Both Wenger and Belichick have college degrees in economics, and are known to apply the economic way of thinking to management problems. This short bio of Wenger from the BBC also shows some similarities to Beane. But the lead-in of the bio makes my main point:

"AC Milan rejected him for looking too much like a schoolmaster, and distrustful players tagged him "Clouseau" on his first day in England. But in the six years since he became Arsenal's mystery manager, Arsene Wenger has been credited with transforming British football in general, and the Gunners' fortunes in particular."

From Clouseau to Zen Master. Interesting.