Wenger must stay -- even the stats agree

By Paul Gardner

Arsene Wenger should stay. That’s what I think. And I think that way because I respect his unflinching devotion to skillful and entertaining soccer.

Of course, even suggesting that soccer should be entertaining is a risky business these days, likely to provoke scorn and contempt and accusations of ignorance about the real purpose of the modern game -- which is nothing more complicated than to win games and make money, and the hell with the beautiful game. 

I guess I’m intimidated by all that, for I feel the necessity to back up my defense of Wenger with some down-to-earth stats. Just the sort of thing to impress people who don’t give a damn for the aesthetics of the sport. So allow me to unroll some incontestable arguments in favor of Wenger staying put.

Studies have been made by groups of undoubtedly very clever persons, proving (well, almost proving) that firing the coach is not the best way to handle things when a team keeps losing games.

In 1997 researchers from two British schools -- the Universities of Wales and Hull -- conducted what Reuters called an “exhaustive study”. 

Certainly, the numbers were impressive. Between 1972 and 1993 the researchers analyzed 821 “spells of soccer management,” taking in 42,624 games. These are games from the four divisions of the English league (they include just one season from the Premier League, which started up in 1992).

The researchers looked at the 18 games that preceded and the 18 games that followed the firing of a coach. They found a slight improvement: the “win ratio” went up, from 0.42 to 0.46. Though they immediately undermined the apparent benefit by pointing out that results are always likely to improve after a bad spell (“No team carries on losing forever”).

More telling were the stats from the teams that did not fire the coach. Their 18 games, following similar bad spells, showed a winning ratio of 0.49.

Decidedly un-dramatic stats, then, leading to a conclusion that favors not firing the coach: the average recovery from a poor spell that leads to the firing of a coach is “less impressive” than the typical recovery achieved by teams that do not fire the coach.

German researchers from the University of Muenster had their say in 2003. A lot of exhaustive work here, too, for the study covers 35 years of Bundesliga activity (1963-1998), focusing on 206 coaching changes. The changes don’t work, say the researchers:

"Three or four games after the change you notice an improvement in performances, but it doesn't last.” The Germans used a 12-game period as their yardstick, and concluded that the results over the 24-game period (12 pre-firing, 12 after the change) didn’t change that much.

In one specific test (a pretty important one for clubs), firing the coach in an attempt to avoid relegation, the move flopped badly, apparently making matters worse. Of the clubs who fired their coach, 60 percent were relegated anyway. While only 37 percent of the clubs who stuck with their coach went down.

The two studies already mentioned deal with attempts to secure short-term improvement -- and both conclude that clubs are unlikely to get that by firing their coach.

Another English study, from Warwick Business School, was published in 2006. This was more interested in the long-term effects of coaching changes, and it came out pretty solidly in favor of not firing coaches. Its starting point was the gloomy fact that, between the beginning of the Premier League in 1992 and 2006, an entire year had been knocked off the average time that a coach held his job in England. It had gone down from 2.72 years to 1.72 (by 2015 it had shrunk to 1.23 years).

Clubs that indulge in frequent coach changes, it was alleged, paid the price with poor results (though I don’t know what proof lies behind that charge). Much better to have faith in your coach -- the study showed that coaches with 10 or more years of experience won 12 percent more games than managers with no previous experience.

That last stat seems directly relevant to Arsene Wenger. He’s been around in the Premier League longer than anyone -- at Arsenal since 1996. His record has been excellent, occasionally brilliant, but it’s getting him into trouble because Arsenal hasn’t won anything lately. What probably rankles most is that, despite its record of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League in every one of the past 17 years, the club has never won the trophy -- the most coveted of all the club honors.

Arsenal’s last won anything two years ago, which seems pretty recent, but the win almost doesn’t count ... because it was the English FA Cup. And whatever that competition’s fans may like to think, it is no longer regarded as a big deal. 

Arsenal is in line to win it again as it’s in the final in May. But victory there will come almost as a proof that Wenger can now win only a second-level competition. It may not save him.

Nor should it. Wenger deserves much more than to be rescued by victory in a modest competition -- or for that matter, to be sunk because he failed to win such a competition.

