Do managerial and player changes work? Arsenal and Tottenham compared.

By Tony Attwood

The idea developed on this site about transfers is not only that they seem to fail more often than they live up to expectation, but also that when they fail the result can be not just a club stagnating, but a club in decline.  And that decline can be both in terms of league position and financial position.

For surely there is nothing worse than having spent a lot of the budget on a player only to find that he just isn’t working out in the team.  As a result, the manager is tempted either to keep playing the man, (both in the hope that things will come good, and to try and rescue his reputation) or sell him at a discount and thus throw away a fair amount of the budget.

It is perhaps ironic that a perfect example of this comes with Tottenham Hotspur.  Ironic because they have gone on a project which seems to have failed, but which a number of Arsenal fans seem to want to copy.

During this spell Tottenham have had three finals  – two in the league cup and one in the Champions League.  A good achievement in getting to the finals, but all three finals were lost.

But it is the league position that tells the real story.    From 2014 to 2017 Tottenham were very much on the up, but then started to slip.  Not a lot, just a place or two each season.    And although there was much reasonable crowing about finishing higher than Arsenal five seasons running (reasonable in the sense that we did a lot of crowing during the 22 consecutive seasons when Arsenal finished above Tottenham) if we look at actual trophies won, Arsenal picked up three during this period, and Tottenham none.

We’ve written a lot about what caused Arsenal’s demise.  The unholy alliance of media and fans turning on the manager, suddenly getting rid of Emery when he had a percentage win record better than any Arsenal manager other than Mr Wenger, and so on.  But what caused Tottenham’s decline after coming runners up in 2017 – their best result since they last won the title in 1961?

And more to the point, what can be learned from this failure to keep building on the success of 2017?

It was at the end of the third of their five years of coming above Arsenal, that Mr Pochettino gave his interview in which he said, “What I think I am not open to, is starting a new chapter with no plan, with no clear idea, with not being transparent.   If we believe that if we operate in the same way that we have in the last five years [and] we are going to be in the Champions League final every season, and we are going to be every season in the top four and competing against projects like Liverpool or Manchester City or Manchester United, I think we are very naive.”

Pos Team P W D L F A GD Pts
6 Arsenal 12 4 5 3 16 17 -1 17
14 Tottenham Hotspur 12 3 5 4 18 17 1 14

This is interesting because just over one year later on 25 December 2020, the league table showed,

Pos Team P W D L F A GD Pts
6 Tottenham Hotspur 14 7 4 3 25 14 11 25
15 Arsenal 14 4 2 8 12 18 -6 14

and although Arsenal were much further behind Tottenham than the Totts were behind us a year earlier, Arsenal did not sack their manager (despite the mob of journalists and negative supporters who called for just that.)

So who was right?  Since sacking Pochettino, Tottenham have brought in Mourinho, Mason as a temp, Espirito Santo and now Conte and at the moment the clubs are sixth and seventh in the league, with Tottenham having a game in hand.

But the problem Tottenham has was not so much that they kept taking on new managers, but rather that before sacking Pochettino they let him spend lots of money and subsequent managers were left without much of a budget.

And this is the problem that many journalists and “sack the manager, buy new players” supporters don’t seem to get.  The number of managers who will work with the players they find at the club upon arrival, and revitalise a declining team without transfers, is small.  So if a club lets a manager buy, buy and buy again, and it doesn’t work they have a problem, not just at that moment, but with the next manager who will be expected to work with a collection of players he has not chosen.

While the media has been revelling in the fate of Aubameyang at Arsenal, few have mentioned what happened to the Tottenham team that played in the Champions League final in 2019.  Three of those players were sold for actual money, generating around £46m.  One player is left with a retail value (Kane, obviously), and that’s about it.

As the Telegraph pointed out in an article recently “the rebuilding of a Champions League final team, overseen by chairman Daniel Levy, has generated less than £50 million in total. One could add the £11 million received for another major figure from that era, Mousa Dembele, who left in January 2019 but either way it does not feel like the work of a master strategist. And if those returns feel low, just look at what has come since then.”

They calculate that the “rebuild” cost £117m, and unlike Arsenal’s rebuild which brought in a totally new and young defence last summer, Tottenham’s rebuild “is currently being rebuilt. All of them were available this January.”

Now, this could be taken to mean that the only way forward for a team to stay at the top is a constant revolution among the players.  But that was not what Mr Wenger did during his years of two doubles and an unbeaten season.  He was bringing in a collection of players that much of the time were comparatively cheap and unknown.

Most of the time, wholesale changes of players, and regular managerial changes, simply do not work.  Indeed there is even a thesis in the Harvard University library on the subject which says, “the results suggest that transfer spending has a minimal or negative effect on players and club performance on average.”  

Arsenal Anniversary of the Day: 4 February 1922: The Duke visits Arsenal, and asks for a cup of tea