Arséne Wenger’s double take at the score and the reality.
Arsenal’s summer transfer activity is wholly contingent on the the drawn-out fates of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri. “Very active” may mean something different for Arsène Wenger than it does for supporters.
The greatest surprise of Arsenal’s summer transfer season is not that the club was committed to being “very active” while doing little so far to suggest this, but that many supporters believed that Arséne Wenger would follow through this time.
This appeared to be a safe assumption and comfortable investment of faith. Both Wenger and chief executive Ivan Gadzidis were forced to be upfront immediately after the season concluded, in order to reassure the growing disquiet on all fronts.
The collapse of last season appeared to confirm for Wenger the irrefutable reality that in seasons past was malleable; inexperience, patient development, and the arguments—based on credible evidence—for being “so close” have lost their influence over plain facts and searing imagery. Wenger was losing his ability to control the debate.
These reasons, among others, justifiably accounted for the repetition of the same mistakes—the loss of focus, the horrifying collapses, the predictable concessions of goals off set pieces, and the listless slow starts to matches against inferior opponents. Repeating these errors is now compulsion, where once they were part of the deliberate process of education, development, experience, and measurement of incremental achievements. Wenger continued to see these problems as part of the pedagogical process, where others see symptoms of a debilitating condition.
Consider the Gunninghawk’s recent comments:
I don’t have a major in business or economics, or pretend to know the ins and outs of how Arsenal FC functions, but I do think that Arsenal’s real problems only started after David Dein was ousted.
Or those of the Onlinegooner:
This business model will collapse sooner rather than later. It doesn’t take a highly paid management consultant to figure this out.*
Robin van Persie’s sending-off for time wasting threatens to turn the philosophical aphorism That is football into a joke.
The argument over which league is the best in the world is truly one of the most absurd held today. Since it can never be tested, the contest remains purely speculative and completely open-ended. But it is also one of the more interesting arguments for its ability to pull in criteria lying well beyond the pitch. In fact, it can’t stay on the pitch. It is a football argument with a long cultural reach.
People weigh in wholeheartedly with unsubstantiated positions; one’s feelings are sufficient once declared. Others set about on quixotic analyses, devising classifications and headings, measuring factors and assigning them values. Anything and everything from anywhere is used to make the case; style, individual skill, recent club domestic and European success, league parity, where the best players play, league and club financial strength (from television rights to tax codes), international appeal, fan attendance, stadium atmosphere, governance, weather. In the end this is just a thought experiment no matter the weight given to global finance or Ronaldo step-overs.
There will always be disagreements and irreconcilable positions when it comes to who is the best player in the world, which is the best team, the greatest XI, the best Cup final. A manager’s strategy, a starting eleven, a substitution, or a referee’s call will be endlessly contentious. There will always be tireless (and tiresome) arguments about football matches for as long as there are football matches, from the course of a match’s unfolding events to what should have happened and what didn’t happen.
Football prides itself on indeterminacy. It is the only condition where competing truths of subjective experiences and the emotions of partisan loyalties can co-exist. Multiple perspectives are validated by their inability to be disproved. Somewhere along the way, discussions and arguments break free from the point-by-point rhetoric and float around inconclusively.
The success of Arséne Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson is evident on the pitch, but must also be attributed to skills applied throughout the numerous aspects of the trade.
“The manager is a strong guide inside the club and has to establish his authority and demonstrate he is in complete control.”
“I met with David Gill last week and he did not give me any of the assurances I was seeking about the future squad.” -Wayne Rooney
In the span of a week, Wayne Rooney, all but certain to leave Manchester United, had suddenly pledged his loyalty by signing a new long-term contract. The story was resolved as quickly as broke into crisis. It burned fast, gave off bright light and wavy trails of smoke like fireworks or a dying star.
For a week, this Rooney saga proved the juiciest, for it was a football scandal through in through—highlighting the power of the player, the declining power of the football manager, the seedy puppetmastery of the shadow agent, and the illogical financial calculus of a club in precarious times.