I want Wenger to stay because he deserves enormous respect for his stalwart insistence on playing skillful soccer, and not sliding into the ugly grind-it-out mentality that so often besmirches English soccer. It has been a brave and lonely stand -- one that few coaches are prepared to make in this day of pragmatic soccer.

I want Wenger to stay for at least another season, mostly because I don’t want to see him either fired or ushered abruptly off the scene, to be nudged sideways into a bogus job with a flashy title but no authority. Something much more dignified and worthy of the man must be worked out.

Of course, it would be nice for Arsenal to win next year’s Champions League, that would be a wonderful exit strategy for Wenger. But suddenly -- and this is what worries his critics -- the team looks to be not good enough to even qualify.

Behind that worry is the nagging feeling that Wenger is now simply too old for the task, that his ideas are old-fashioned, that the sport belongs to a new generation of coaches -- you know, the sideline showoffs like Mourinho and Conte and Guardiola.

I do not believe that to be so. Because the values that Wenger represents -- the core values of the beautiful game -- are lasting, fundamental values, unlike the ephemeral tactics and systems and game plans so dear to modern coaches. 

The enormous contribution that Wenger had made to soccer, and in particular to the development of the sport in England, must not be neglected. 

The difficult bit for Arsenal will be to find a graceful way of moving in a new coach. Because if Wenger -- and the man is a young  67, an active 67 -- wants to be still involved in the every-day and on-the-field activities at Arsenal, it will be very difficult for the club to find a new coach. Who would take the job ... with the legendary Wenger still on the premises?

22 comments about "Wenger must stay -- even the stats agree ".
  1. Ric Fonseca, April 25, 2017 at 5:08 p.m.

    Curious, just for curiosity sake: just how OLD is PG?

  2. Allan Lindh replied, April 25, 2017 at 6:09 p.m.

    When you can write a better, more thoughtful column, then maybe you have the right to ask that question.

  3. Gus Keri replied, April 26, 2017 at 6:21 a.m.

    I like this young 86, an active 86, year old wonderful writer.

  4. Oma Hawkeye replied, April 26, 2017 at 10:52 a.m.

    Pep Guardiola is 46.

  5. Jon Deeny, April 25, 2017 at 5:12 p.m.

    2016 Seattle Sounders are an example of a coaching change working out sort of ok. sometimes the game has passed you buy and/or players don't listen to you anymore

  6. Glenn Auve replied, April 25, 2017 at 6:28 p.m.

    Seattle was more the case of bringing in Lodiero, no?

    PG seems to be arguing that no one should ever change coaches. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It's not like Arsenal would be changing for change's sake. Or that they willy nilly fire coaches every year. He's been there for 21 years! I think eventually the time comes to pass the torch. We can thank him for his service, but every team needs some new ideas and new energy from time to time

  7. Fire Paul Gardner Now, April 25, 2017 at 6 p.m.

    Ludicrous. Arsenal are supposed to be a big club and they've won nothing other than a few FA cups in the past 12 years. They also haven't advanced past the round of 16 in the UCL for eight years. It's just not good enough. Arsenal were great from 1996-2006 but surely it's time for Arsenal to move on now. And I am not an Arsenal fan so I have no stake in any of this.

  8. Allan Lindh, April 25, 2017 at 6:08 p.m.

    When Wenger took over at Arsenal, the standard in the EPL was hard drinking, poor diet, and bloody tackling. His early success changed all that, now diet and training are required of all teams. In addition he's an economist, he also understood that long term health of the club requires a balanced budget. Now that billionaires own all the "really successful" clubs, he's condemned for not spending money like a drunken sailor. And throughout it all, his teams played beautiful soccer -- today the Gunners and Barca are the only teams I enjoy almost every week. Will be sad if the morons of various stripes drive him out with mindless raucous attacks.

  9. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, April 26, 2017 at 10:43 a.m.

    That's great but doesn't he have to win something? And I don't mean the FA Cup? Arsenal have only finished as high as second once since 2005.

  10. Kent James replied, April 29, 2017 at 12:15 a.m.

    Well said.

  11. Bob Ashpole, April 25, 2017 at 6:20 p.m.

    Oooooh...using logic to persuade. That should work!

