Date:Sunday August 3 2008
The metaphor used by many in the football world to describe Wengers ability to discover talent that is undervalued or not yet seen is becoming a cliché. Just as 'sick as a parrot` and 'over the moon` are part of popular tabloid football speak 'pulling rabbits out of a hat` is now used so often that it has joined that same banal collection.
George Graham used it in the latest lazy tabloid filler to ask the same question. To any one who has watched Wengers methods it is clearly the wrong metaphor. Despite Arsene`s famous magic hat, as feted in song, Wenger isn`t a magician. He is a statistician, a sports scientist, psychologist and an economist but not a magician.
A little under a year ago Wenger spoke of his addiction to statistics and the technical data he uses when assessing his own instincts before buying a player. "The game is played by 11 players and you have only two eyes to observe everything on the pitch," Wenger said. "The more concrete data you can have, the happier you are in terms of making the right judgement. Sometimes you are guided too much by the result and can misjudge performances. Data like this helps rate players who maybe you have neglected too much and helps everyone take a more objective view."
The things that Wenger looks for aren`t on the back pages of newspapers. He explains "I`m addicted to these kind of statistics. You can assess strengths and weaknesses — how many passes a player makes, how many sprints, how many interceptions, assists. I`m conscious that if I am wrong when bringing in a player, no matter how good my work is afterwards, I will stay wrong. If a train starts on the wrong track, it cannot get to the right station."
It is easy to be misled by individuals in team sports. If you don`t understand the relationship between a player and the way his teammates use him you can end up fitting square pegs into round holes. Can you correctly value Shevchenko without assessing the other Milan players` contribution to his goals tally? Why was Bergkamp worth £12m when Inter bought him but only £7.5m when sold 2 years later, at the prime age of 26 to Arsenal? Simply because Inter bought a reputation and not a skill set they understood how to use.
In contrast Wenger watches players, as he did with Hleb, for up to 2 years. Measuring how long they take to release the ball and where and when they do so. These aren't players that are hidden away as they play for relatively high profile clubs. Just players that aren't seen with the right pair of eyes.
Wengers methods aren`t unique but they aren`t practised as widely as their success suggests it should. Those interested in sports books could do worse than seek out one by Michael Lewis called 'Moneyball`. It tells the story of Oakland A`s baseball team manager Billy Beane, who with a much lower budget continually found undervalued players and outperformed many of his competitors. The book explains that he did so because conventional wisdom in valuing players was 'highly inefficient`. Much the same inefficient decision making, surprisingly perhaps, still goes on in football today with some clubs buying players for their star value or to appease supporters.
Provided they maintain their interest in a project scientists powers don`t lapse with age. Arguably they get even sharper. Those waiting in hope that Wengers powers will suddenly desert him or that some form of kryptonite will strip him of them will wait in vain. Wenger isn`t a magician - he is a scientist.
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Date:Sunday August 3 2008
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