The French defence analyze Ronaldo on the eve of the 1998 World Cup final.
Moneyball meets Wenger ball: Billy Beane and Arsene Wenger as brothers in arms
Billy Beane is kind of a big deal. The subject of a bestselling book? Tick. An Oscar nominated film adaptation of said book? Tick. Angelina Jolie orgasm supplier playing him in said film? Tick. As most sports enter the age of Nate Silver where statistics and analytics play a bigger role in scouting and recruitment decisions, Beane stands at the forefront as the innovator of the much discussed Moneyball model to baseball analysis.
Billy Beane’s closest football ally is Arsene Wenger. His methods tally with Wenger’s innate sense of economic responsibility and he is on record as describing the Frenchman as ” undoubtedly the sports executive whom I admire most”. In a recent interview with Rory Smith of the Times, he says of Wenger’s Arsenal ” Every year they are in the top four. They are paying down their debts. They have a stadium. If you are looking for a model, that is the one you look at”. Smith highlights the sense of kinship between the two by writing “Both men, after all are pioneers. Just as Wenger’s arrival in North London heralded a sea -change in English football’s attitudes to nutrition, preparation, tactics and scouting, so Beane’s devotion to analytics turned baseball on its head. ”
Just as Beane used statistical analysis to shape his recruitment strategy, Wenger, a trained economist stood at the forefront in football. Simon Kuper, the Dutch writer who has made a name writing sports profiles for the Financial Times amongst other publications and is also one of the great authorities on football economics tells that when seeking a midfielder who could grow to replace ex stalwart, Patrick Vieira Wenger scoured the databases at his access looking for midfielders who covered the most distance in games. One of the names that returned caught Wenger, a man credited as being one of the all knowing oracles of modern football by surprise: Mathieu Flamini, then yet to receive a professional contract at Olympic Marseille. After further scouting, Flamini would find himself on the way to Arsenal’s London Colney training ground to continue the next chapter of his life. Whilst football caught up with Wenger, he and Arsenal have made a bold attempt to gain a lead on their rivals. One of the big revelations from their recent annual general meeting was the purchase of an American company specializing in data management linking to the impact of statistics in todays climate. A clever move in that by purchasing this piece of intellectual property, they gain exclusivity whilst gaining a lead on their rivals who at the best would be forced to outsource or try and create a rival which would surely be a time consuming exercise.
Kuper was present at the first meeting between Wenger and Beane “In the speakers’ room of a conference in London in October 2010, I watched Wenger and Beane sit on a sofa (with, bizarrely, Alastair Campbell) talking for two or three hours. They had never met before. It was a case of mutual fascination, love at first sight” .
These days, Beane is pushing a new approach. It is a recruitment strategy built on ensuring that “We did not have any bad players”. It sounds somewhat obvious in the sense that one is forced to wonder what manager wants to pick his team from a pool containing bad players. Then again, it’s also strange to have someone on record as saying it’s a paert of some conscious self developed philosophy. He explains further “We started managing from the bottom. Every update on player performance we got, we would just cut the guy from the bottom. We did it unconsciously at first, but then it became a conscious effort”. I might be reaching but I can draw parallels to Arsenal’s transfer strategy this summer. For the last four years, if you asked the average Arsenal fan to detail their ideal summer transfer business, high on it would be to “Get rid of the “deadwood” referring to those players retained on the wage bill but made little or no contributions of note. This year, it was taken very serious. The likes of Andrey Arshavin and Sebastian Squillaci who had become expensive pensioners did not find their contracts renewed getting their heavy wages off the wage bill. The Ivorien forward, Gervinho blessed with great dribbling ability and cursed with a habit of missing sitters and worrisome end product found himself off to Rome. The Italian goalkeeper, Vito Mannone joined Paolo di Canio’s Sunderland Italian revolution. They didn’t stop there. Some mutually terminated their contracts meaning Arsenal effectively paid off the likes of Marouane Chamakh, Andre Santos and Denilson to leave. Those like the central defenders, Johan Djourou and Ignasi Miquel were sent on loan despite Arsenal having only three recognised centre backs in Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen(who has missed the start of the season with injury). The only one blot would be Nicklas Bendtner who apparently was going to earn himself a 3million pay off and the opportunity to join Chamakh at Crystal Palace but found himself unable to when Arsenal failed to recruit a new striker on deadline day. The impact of this being that although the team is deficient in terms of numbers, those left are all of sufficient quality and no member of the squad could be patently termed a “weak point” in the way Andre Santos earned for himself in that match at Old Trafford. This has also ensured that the cream of the youngsters have found a clearer path to the first team. It is difficult to fathom Serge Gnabry starting three games in a 6 day period and scoring his first Premier League goal in the last of those games had the likes of Gervinho and Arshavin still been around.
