Our European guru educates and enlightens
If you want to explain the mysterious decline of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, you might have to gen up on Greek mythology.
The Icarus paradox sounds like a bad thriller, written by a ghost of the late Robert Ludlum, but it is actually an elegant theory, coined by a business writer called Danny Miller, to explain why apparently successful companies collapse.
In a nutshell, Miller says the reason is that their strengths, like Icarus’s waxwings, can turn into fatal weaknesses.
Between 2001/02 and 2004/05, Arsenal won the Premiership twice and were runners-up twice. They never amassed less than 78 points and their average tally was 84.5.
In the last four seasons, they have racked up three fourth place finishes and one third and averaged 72.5 points a season.
You can put this into a context that includes such factors as the advent of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, but the decline is still stark.
And, for me, Miller’s business theory helps explain it.
One of the ways that strengths turn into weaknesses, he suggests, is that the bits of an organisation that are strongest – it might be product development or marketing or sales – become stars that begin to attract the resources previously devoted to less glamorous, but vital, bits of the company.
And that, in essence, is what has happened at Arsenal.
The qualities that were most attractive about Wenger’s team in their all-conquering era – youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and confidence in possession – have effectively taken over the team.
And the other qualities that side shared with many great teams – physical power, the ability to close down opponents in midfield, competitive spirit, experience of big games, a certain ruthless selfishness in front of goal, and competent defensive organization – have all been crowded out.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s jibe that Arsenal are a junior team was unfair but not entirely stupid.
Instead of trophies, the fans are being consoled with visions of how good this team – if it stays together – will be at some unspecified point in the future.
This is the rhetoric you use to justify unexpected defeat in the FA Youth Cup, not the language that inspires the self-belief that led Barcelona to triumph last season.
You can see a similar process at work at many other great teams.
The Total Football that made Ajax legendary degenerated, within five years, into a regime where some players put their preferences ahead of the team.
Even the great Cruyff retreated into midfield either through exhaustion or, some have suggested, a desire to protect himself from enraged cloggers, and often abandoned his original role as the most creative attacking spearhead since Alfredo di Stefano.
Di Stefano was always the fulcrum of the greatest Real Madrid side, even though such geniuses as Puskas, Gento and Kopa surrounded him.
But as Real declined, they lost their shape and began to rely ever more heavily on Di Stefano and Puskas.
By 1964, Di Stefano, who was nearly 38, could not control the game against opposition as strong as Helenio Herrera’s Inter.
In the European Cup final that year, Di Stefano flitted in and out of the game. Real lost 3-1 and the Nerazzurri became the first team to win the trophy without losing a match.
The most blatant footballing example of Miller’s paradox is probably Real Madrid in the galacticos era, where the transfer budget was spent entirely on artistes, the craft and graft of Makelele was surplus to requirements, and the player who could have replaced him, Patrick Vieira, wasn’t offered the right deal because he wouldn’t sell enough shirts.
Real Madrid fans must hope that Florentino Perez has learned that shirt sales and artistry are not the only criteria on which teams can be judged although after watching his interview with Mihir Bose I’m not so sure.
In his blog, Bose draws entirely the wrong lesson from Hollywood history when analysing Perez’s summer spending spree.
He likens it to the Hollywood studio tactic of hiring as many stars as possible.
It’s true that MGM, for example, used to boast it had more stars than in heaven. But those stars were often signed cheap, tied to punishing contracts, suspended if they didn’t want to make a particular film or were deemed to have broken the infamous morals clause and released as soon as they were deemed to be past their best.
Behind the glamour and the hype, Hollywood studios were run by ruthless autocrats who could – and did – break the careers of the world’s greatest stars.
And the stars all knew that. When fear and autocracy no longer ruled Tinseltown, the studio system collapsed. I’m not sure if there is a parallel with Real there at all.
Bose – and Perez – are right to point out that Real, since the days of Santiago Bernabeu, has always been a president’s club.
This model worked brilliantly in the 1950s, when European football was a very different business, but has only worked sporadically since – either at Real or at other clubs like Inter.
One of the fascinating sub-plots this season will be to see whether the Bernabeu strategy can still work, 31 years after its originator died.
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Hi Paul, really enjoyed your article. I wrote about Arsenal's demise in much the same vain after their semi final defeat in the Champions League.
Hope you'll take the time to read it here. ronanok.wordpress.com/.../is-arsene-the-emperor-wenger-wearing-new-clothes
All the best,
do really have to resort to greek myth to work out that a team gets worse if it loses two or three of the world's best players?
also ibra-who-ovic is utterly stupid to slate a team that is better than the one he plays in. of course he is, thick as a plank.
wenger's forwards have never been that selfish in front of goal - witness the penalty debacle between pires and henry against man city.
your whole half-baked icarus theory boils down to the fact that arsenal never adequately replaced Patrick Vieira - who, to be fair, is a tought act to follow.
Timao - why do Arsenal lose world class players?
Because Wenger sells them and thinks 19/20 year old's can replace these world class stars without any loss of strength to the team.
It is slowly becoming apparent that perhaps Wenger has totally lost his marbles, in a spectacular way.
The only reason he has not been found out yet is because he appears too intelligent a man and too brave in his conviction to be questioned.
This could spell disaster for Arsenal.
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