Season Preview 2: The Philosophy of Winning
Finishing third the Wenger way rather than winning it like Chelsea.
Allan Kaprow's Fluids reinvented by Cal State University, Los Angeles (Flickr Commons)
Tested Faith is the Best Kind of Faith or, "In Arséne We Trust."
There are fans and neutrals who fully endorse Arséne Wenger’s philosophy as they criticize some of his decisions. “In Arséne We Trust” is not a blind faith, but one with a fidelity constantly tested.
A sixth season without a trophy will not necessarily invalidate the philosophy. There could be other explanations disproving it: the character of today’s youth, or the philosophy’s prematurity in a historical period marked by a result-driven ideology reflected in the league’s decade-long rule by billionaires. The full implementation of Financial Fair Play could help provide the moment in-wait.
Another season without a trophy would not invalidate the sound business model, the fundamental collaborative and democratic approach to the game, or the development of players through a rigorous pedagogy. These were good things to do before Wenger did them and will be after him.
Players enter the Arsenal academy knowing what kind of system is in place. As reserves, they learn how to play in this system by developing skills, assuming roles, accumulating knowledge, and physically integrating them. If they make the first team, then within its system is how they will play. The aim is the embodiment of something closer to a worldview, “…Arséne Wenger points us forward, into some gleaming new future football world”.
On the other side, there are those who think senility is setting in; The Professor’s tenure has permitted the slide into a king’s madness, the emeritus whose late thought is off-key and worryingly edgy. In the face of accumulating realities, Wenger sounds more detached and “myopic” each season as he withdraws further into the abstraction of an ideal falling further out of reach.
But these realities are based on the opposing model of success, some of which now rests on massive debt. If the only point is winning trophies, and money is the reality, then spending more than what you have is a necessary and even pragmatic course of action. If it’s not possible for a team to spend more than it has, then that team is Manchester City, née Chelsea. Among these hard realities, the lonelier voice is suspect.
Yet this opposing model is decadent and consists of a chorus of suspect voices. From Wenger's perspective, it is the one detached from reality. Real Madrid spent over €200 million, borrowed or otherwise, to build the new Galacticos in one summer, while untold numbers of Spaniards are gripped by austerity (how many of these are Real Madrid fans?). To question the legitimacy of the Wenger way requires a more sound set of facts.
Arsenal were close this last season, but unforgiving critics consider “close” as far away from winning the title as being far from winning the title. The judgment is as much vulgar as is it is harsh. Being close affects the senses differently than being far away. No one has ever said I was so far away I could taste it. When a trophy becomes the determining factor of a team’s success or failure, then one no longer has to be reminded that the object of affection is also a business, since it is clear that running a football club is all business that deems fan affection quaint.
Wenger’s tenure is often divided by his arrival up to the undefeated 2003-2004 Invincibles, and Arsenal’s youth project, which followed and continues through the present.
For Wenger, pragmatism is rarely a preferred philosophical alternative, but figures positively as a subordinate part of the system, primarily as an enabler. Arsenal teams up to 2003-4 were tough and “got stuck in”. This character trait was not a display of pragmatism; the tough, steely component was complimentary and required. It offered protection, inflexibility, rapid containment, and control, which bolstered and permitted passing, movement, possession, and technical skill —the system’s defining attributes— to be efficiently maximized and synced. The lengthening absence of physical strength and mettle expressed through the types of players recently recruited, could indicate that this has changed, whether Wenger intended this or not.
Philosophical Evolution as Refinement and the New Arsenal
Arsenal teams, beginning in 2004-5 (and completely by 2006-7) to the present can be characterized by an extreme idealism, by a utopian impulse. The dedication to developing young and talented teenagers has elicited two sharp responses. On one hand there are the chants of pedophilia, and on the other an ideal experience, whether nostalgic or vicarious, of bearing witness to the emergence of the sublime through youth (pure, innocent, lacking self-awareness).
