Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Farewell, El Capitan

All We're Left With Is Memories and Dreams of What-Might-Have-Been

When I went to bed Sunday night I was planning on spending this evening writing about the 2011-12 EPL season outlook using my input to the Transfer Price Index's season predictions.  I thought I had come to terms with the departure of of Cesc Fabregas over the summer, and certainly in the last week as it became abundantly clear that Barcelona were going to have their man no matter what.  All of that changed on Monday morning, as I woke to the inevitable news of his sale and for some strange reason I felt emotional loss.  It's odd for me, as I've only been following the Gunners for 2+ seasons now.  I certainly have come to love them because of their beautiful play, rich history, and their intention to not buy championships but build teams from the (relative) ground up to win them as a club and not a rich man's toy.  But I've never seen them in person, and certainly have avoided buying any player's jersey in anticipation of the inevitable transfer they will leave upon.  I've intentionally avoided making any emotional attachments knowing the brutal business realities within which a club must work.

At the same time, I've probably never typed "I <3..." for any other player except Cesc.  Those unfortunate enough to listen to my Twitter feed during a match certainly saw that phrase on occasion the last two seasons.  For some reason I was magnetically attracted to Cesc, and loved him for what he embodied and what he stood for the last 5-6 years.  It was the realization Monday morning - the fact that I will likely NEVER type "I <3 Cesc" ever again - that made me think about why such a forgone conclusion seemed to affect me so much.  This blog post is an attempt to explain the thoughts I've had in the last 24 hours.

The Emotional: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

During the drive in to work on Monday I had a flood of emotions come over me.  Cesc's departure was the first big loss by the club in my brief fandom, so I wondered why this one seemed to bother me so much.  Sure, losing a captain is never easy for club, especially when it seems as if he just might be coming in to his prime.  But as I thought about those emotions, I concluded it was something deeper.  I finally realized what was bothering me- these are some of the same emotions I felt when I went through my divorce from my first wife.  Certainly this was nowhere near as personal, nowhere near as intense, but the feelings were similar nonetheless.
  • Betrayal of promises of a commitment to the club and its goals.  
  • The finality of it all after such a long transfer process.
  • Even the issue of seeing someone you considered committed to you (or your club) kiss the suitor to which you lost them.  
And that's how I choose to view Cesc's departure: a divorce, or at least an end to a long-term relationship where the two involved in the relationship made life-altering plans around each other.

Marriage Counseling, Arsene Style

Most relationships fail because those involved in them mistakenly believe love is all they need.  Marriages don't survive on love alone - they survive because that love allows for the couple in the marriage to become more than the sum of their parts.  Different marriages judge that sum by different measures - some desire money, some desire possessions, others desire spiritual growth, others find a higher purpose for their marriage in the rearing of their children.  There are a millions of motivations for being married, but the most durable marriages rely on the concept of a "sum is greater than its parts" and then utilize love to realize that sum.

In the case of Cesc and Arsenal, that's where the relationship broke down.  It wasn't about the money - he's paying €1M a year to Arsenal for five years for the privilege of going to Barcelona.  It wasn't about the love - he reiterated his love for the club and its supporters even as he was introduced at Camp Nou.  It wasn't really about going home, that was just a side benefit.  Does anyone really think he would return to Barcelona if they weren't a more prestigious club than Arsenal at the moment?  It was about the sum not being greater than its parts.  In being introduced at the Camp Nou, Cesc said of his reason for the departure:
"It wasn't really the losing, it was the routine. Year after year, it was always the same story.  Fighting until the end only to see we didn't have the energy, in the semifinals, the finals, to arrive in the final sprint."
Cesc knows he's a great player.  What he was looking for in departing for Arsenal eight years ago was a chance to contribute to a world class club's already rich history.  He could have done that at Barcelona, but he chose to take his talents to London and attempt to build upon what Henry, Bergkamp, and others had already started under Arsene Wenger.  He soon found himself being the centerpiece the team was built around, both tactically and leadership-wise.  Yet season after season, he saw his own club falter in the business end of the season while his former club became one of the best club sides of all time.  He was brought in to a great club that was winning championships, was told the entire team was being (re-)built around him, and the rebuilding project had yet to bear fruit over six seasons of its implementation.  Cesc had enough of the promises of something better that went continuously

None of this makes Cesc's departure any easier - not for him, not for the club, and not its supporters.  No matter how rational the move might seem, we supporters felt he was our captain.  During a particularly challenging time in the club's history, we were looking to him to lead rather than leave.  We wanted him to recommit to the club, just as we wanted the club to recommit itself to spend the funds to build the championship team he deserved.  In some ways, we entered "counseling" last summer and agreed to work on things - compete strongly in 2010/11, win a cup or two, and perhaps we could patch things up after five years of nothing.  That clearly wasn't the case, and Wenger saw the writing on the wall.  The counseling failed, and the divorce proceeded with Wenger reluctantly granting his captain the divorce he desired.