The greatest genius lies in simplicity. Beane is proof of this. Wenger used to be proof of this. If his philosophy continues to resemble Beane’s, he might just rediscover the touch that made him the greatest foreigner in British football whilst shutting up those naysayers who have turned him into a punch line.
Thierry Henry presents: the finest moments of his career. Perfect.
This Could Get Messy
By Raphael Honigstein (@Honigstein)
A feature article from our debut issue. Download a free preview of Issue #1 here: http://bit.ly/14w5LuB
Can Pep Guardiola work his Barça magic at Bayern?
Unlike Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, Pep Guardiola didn’t have his audience at “Hello.” But he did have them at “Guten Tag, Grüß Gott.” All it took for the 42-year-old—on his first day running FC Bayern Munich—was to address the more than 250 journalists in the Allianz Arena in very passable German, garnished with a Bavarian idiom. The writers marveled at his command of the notoriously difficult language, they laughed at his self-effacing joke (“All the answers for the most important questions are pre-prepared—if I don’t know the questions, I’m kaput!”), and above all, they appreciated the two key messages Guardiola sought to get across. First, he’s an obsessive worker determined to arm himself with the communication tools every successful manager needs. According to his brother Pere, Guardiola studied German “like a madman” since accepting Bayern’s job offer just before Christmas.
Even more important, however, Guardiola’s sometimes slightly ropey German spoke volumes about his humility. No one would have been too upset if “the world’s greatest coach” (according to Bayern executive-board chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge) had conducted his first presser in English or Spanish, but doing it in the local language drove home the point that he is determined to adapt to his new surroundings.
His low-key speech that day was in marked contrast to the rock-star fever that had gripped Munich (and a hefty chunk of the rest of Germany) before his unveiling. “Buenos dias, Messias!” wrote local tabloid Abendzeitung, with a mixture of irony and admiration. Never before had so much hype greeted an incoming Bundes-liga manager, and Bayern’s historic, treble-winning season only amplified expectations. Everyone seemed to be wondering if Guardiola, the man who in just four years made Barcelona the world’s best and most aesthetically pleasing team, could usher in an era of European dominance in Munich.
Guardiola was extremely careful to avoid promising that level of success in the press conference and, in the process, made himself seem to be quite a bit smaller than he really is. “It’s a gift to be here, a gift that Bayern even thought I could be here,” he said with a smile, adding that he had taken the job because of Bayern’s “special history” and “high quality of players.” His modesty is genuine, close friends and confidants insist, and they point to his background by way of explanation. Guardiola is the son of a bricklayer from Santpedor, a small town in the Catalan hinterlands. “The stereotypical attitude of Catalans … [is] pessimism,” writes his biographer, Guillem Balagué, in the excellent Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning. Maybe that’s a little strong as far as Guardiola is concerned, since he won every conceivable trophy as a novice manager at Barça. But there’s no question that he’s prone to self-doubt of the healthy kind. More than that, “his doubt is methodical,“ wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Spanish correspondent Oliver Meiler, “he was never sure. Not even after many titles. And that’s one of the reasons for his success: the perennial, manic, at times unnerving search for ways to make football, the unpredictable game, plannable.”
