File photo of Arsene Wenger. (Source: Ronnie Macdonald/ Flickr)

Arsene Wenger of Arsenal Wasn't Just Another Soccer Coach

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(Bloomberg View) -- The leader of what was once considered one of the best-managed soccer clubs in the world stepped down Friday and the Twittersphere erupted in two opposite directions: jubilation and sadness.

Half of English football fans seem to regard the departure from the Arsenal Football Club of 68-year-old Arsene Wenger as coming years too late. The other half rues the brutality of a changing industry that turned his virtues into handicaps. Wenger was enormously successful and his club was nicely profitable, but his fall is a reminder of how quickly industries can change — and how even a great leader's fortunes can turn if he doesn't change with them.

The French-born coach had spent 22 years at the helm. An economist by education, he looked more like his nickname, "the professor," than a hardscrabble soccer coach. Fans made parlor games out of reading emphasis into his monotonous interview responses and searching his pleasantly lined face for a flicker of expression.

Wenger wasn't always the cool-headed professor, though. He famously clashed with his Chelsea rival, Jose Mourinho, in 2014. He could lose his cool at a referee. That added to his appeal as an avatar of commitment and integrity.

Nobody contests his impact on the game. He changed the way soccer was played with his focus on attack and the passing game. He was among the first to use statistical data to assess players before purchasing them. During his tenure, the club built the impressive Emirates stadium.

In the debate over whether to buy talent or develop it, he came down on one side. "Buying players of 27, 28 is the easiest way to do management," he told an interviewer in 2010. "We have gone a different way. We have created a special spirit because our players have lived together from 16 onwards. It is important for football in general that Arsenal are successful; it will make people believe there is not only one way."

And it did a lot of winning, at least for awhile: Under his leadership, the team won three Premier League titles, seven Football Association Cup titles and seven Community shields. It finished in the top four of the English Premier League for two decades, placing second six times. It hadn't run up huge debts like some other Premier League teams. Instead, year after year, the team run by the economist recorded profits.

The crisis that ended Wenger's tenure says much about the rapidly changing business of English football where, in contrast to rival German clubs, the financial stakes have grown massively in recent years. In the three seasons ending in 2016, Premier League clubs generated operating profits of 1.6 billion pounds ($2.24 billion), more than the total of the previous 16 seasons combined. Wenger thought the influx of foreign money into English football was a passing phase; instead it was the new game.

Arsenal was such a pillar of fiscal prudence that fans began complaining that the bottom line was more important than the score. Wenger hadn't had a title in 14 years and fans questioned his loyalties. "Zombified Arsenal are no longer brutally in love with idea of winning," ran a searing headline in the Guardian. This wasn't a matter of the wrong starting lineup or tactics, the Guardian writer argued. It was philosophical:

This is another kind of place now, a club whose players, business model and touchline CEO reflect instead the priorities of the City institutions the Emirates Stadium mimics in its glass and steel architecture; places that are designed to make money while deflecting blame and accountability, where the bottom line is the only line, where short-term economic stability is all. Which is all fine in itself – but it’s not football.

The company had to accept higher wage costs to assuage critics. Its financial statements now boast about reducing profitability. But a spending arms race was never Wenger's game and the recent changes were not enough to stem the defeats that drove fans apoplectic.

There is an inexorability about a leader's exit, whether it's a politician or corporate chieftain or sporting hero. A few losses become a steady stream of bad news. Journalists pounce; or in the case of soccer, hyper-critical fans. I confess to a weakness for Arsenal and Wenger, but I'm the kind of casual fan who can shrug off a loss. I know Arsenal diehards who spend the entire weekend in a clinical depression after a bad defeat.

It will be interesting to see what price Arsenal is willing to pay now for better results, and whether Wenger's values endure. He was a pillar of community. When an activist who was moved by the plight of children sickened by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster wrote Premier League managers to ask for their help, only Wenger responded. Arsenal provided soccer gear and books to the kids and then sent coaches. Arsenal invited 400 firemen who battled the Grenfell Tower blaze last year to be guests of honor at a match.

The "Arsenal Way" came to refer to all these things — the way the club does business, recruits young players, engages in the community and plays the game. The Arsenal website Friday carried simply a sober picture and a caption in French: Merci Arsene.

Soccer fans like an argument that runs and runs. By lunchtime Friday, the pubs around London were teeming and it wasn't just the nice weather. Punters will debate Wenger's legacy (and succession) until the taps go dry. They are the same questions posed about Travis Kalanick at Uber and John Cryan at Deutsche Bank, two ousted leaders with nothing like Wenger's appeal or staying power.

They are the questions that are being asked of Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump: Is the vision right? Is the management style effective? Is it time to go?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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