But did it make logical sense from Cesc's perspective, or was he making a decision as emotional as the supporters' reactions to it?

The Analytical: Cesc is Justified in Leaving

Let's look at what Cesc arrived to and what he left behind, and judge his decision in the totality of the data.  As you know, I've spent much digital ink demonstrating that championship caliber teams are built upon transfers via my work in the Transfer Price Index (TPI) database.  It is that outlook I carry over in to the analysis below.

Note: All transfer figures are in 2011 TPI numbers
  • Player Purchases: After spending big money on players like Dennis Bergkamp (£25.1M), Thierry Henry (£29.9M), Marc Overmars (£21.5M), and Sylvain Wiltord (£29.5M) during the championship years, Arsenal would only buy two players during the trophyless years for more than £20M - Alexander Hleb (£26M) and Theo Walcott (£27.9M).
  • Squad Cost: The total squad cost (Sq£) was £252M in 2003-04, but by the end of the 2010-11 season it had been reduced to £155M (a 38% reduction). This has led Arsenal to fall from a solid third position within the Big Six (and nearly on par with Manchester United in 2nd position) in 2003-04 to a clear sixth position in squad cost by 2010-11 (click on graph below to enlarge).
  • Starting XI Cost: When Fabregas arrived at the start of the 2003-2004 season, Arsenal had an average starting XI cost (£XI) of £120M.  By the time of his final season at Arsenal, the average £XI had fallen to £71.5M (a 40% reduction). Arsenal's slide in the £XI metric versus the other Big Six clubs is similar to that seen for the Sq£ metric (click on graphic to enlarge).

  • Performance vs. Transfer Expectations: During the Invincibles run, Arsenal earned an astonishing 0.96 PPG above what was predicted by the m£XIR model.  That had decreased to a more pedestrian 0.38 PPG by last season, with each of the last four seasons seeing a steady erosion from 0.63 PPG over performance in 2007/08 to the 0.38 PPG experienced last season.  This suggests that Wenger's youth project that has focused on reducing squad costs and preserving performance clearly is not working, even given the reduced transfer costs of the assembled team.  Especially troubling to Cesc must have been the championship caliber performances over the first half of the last two seasons (0.69 PPG in 2009-10, 0.53 PPG in 2010-11) that was followed up with poor second halves both years (regression to a season long average of 0.50 and 0.38 PPG, respectively).
  • Trophies:  In Cesc's first three seasons with Arsenal, the club won the Premiership (2004), the FA Cup (2005), and made it to the Champions League final in 2006 where they lost to Barcelona.  After that run, they featured in two League Cup Finals (2007, 2011), and were otherwise knocked out in semi-final or earlier rounds of every other competition in the five years.
  • Premier League Table: After finishing first in 2003-04 and second a year later, Arsenal averaged a table position of 3.67 and never finished higher than third in the final six years Cesc was at the club.
Conclusions

It's clear that while Arsene's management of the team finances has prevented the club from going into debt like other clubs, it has also put a glass ceiling on the club's table position and trophy case.  Cesc's observation relating to "the routine" of late season failure was spot on.  Frustrated with a lack of investment and results that were progressively worse, especially when he gave the club one final chance in 2010-11, he decided it was time to end the relationship.  I can't blame him for doing so - six years of rebuilding is certainly long enough to judge a team and its level of commitment to its world class captain.

We Gooners can only hope that Arsene and the club take the lessons from the divorce and apply them to making the club better - invest the funds wisely, and sign a big name player or two.  Much like the well wishes one might have for an ex that ended a relationship amicably, I hope that Cesc also gains from this breakup.  He certainly seems to have made a tough decision, and faces an even tougher task of breaking in to Barcelona's crowded starting XI.  I just hope his continued development doesn't come at our expense in Champions League - if we even make it that far in the next few seasons.