  12. Ben Myers, April 25, 2017 at 6:39 p.m.

    The Arsenal squad needs a refresh of players, not the coach. Ozil has underperformed. Xhaka has been inconsistent. The back line is OK, but not great. One of Wenger's biggest challenges with the current squad is to find room on the pitch for both Sanchez (an undersized striker but fine left winger) and Giroud (prototype tall striker who needs service to finish and who can hold up play well when needed).

  13. Ginger Peeler, April 25, 2017 at 10:24 p.m.

    It seems to me PG has given us stats that show an advantage for keeping a coach, but at only a very small difference between keeping a coach (and improving) and changing a coach (and improving). It's a very slight difference. But what he IS emphasizing is his desire for Wenger to stay because he's one of the very few coaches left who have their teams playing skillful, technique-driven soccer that is such a joy to watch. He's thinking about what we lose as fans after Wenger's gone. He's hoping against hope and pulling out all stops to argue for not firing Wenger; at the same time, he's admitting Its most likely that Wenger will be fired. It's hard to watch the final dying breaths of the old guard.

  14. beautiful game, April 25, 2017 at 10:32 p.m.

    No quality play maker puts too much pressure on the strikers and the rest of the squad. It's the players, not Wenger who have underperformed.

  15. George Vista replied, April 26, 2017 at 6:37 p.m.

    Wenger signed and trains those players and instills the system.

  16. Gus Keri, April 26, 2017 at 6:31 a.m.

    The only player that Wenger has not been able to replace, since he last won the EPL, was Vierra. People always underestimate the value of an excellent defensive midfielder. Liverpool suffered the same fate when they let Alonso leave. A great current example is Kante at Chelsea who is helping them to win the EPL after he helped Leicester last year.

  17. George Vista, April 26, 2017 at 5:41 p.m.

    You obviously haven't watch an Arsenal match for a while. For the past few years the Arsenal play has been anything but "entertaining." Many mid-table and smaller clubs have figured out how to defend a team with little midfield influence and therefore the build up in attack is based on Sanchez cutting to his right, Ozil looping the odd ball into the goal area or a few other bounces working in their favor. All of this because they simply don't win the ball in the middle of the pitch and don't have the devastating attacking options of years gone by.

    People need to actually watch the match to see that Arsenal have been figured out for some time now. The results show that while they can still score, the games are far from entertaining.

  18. ROBERT BOND, April 27, 2017 at 9:46 a.m.

    prob is the stingy owner..

  19. beautiful game, April 27, 2017 at 11:34 a.m.

    R. Bond, you're on the money.

  20. Chris Ogle, April 27, 2017 at 2:57 p.m.

    Although,when looking at the big picture of thousands of games,it appears that coaching changes don't improve results there are numerous examples of coaching changes making a big difference(Chelsea and Real Madrid last year). I understand Paul's detest for coaches and what they usually bring to the game but he has to understand that there's more to the game than just letting a team play attractive football.There's dealing with the egos of a group of millionaire athletes as well as making sure the players are physically fit enough to endure the long seasons that are part of the modern game.Also, I think he's being unfair in particular to Guardiola who's clubs have always played attractive as well as winning football with the exception of Man City this year.

  21. Scot Sutherland, May 19, 2017 at 5:41 p.m.

    As a researcher I can say right away that the two studies that look at 12 and 20 games before and after the firing or a coach have flawed methodology. Any team that fires the coach has a problem in the management relationship (coach-executive-fanbase). A team that does not fire the coach does not have the same strain in management relationships. These samples are not sufficiently independent to make comparisons. The German study makes more sense, no significant difference, which is not really a finding, but an admission that you can't tell. I would argue that when the Galaxy fired Ruud Gullit and hired Bruce Arena, the firing and hiring was the primary reason for the radical change in fortunes of the Galaxy. I think an exhaustive study would show that the success of a firing and hiring would be more related to quality of the coaches involved. Since only a select few coaches and organizations can win titles the hiring most likely means more than the firing. I'm sure Manchester United would agree based on the hiring of Alex Ferguson.

  22. Ed M, June 12, 2017 at 4:14 p.m.

    Trash article as usual. What do you really know about the teams or the players. Being a spectator and writing like one may entertainment for some but shows a true lack of knowledge of what is happening in the US and other places.

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