The Ornicle Speaks of Moneyballs

David Ornstein, Arsenal twitter’s most trusted reporter (and butt of tons of puns based on his last name), dropped a bomb this morning – posting two images with rather lengthy explanations of what actually happened this summer with Arsenal in the transfer market. As Steve Martin once famously said Comedy Is Not Pretty and I also think someone once said no one should see how the sausage is made. But when the sausage turns out as comically bad as Arsenal’s summer transfer sausage, I think it’s important to have a look behind the scenes. Thankfully, Ornstein is available to give us a tour of Arsenal’s sausage factory.

First, I’m going to link directly to the tweet. And then I will put the full size photos of his quotes up on the site.

It’s important to note that these are Ornstein’s words but that he is the most connected Arsenal reporter in England. He is also a BBC employee and they have actual standards for their reporters. I know that everyone is obsessed with “fake news” these days but this is a trusted source. Not everything he says is true, because reporters are sometimes handed misinformation which suits a specific party, but everything he says is well sourced, documented, and corroborated. You know, like an actual journalist.

So, let’s just start with the first slide:

Like everyone else, Ornstein was led to believe that Arsenal were going to not only spend money this summer, they were going to spend MORE than last summer. But the club conveniently left off the fact that they would have to sell in order to finance all of that spending.

Arsenal are often accused of “not having a plan A or a plan B” but to their credit, they had a plan A: sell Elneny, Jenkinson, Szczesny, Chambers, Wilshere, Gibbs and others; keep Ox, Ozil, and Alexis; buy Lacazette, Kolasinac, and Lemar. This is an ambitious plan and could explain why Ivan Gazidis was quoted saying that signing Wenger would be a “catalyst for change” this summer.

But like an episode of Game of Thrones, soon the plan just unraveled and half of the characters were left dead. We know that several clubs came after Chambers and the bids were high too, over £20m. Wenger instead sold Gabriel and decided to keep Chambers and it looks like Arsenal were then blindsided by Mustafi wanting to leave but were actually ok with it because Wenger doesn’t rate him.

This is not a surprise to me because Wenger spent most of the summer talking to various outlets about how one day the stats boffins will simply pick the team and the manager will be little more than a figurehead. We know that Mustafi is one of the players that Arsenal’s in-house stats team predicted would be a great buy, along with Elneny and Xhaka. And to see that Elneny was included in the Arsenal-out pile only confirms what I have publicly speculated over all summer: Wenger is at odds with the in-house stats team.

As I said earlier in the year, I also think Wenger is at odds with board member Josh Kroenke. Here is what I wrote about Josh v. Wenger back on May 12th,

I think JK wanted Arsene out this summer and failed. And interestingly, all of the players identified by the stats guys as good buys have been retained even though it looked like they were put up for sale. Whether that was luck or whether a board member dug in his heels at the prices on offer for his StatsDNA favorites is unknown. I think Josh Kroenke may fancy himself re-branding the club as a “Moneyball” team: meaning a club which uses advanced statistics to find diamond in the rough players. This matches up with a quote later in the Ornstein tweet as we will see in a minute.

That final paragraph in this image is the most clear evidence of disagreement between Wenger and the board and of the ensuing chaos because of it. Arsenal were so afraid that they couldn’t get replacements in that they hemmed and hawed over selling Lucas – a player clearly out of favor. And the Gibbs thing is completely crazy: Arsenal were offered £10m earlier in the summer and waited so long that they eventually sold him for £7m.  But it gets worse:

Suddenly, Arsenal faced a mass revolt among the Arsenal players. Lucas, Gabriel, Mustafi, and Gibbs all wanted out. Now we are told that Bellerin and Ox both demanded a trade along with Alexis. Not only that but Arsenal put a four players up for sale that they ended up keeping: Wilshere, Giroud, Chambers, and Elneny. That doesn’t include the fact that Arsenal put Alexis up for sale and then reneged when they couldn’t get Lemar. Nor that next season Aaron Ramsey will be in the last year of his deal. What chance do you think Arsenal have of re-signing him this season?

Is there any wonder why Arsenal looked so disjointed against Liverpool? Almost none of those players wanted to be there. Plus, Arsene Wenger had apparently let Ox know how he felt about him and then went ahead and played him against the team that was courting him. That’s weapons grade foolishness and no wonder Ox looked like he couldn’t plow a furrow in water.

Two more things from this panel that I want to point out: first, Mesut Ozil, who has been playing Arsenal fans like a damn kazoo all year with his “hey guys” brand of Facebook/Instagram posts, hasn’t even negotiated for a new contract since March – this flies in the face of his public pronouncements; and second it looks like Arsenal at least shopped Ozil around and that he generated almost no interest.

But then the Orn dropped his third panel, which details basically what the board have told him he can say publicly about the summer transfers:

This entire three point panel reads like an announcement that Arsenal are going to go down the Moneyball route but that they are still poorly planning for that transition. In the first paragraph we are told that Arsenal need to sell to fund big money replacements. But if Arsenal have to sell to buy then holding on to Alexis is madness – it means undermining the club’s ability to buy a player like Lemar for next season as well as this!

Second, the bit about “pulling a Leicester” is not something the sponsors will want to hear. Arsenal are not Leicester. Not only is Leicester a remote goat town somewhere far away from both land and sea but they won the League because all of the other top-spending clubs failed not because they had such a brilliant long-term plan and brought it to fruition. It was luck.

Also, Chelsea are not the huge-spending club that they used to be. Lumping Chelsea in with Man City and Man U is weird. Chelsea have only spent around £80m in net transfers over the last four years. Arsenal have spent double that amount: £165m. That’s “net spend”. And Chelsea’s total salary is only £15m more than Arsenal’s per year. I think what they mean here is uncovered in the last bullet point: that Chelsea’s owner is willing to cover losses with his own money and Kroenke is not.

But now read back up top where I wrote about Josh Kroenke fighting with Wenger and the shift to Moneyball. If Josh Kroenke wants to move Arsenal toward a more stats-based regime he will need to oust Wenger. Despite the public belief that Wenger is into analytics he has actually resisted the data movement for years – Arsenal only recently started giving players data on the opposition in iPad form a few years ago. This information is corroborated by journalists such as Rafa Honigstein who has reported that German players have been critical of Wenger’s lack of preparation behind the scenes.

What I think is happening now is Josh Kroenke letting Wenger hoist himself on his own petard. It’s a shrewd move. Wenger will get all the blame for the fallout of this season: Wenger wanted to keep Alexis and Ozil, so when they underperform (which they will) and then are let go for a free in May (or worse, sold in January, which I suspect will happen with Alexis), Wenger will get the blame for that. Wenger is also going to be the focal point for the results this season. With the squad so clearly in turmoil and with so many players wanting out there is no way I can see this club getting that “unity” needed to play at the level required to make a top four and Europa League run.

It’s all going to be down to Wenger. Unless he’s able to pull off a major turnaround and get a trophy in, say, the Europa League, any negativity of the season will be on his shoulders. And I think Josh Kroenke will use that as an excuse to fire him in the Spring – don’t be surprised to read about contacts with other managers in February.

To be clear, I’m not wishing for a bad season at Arsenal and I’m not say that Josh Kroenke is either. But I do suspect that this is Wenger’s Last Stand.

What happened to the Denver Nuggets after Josh Kroenke blew them up? They went from winning over 60% of their games to winning just 42% and from making it to the playoffs every year to finishing 4th of the 5 teams in their division every year.


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