Throughout last season, it was possible that Arsenal could win the league title in this very manner, with slightly more sublime expression than erratic self-destruction. This team would become, in a way, the Incredibles.
The post-Invincibles, as a purified expression of football, is partly formed through having to play with billionaires and by their rules, but it’s more attributable to the organization’s economic and financial circumstances, which are directly related to the farsighted impact of building a new stadium. These circumstances preceded the general economic downturn, but were then affected by it.
To remain healthy and secure, Arsenal imposed a fiscal discipline more strict than any penny-pinching fan would have liked. But until economic footing was sound, Arsenal had to insulate itself from both broader and acute economic conditions.
Having already had a strong academy and development policy in place meant Wenger could make it central to sustaining the team without adding excessive expenditure. Given the financial limitations, this was a pragmatic turn.
Emerging out of this, if not already concomitant, the practical long-term investment in development and the commitment to pedagogy were extended and inverted into new virtues upon which to stand, as financial limitation, sounding more and more like elective austerity, became foundational to his philosophy.
The disappointment of poor results that marked the short-term must have been difficult to stomach, if it didn’t throw his faith into question. But it’s clear that he would never be confined to circumstance or doubt; Arsenal had chances (if outside) to win the league going into March and April, exceeding the expectations of many.
Philosophy with Dogma but Without Ideology
This idealism also contains a peculiar strand of the ludic, a kind of aimless play without goal or endpoint that tempers his thought. The ludic is found in numerous fields—mathematics and game theory, video game development, cultural studies and philosophy, but, most applicable to Arsenal, in the criticism of certain kinds of art practices of the 1960s.
At this time, a postwar generation of artists, primarily in the United States, wanted to create a new art by rejecting traditional principles and ideas of past art. Instead of framed paintings and fixed sculptures, this new art generally favored viewers’ participation, avoided display in museums, and used new kinds of materials. Art would be formed out of everyday life, the stuff that surrounded them and the small, often unnoticed things people did. It wasn’t precious, untouchable, or meant to last—this new art could melt, decay, evaporate, be cleaned up and thrown away, or destroyed by those who helped make it.
Admittedly, none of this sounds like anything related to the Wenger way. But these characteristics were expressions of an art squarely concerned with process—the conceiving, producing, and experiencing of art outside established commercial routes.
This new art was removed from the strict path of becoming a recognized valuable object to be bought and sold. With little market value and short shelf life, the new art—if it couldn’t prove to be anything else—was at least not the old art or a commodity. The ludic aspect of process intended to be a meaningful and committed playing, with a freedom to experiment—often only granted to children—where experience provided an opportunity to reflect, learn, and develop new ideas and alternative models of practice and production. Some interpreted this as the attempt to opt out—as impossible as that turned out to be—of the growing commodification of everything in sight, for at least a moment to possibly experience another way, a different world view.
The ludic in the Wenger way elevates play to a principle and ethos. Preferring to finish third to winning the league the way Chelsea has, is a pointed assertion of principle not stubborn delusion. If Everton won the league, he likely would not have said this.
The ludic strand lies in the development of youth, in an experimental and pedagogical system devoted to player growth and learning within a space and time frame unencumbered—as much as is possible—by football’s purest symbol of commodification, the trophy. Success isn’t measured by the trophy’s immediate gratification, even though the desire to win them hasn’t waned. In fact, deferral only makes the desire unbearably stronger.
This is the bind and what makes the Wenger way peculiar. Clearly he wants to win a trophy. The philosophical integrity upheld by finishing third reconnects with the trophy once measured development becomes a great leap, when flashes of sublimated football become common occurrence.
Returning to tested faith mischievously begs a question. If the Wenger way can remain estimable for its resilience and patience as it withstands five years of a results-driven football culture and severe economic recession, then how would purchasing a top class goalkeeper for example, threaten or compromise these principles? It is football and not art after all.