Within a few days of the story breaking, Sir Alex Ferguson gave a great press conference. He maneuvered skillfully, with a knife between smiling teeth, to position and influence the perception of himself, the club, and Rooney.
By the time the six-minute speech concluded, there was near consensus that the relationship between player and manager had become irreparable. Rooney would be off to Real Madrid, Chelsea, or, God forbid, Manchester City.
The press conference, which was closer to the briefing of a statesman, aimed to reassert his control over a situation with a number of unpredictable outcomes. He had to cover all of his bases, anticipate countermoves by Rooney, fans, and the media. He walked the finest of lines. Despite the brilliance of his efforts and broad exertion of control, the intricate maneuvering indicated that he was unsure how it would all end.
Rooney’s public criticism of Manchester United’s decline in combination with Ferguson’s press conference very quickly presented a story where it appeared that the media had no need to fill the scandal’s holes with the thinnest of speculation. The facts were hard and required little stretching. Everything between manager and favorite son had been laid bare. The only speculative element lay in where Rooney would go.
Arséne Wenger’s comments about the crisis, recorded the day before Ferguson’s press conference, were matter-of-fact. “Rooney is a great player. I am convinced he will stay at Manchester United because it is his club. They have the power to keep him.”
First signs of an Arsenal wobble against a consistently effective Sunderland at home.
Arsenal midfielder Denilson may have undertaken a statistical study of Sunderland when he said, “You can’t expect to win at Sunderland because they have beaten the best sides here; it was always going to be a big game.”
Sunderland finished last season 13th in the table, winning nine games at home for 10th best in the league. Against top half teams, they went 5-3-2, which included wins against both Arsenal and Tottenham—the “big teams” as Denilson mentioned. If Denilson is insightful, he may be even cleverer. Paying Sunderland the compliment deflects the chronic problem of Arsenal’s collective defensive and focus, which lead to Sunderland’s injury time equalizer. This is not reflected in Sunderland’s numbers and hence easy for Denilson to miss.
Nothing in the game was surreal or unbelievable, in fact, it was somewhat predictable, yet there was a feel that the course of events were slightly dislodged from the axis (best reflected in this post), most notably Arséne Wenger charged with “insulting and/or abusive language and behavior amounting to improper conduct”. Here are a few.
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.
A quick look at the changes from last season.
Deals made at the transfer deadline will be the least expensive for teams who want the transfer, but don’t need it. Arsenal, through a dogged valuation of players, adds nuance to this tactic by taking the position we don’t want it that much or need it that badly (even if they do). Therefore a season preview comes three games into the season.
The New Signing
Robin van Persie—already out again with a milder injury than the last—qualifies as “like a new signing”. This is heard now and again associated with certain players coming off a long-term injury. The team has coped in this player’s absence. They have made do. Life demands that they move on. The shoulder-shrugging and surrendering statement “That is football” is taken from “That is life” or from the more colloquial “Stuff happens”.
The player has been out for so long it’s like he was never there. To maximize the potential impact of return, the memory of the player’s time before the injury is erased or suppressed, so that it can be perceived as a compressed surprise. All along, the injured player believed he was still part of the team until he sees the distance at which his colleagues have put him. His home looks strangely unfamiliar. While the team trains, travels, and arrives early for games, the injured player occupies a parallel dimension, one far quieter and lonelier, the days unfolding like an unemployed spouse. Players have talked about the difficulty of a sidelined existence.
Fully rehabilitated, between new and old, they become something certified and pre-owned. There is something uncanny about him. At the same time it’s so good to have this player back to his shiny new best that these details can be ignored.
The injured player is conjured into an impact return. This is not a particular type of player, but a particular role assigned to him.
There may be a psychological advantage for a team to turn the returning player into the unknown potential energy of a new signing. Instead of quantifying the return as a move from deficit to zero—a sum, like paying a bill—which hardly feels positive, the return is conceived as a positive quantity, as something new and not associated with loss or deficit. The impact return can be especially exciting and fortuitous if the timing is right, a gift from nowhere. The new signing can return at any time, since the imaginary transfer is determined by healing and not transfer windows.
