Was Arsène Wenger unlucky?
Arsène Wenger’s postmortem had already been written years before he actually announced his departure from Arsenal. As the conventional wisdom goes, he had an excellent first 8 seasons, winning 3 league titles, but then lost his way and was never again able to make Arsenal credible contenders for the league title.
However, here at 21st Club we believe that the league table does lie sometimes – indeed, it lies most of the time! In the 14 seasons since The Invincibles, it isn’t hard to imagine that if things had gone a different way in the odd game here or there, they could have won a title. Conversely, Wenger’s record of qualifying for the Champions League for 20 seasons might have benefited from some good luck along the way.
We can calculate how much Arsenal over- or underachieved during Wenger’s reign, by looking at the team’s underlying performance, and comparing it to actual results. For each season, we use simulations to see what could have happened, and therefore get a view on how likely it was that the team won the league or qualified for the Champions League based on how well they played.
The contrast in underlying performance between his two periods at Arsenal is much less stark than the gap in titles would suggest. In the first part of his tenure, when Wenger won three Premier League titles, he was expected to win only 2.4 titles, which suggests the team got a little bit more than their performances ‘deserved’.. After The Invincibles, performance under Wenger was never good enough to make Arsenal favorites for the title in any of the 14 seasons. However, it is likely that he could have won a title even though he did not manage the best team in the league, just due to random variation (for example when Leicester won the league in 2015-16 they were not the competition’s best team – but had enough go their way). He was expected to win 1.5 titles on average, and there is an 81% probability that his Arsenal would’ve won the league at least once in that period.
On the other hand, Wenger was incredibly fortunate to qualify for the Champions League every season between 2004/2005 and 2015/2016. There was only a 0.7% chance of that happening – their performances did not justify such a lengthy run. While Arsenal clearly enjoyed a financial upside from this improbable run, they didn’t have all the pieces fall in the right place in any single season, which could have won them a title. Some may point to mental fragilities and stale tactics – and while these may have played a part, it’s not impossible to imagine an alternative universe where over 14 seasons Arsenal did win league titles but perhaps did not make the top four as often.
The big picture is that for Wenger, as for all of us, his biggest successes are partly due to good luck and his worst failures are partly due to bad luck. Football is a low-scoring sport, so results are highly influenced by randomness, and thus are a lot more variable than underlying performance. This is why it is very important for football clubs to not be misled by a narrative developed to post-rationalise the variation in results. In truth, Wenger never did as well as it seemed he was doing in the first part of his reign, or as bad as it seemed in the second.