When he finished his playing career in 2006, at age 35, Guardiola went on holiday in Argentina. He wanted to meet César Luis Menotti and Marcelo Bielsa, two coaches he admired. He hoped to learn from them before becoming a manager. This unpretentious inquisitiveness has remained with him. It’s natural for him to imitate, copy, and absorb everything. His art has been to take all his influences and bring them together in his own superior concept.
Xavier Sala-i-Martín, a professor of economics at Columbia University, has an interesting analogy. He got to know Guardiola’s modus operandi while he was working as FC Barcelona’s treasurer from 2004 to 2010. “Look at Zara and H&M, the two big European clothes chains,” he says. Both have similar business plans: fashionable clothes at affordable prices. But H&M produces their stock as cheaply as possible in great volumes. Half a million yellow pairs of trousers, for example. Zara, a Spanish chain, produces smaller quantities—say, 20,000 pairs of yellow trousers. Production is more expensive, but the stock in the shops changes every week. “If Madonna wears a purple pair of trousers in a concert, there will be purple trousers in the Zara shops the next week,” says Sala-i-Martín, “whereas the H&M trousers are still yellow. Guardiola is Zara. He surprises his opponents by making small changes to his tactics each week. An economist would call it flexibility. Pep stands for continuous innovation.”
Some would scoff at this description and point out that no team in recent history has been as uncompromising in their approach as Pep’s Barcelona, the grandmasters of tiki-taka. It’s a fallacy to think that Barça was always playing the same way, insists Sala-i-Martín, because small, incremental variations of their tactics made them untouchable. Guardiola pushed the envelope until only two defenders were left behind in their own half. “Suicidal!” screamed the traditionalists. These days, most top teams have copied that strategy, including Jügen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Jupp Heynckes’s Bayern, the two German teams that contested the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley. Pushing players forward enabled Guardiola’s team to win the ball in the final third of the opposition half; they defended in attack. Getting to the opponent’s goal was quicker that way. This “high-pressing” has made football faster, more attractive. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Guardiola has modernized the game.
Many assume Guardiola is out to replicate this winning formula in Bavaria, but he insists he will “adapt 100 percent” to his players and that only “small changes” would be made. Bayern successfully combined elements of Louis van Gaal’s possession game and spells of high-pressing in 2012–13, but at times they were very direct and muscular. Guardiola understands that such players as the irrepressible maverick Thomas Müller, a man who defies categorization, or Arjen Robben, the narcissistic winger, would be ill-served by a slavish reproduction of tiki-taka.
Guardiola was heavily influenced by van Gaal and Johan Cruyff—winning with style and beauty is important for him, but he lacks the two Dutchmen’s dogmatic streak. His most important tactical decision at Barcelona offers a good insight. “Pep Guardiola changed the history of football on May 1, 2009,” says Sala-i-Martín. There was no game that day, but Guardiola was spending hours locked away in his windowless office in the bowels of the Camp Nou stadium, watching videos of Real Madrid, the next evening’s opponent. He stopped the DVD, rewound, played it again. There it was! The best moment in the life of a manager, Guardiola once said, is the moment you find a weakness of your opponent that your team can exploit.
Guardiola called Lionel Messi, his small winger. “Come to the stadium, I have to show you something,” he said. When Guardiola played him the DVD, Messi got it instantly: Whenever Real Madrid attacked the man in possession in midfield, their defenders didn’t push up. There was a gap of 25 meters between defense and midfield.