In the case of van Persie, his return has complicated this, if not indulged the emotions. His anticipated return immediately met with injury, the new signing looked exactly like an injury-prone player Arsenal had in seasons past. If there’s an upside, it’s that the team will be able to get excited all over again. Until then, his lame-legged specter occasionally hobbles around London Colney assuring us he’s still there, while some begin to ask whether or not this is what’s best.
The Long-Awaited Third Central Striker
Marouane Chamakh, from watching him play at Bordeaux on an awful Setanta U.S. stream, confirmed an earlier arrival would have been helpful. He’s physically wiry and strong (many new and current Arsenal players who constitute their “big men” are of this build (Vermaelen, Koscielny, Djourou, van Persie) . He’s good at holding and distributing the ball, even with an opposing player almost freaking him from behind. His temperament is almost alarmingly even, as if keeping focus depended on remaining calm. He is most dangerous with his head. Balls bounce off his skull as hard as they do off a player’s foot. He heads with intention and accuracy. He’s not fast, but when he goes for a header he really flies.
He offers precisely what Arsenal needs, so he’ll be asked to continue doing these things. It’s been said that he wasn’t a prolific goal scorer with Bordeaux, which implies that he may score less in the stronger Premier League, but this doesn’t necessarily equate. Ligue 1 is a consistently lower scoring league. After last season, Arsenal’s need for a player like Chamakh is so great that he could become a fetishized focal point and integrated into the team immediately. Chamakh's sole purpose is to score goals.
The most significant change is the complete overhaul of the defense. What the effect will have is completely unknown. Sol Campbell, William Gallas, Philippe Senderos, and Mikaël Silvestre have permanently left Arsenal; all are central defenders, although Silvestre’s positioning was flexible. Armand Traoré, the third-string left back, has been sent out on-loan to Juventus for the season.
This leaves six remaining defenders—seven if you count Alex Song as an emergency central defender, but he is unlikely to be used as one now having established himself as the first team holding midfielder.
Thomas Vermaelen and Johan Djourou are the remaining central defenders; the former having played only one, yet impressive, season in England, and the latter converted from a defensive midfielder. Due to injury, which kept him out for 16 months, Djourou made one appearance last season. He too can be considered a new signing, but without the impact of stature that van Persie brings. His return is an unknown within the unknown.
At right back there is Bacary Sagna and Emmanuel Eboué. At left back there is Gaël Clichy and the promising Kieran Gibbs.
Arsenal has added Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci. Koscielny, whom not many knew before coming to Arsenal, is hoping to be a sufficient replacement for Gallas, but a fair comparison will have to wait. Squillaci is the replacement for experience. He has a good reputation, but wasn’t a first choice signing.
Leaving out Senderos, who was on-loan last season, and considering Djourou an addition, leaves a net loss of one defender. Since Djourou has hardly played and is only 23 years old, a first-team central defender could be added without putting into question his future with the team.
The lack of physical and mental toughness, the youth and immaturity, and injuries that appeared contagious are all cited as reason for Arsenal not winning the league last year. Far more measurable is the defense, which after being French, is leaky.
Over the last six seasons, the title was won by the team either conceding the fewest or second fewest goals. During Arsenal’s last title-winning season in 2003-2004, the squad conceded the fewest. In the two previous title-winning seasons, 2001-2002 and 1997-1998, Arsenal conceded the second fewest.
Statistically convincing, but not binding. In Wenger’s first season, Arsenal finished third, but conceded the fewest goals. In 1999-2000, Manchester United won the title, conceding the sixth fewest goals, and Arsenal finished second, conceding the fifth fewest goals. The 1999-2000 season is also notable in that it was the last season that the title was won by a team conceding an average of more than one goal per game.
Last season, Arsenal conceded 41 goals to Manchester United’s 28 and Chelsea’s 32. If Arsenal had conceded 31 goals, regardless of the other issues, which may or not be separated from goals conceded, the season could have had a different outcome.
After last season succumbed to the well-known chronic deficiencies in defense, there was the impression that the problem would be squarely addressed and solved, which may be proven over the course of the season. But the expected infusion turned out to be an untested redesign with more unknowns than before.