One of my Twitter followers, who is an LFC fan, made the following observation regarding how Fernando Torres' time at Anfield and his departure played out in the press and wider public.  There is some coarse language in the quote, but I've chosen to preserve it to communicate the emotion.
"It's really weird, but I always say that Torres with LFC was that partner who everyone around you said "how the hell did you land him/her?", making the suggestion that the person was too good for us. Then the papers would continually link Torres away from us trying to fuck it up, and fans kept saying to themselves "it's not true, it's not true". Then, when we least expected it, Torres requested to leave for that one club everyone kept linking him to, but that we all fucking hated with a passion. I'll be honest, fans were prepared for Torres to leave, but the surrounding circumstances (timing, destination, hours after we brought in Suarez, team was winning, etc.) was just the perfect storm in the creation of the shit sandwich that was."
Cesc's departure was more drawn out and less sudden.  Perhaps that made it worse than Torres' move to Chelsea, perhaps better given we Gunners won't be seeing Cesc winning games on a weekly basis at a league rival.  What does sting more about Cesc's departure is that no one ever questioned how we got him.  He came in to a team that was just embarking on its most successful season of league football in the history of England's top flight.  We got him on the cheap, and he represented the finest example of Wenger's forthcoming youth policy.  He was the embodiment of the Arsenal-of-the-future, and a team was built around him.  The reality in him leaving is that our club, at least in its current vision, has failed and the experiment is over.  We're no longer the attractive young man or woman that has others fawning all over us.  We're now that club that will be greeted with raised eyebrows when we land that "great catch" with which we have no business being seen.

How the club in general, and Wenger specifically, react to this departure over the season will say a lot.  Arsenal is facing the real possibility of rebuilding after a failed rebuilding project, and struggling to maintain their Champions League spot in seasons to come (and the important revenue and prestige that comes with it).  They may not be a selling club yet, but they certainly are in trouble.  Youth Policy 1.0 is effectively dead with Cesc's departure.  It's tombstone will read, "Consistently 4th, but highly profitable".  Where the club goes from here is any one's guess, but I can guarantee it will be a bumpier ride than in season's past.

4 comments:

  1. Good article. I think it's worth mentioning that the construction of the new stadium had a lot to do with the above decline. Nonetheless, Arsenal does need to act decisively now (as they are financially much stronger), or they risk destroying the 'brand' among fans and players alike.

    The fear is that Arsene has been sitting on the sidelines watching prices skyrocket, and reasonably thinking they are inflated - but to an extent to which he is paralysed from diving back in at this crucial juncture. He may be proven right in a few years should the market adjust to FFP, but the damage may already be done at that point.

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  2. Captain Obvious -

    I certainly recognize the new stadium plays a roll in where the club has had to spend money over the past few years. It was a good strategic investment, but it may be coming at too steep of a cost.

    I honestly don't have much faith in the FFP rules. Swiss Ramble's excellent reporting on them and how they'll apply to clubs like ManCity and Chelsea leave me feeling they're so riddled with holes that even these financially upside down clubs will comply. And even if they don't, they'll be close enough that UEFA will grant them a waiver or some other sort of exception to the rule. I will believe UEFA will rigorously enforce the rules once I actually see them deny a big name club entry to a competition.

    Sadly, this all leaves me pretty glum. The financially prudent clubs like Arsenal invested in their stadium at the wrong time. Instead, they should have gone in to debt on players, and waited for FFP to come along where capital projects like stadiums are largely exempt from debt accounting in FFP. I fear that like much regulation, FFP will simply freeze the playing field where it's at - ManU, Chelsea, and ManCity fat dumb and happy, and Arsenal, Spurs, and Liverpool left to fight it out for 4th every season, falling further behind the top 3 and their guaranteed Champions League money.

    One more thought to consider - if a true European Super League breakaway project forms, is Arsenal still a big enough club to warrant an invite? I don't know. And unlike Champions League, that Super League will be a closed market.

    I do believe Arsene has an inability to accept the reality of the inflated prices. His economics background has served him well in finding hidden talent, recognizing inflated prices, and generally keeping Arsenal's books balanced. The trouble is, he seems to have forgotten the first maxim of market economics - the value of an object is whatever someone else will actually pay for it. Whether he likes it or not, there are enough clubs now willing to pay inflated prices that this is a new reality he must deal with, whether he agrees with the price or not. Sticking to his guns is leading our club to only purchase players of "the good but not elite" category as he won't even spend the equivalent of the Henry's, Bergkamp's, and Overmars' he so loved during the championship years.

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  3. Sorry, I can only tell the story the numbers allow me to tell!

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