The next step, in hindsight, seems obvious. Messi started the Clásico against Barça’s archrivals in his customary position on the left but then switched deep inside as a hidden striker, or “false number nine,” as football experts would later call the role. Messi proved unstoppable. Barcelona won 6-2 and celebrated a historic result. Even more important was Messi’s transition into a “secret” striker, which turned a very good Argentine international into the world’s best player. Since that evening, he’s been voted the footballer of the year every season. Guardiola couldn’t have known it would work out like that; he was simply looking for the best strategy for a particular match.
Barcelona’s breathtaking football made Guardiola the most coveted coach in European football, so why did he chose Bayern rather than a club in the English Premier League? Joan Laporta, Barcelona’s former president, thinks that Guardiola mistrusts the setup of nouveau-riche clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, which are controlled by billionaires. “Bayern is not a club with a rich owner who has made his millions outside football and who might decide from one day to the next to go home again,” says Laporta.
Guardiola is not naive; perhaps he’s not even a romantic. He knows that football is big business these days. But growing up in Barcelona, he was taught that a club should be “mès que un club,” as Barça’s motto has it, greater than the football team it employs. During Franco’s dictatorship, Barça was a stronghold of Catalan resistance. In the stadium, thousands could speak the forbidden Catalan; Real Madrid, the perceived representatives of the state, could be insulted and beaten. “Barça is the Catalan army without weapons,“ wrote Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. To this day, Barcelona aspire to stress the otherness of Catalonia, be that by having many local players for the side or by playing the game in a special way.
The ability to identify with your team remains an important part of being a football fan in the 21st century. While Barcelona’s social relevance has a basis in history, marketing and branding experts are busy creating identities elsewhere. Bayern have had a head start in that respect: They have been actively playing on a heightened sense of Bavarian-ness, on a confidence that verges on arrogance, and have described themselves as “a family” to create a us-and-them dynamic for decades. “We cultivate this polarization,” Rummenigge admits, “partly because it means that we have constant media exposure.”
According to various studies, Bayern have approximately 12 million fans in Germany—a number that is dwarfed only by those who dislike the club with equal passion. And the club would not have it any other way.
There are other similarities. Both Bayern and Barcelona pride themselves on developing young players, and both are run as clubs in the pure sense of the word, according to democratic principles. The members—in other words, the supporters—“own” the club and elect their presidents. Among the top clubs in Europe, only Real Madrid operates along such traditional lines; most of the rest are privately owned.
Despite all their relentless sporting and commercial ambition and their wish to be a truly global player, Bayern still recognizes their responsibility to their loyal supporters. Season ticket prices for the most hardcore fans are subsidized. Every Christmas, the members of the playing staff are dispatched to visit a fan club, and most training sessions are open to the public. Guardiola, according to Uli Hoeness, Bayern’s president, was surprised to hear of that arrangement, but quickly agreed to adhere to the culture of his new club.
It’ll be fascinating to see his progress. “It won’t be easy for him in the Bayern family,” said Guardiola’s mentor, Menotti, who won the 1978 World Cup. “But his ideas are good, and he likes the city. I think he’s more nervous than he should be; he’ll find it easy to communicate. German won’t be difficult for him. He is a very ‘German’ Catalan—organized, serious. He works and trains hard. His personality suits Munich; it’s a good town for him.”
As long as he delivers results, that is. Bayern don’t expect him to defend the Champions League trophy this season—no club, not even his Barcelona, have been able to do that—but he needs to win the league. “The league is the most honest title,” said Rummenigge, implying that luck and form are much smaller factors than in the cup competitions—and that there is no excuse not to win it with Bayern’s stellar squad.
Pep’s much more demanding task will be to keep Bayern at the very top of European football. Privately, the bosses at Säbenerstrasse expect him to lift another Champions League trophy before his three-year contract is up. It’s on that stage that Guardiola will really earn his wages of $13.34 million per season. Or to put it in Jerry Maguire terms, that’s where the money must show. viiixviii
Illustration by Marco Calcinaro
Additional research by Ronald Reng
Just stop it.
Aaron Ramsey chanelling Zizou and Cryuff.