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The philosophy of Wenger: what would be too great a price to pay for a trophy?

What constitutes failure? By Tony Attwood

One of the most interesting issues raised in correspondence about the “philosophy of Wenger” articles was the question, “what constitutes failure”.  I was asked whether seven years without a trophy would be a failure?  Or ten years?

And that led me into thinking that really that was far too simple a question.  What we should be asking is: would there be a price that is too great a price to pay for a trophy?

I have to say I found that quite a difficult problem for me to resolve – so the thought of trying to divine what Arsène Wenger thinks about it all, is doubly daunting.  But here goes.

The point is, winning a trophy is wonderful, but are there situations in which one would genuinely feel that the trophy had been won in such a way that it really is not right?

In sport, does the end always justify the means?

Style of play – a totally defensive approach in which the club aims to go one up and then shut up shop would lead to a lot of press criticism – but we always get this.  I can’t see Wenger ever doing it, but supposing he did, how would I feel.   Of course I want the triumph, but at the price of boring football which is a pain to watch?  I am not sure.   I watched a film of a game in the Rioch year a week or so ago, and by and large it was awful – unwatchable even.

I remember a season once (back in the 70s I think) when we scored one and only one goal in every home game between August and April.  It was one of the few times in my Arsenal watching where I said, “enough” and I stopped going to all the games.  There was no joy in the play, just the joy of winning, and that started to turn sour.

So I am not sure.  I suspect I would still go, and I would celebrate the win, but I think in my heart I would be desperately sad, and find it hard to continue a blog like this.

Deliberate cheating – the rotational fouling of Blackburn, combined with rotational time wasting: in other words anti-football created out of endless minor infringements.   Could I watch that?  Could I defend that to supporters of other clubs?  Would I feel that the end in terms of winning a trophy justified the means?  No, for me I couldn’t do that.   While I half think I would watch the game if the style of play was utterly defensive and going for the 1-0 all the time, I really think that if we had a team that played in that dreadful negative and illegal way, I think I would say no, not for me.

Violence on the pitch. On this  one I can be sure.  If Arsenal played in the violent, confrontational manner of the old Leeds United during the Revie era then I would say for sure, “this is not my Arsenal” and I would direct my support to my “other” club, Torquay United, and if I couldn’t watch them I would go and watch my local club, Corby Town (Conference North).  Even if Arsenal used the technique to win everything under the sun, I could not bring myself to support deliberate violence as a form of football.   If Arsenal had a player who sought to emulate Shawcross then I would hope very much that the club did not play him, and got rid of him post-haste.  Whether the existence of one homicidal maniac is enough to put me off totally I don’t know, but a whole team load, and I would be out.

Match fixing, bribery in the Italian or Chinese style. Of course the problem here is that you never know about it until it all comes out in the wash – and then it is too late.  I am of the opinion that there probably is corruption within English football but of course I only have circumstantial evidence.  I have however seen nothing to make me feel that it exists within Arsenal.  I don’t think this is really an issue to worry about because so much seems to go against us in terms of injuries and odd decisions that it is most likely that either the refs are largely incompetent, or there is corruption but it is acting on behalf of other clubs.  As things stand I don’t think it is likely that we are going to win the league through being corrupt.

Racism and nationalism rather than selecting players for ability. The Scottish manager of Birmingham City gave an interview on Sky on 12 September in which he openly admitted that he tried to sign British players rather than foreigners, on the grounds that with British players “you know what you are going to get”.  The implication is that foreigners are pesky creatures that you can’t trust.

I find that form of discrimination utterly appalling.  I know that in the UK nationalism is not illegal in the way that racism is, but I still find it disturbing.  I have a small number of friends who are nationals of other countries, and I feel embarrassed when UK citizens have this dreadful inward looking attitude.

This approach is of course the opposite of that of Wenger who repeatedly states that he wants to bring in the best players irrespective of their nationality.

Would rampant nationalism stop me supporting Arsenal even if it resulted in winning a trophy?  Yes.  I have no doubt.  I find it disgraceful.  I thought we were getting over it when we joined the EU and began to distance the UK from the horrors of the idea of the Empire as a civilising institution, but it seems old attitudes are deeply embedded within British society.

But what if the world turned upside down and a new owner came in with finances of the Chelsea or Manchester City type.  What then?

By the time this development happened we would be into the new financial doping regulations, so that would take us out of Europe and that I would deeply regret.  But unless the man in charge was utterly repugnant to me personally, then I’d still be there.  However I have no doubt that there are people who would take over Arsenal whose presence would distance me from the club.  Neo-nazis, members of the BNP, Stalinists, dictators from certain countries who have raped their own land for personal gain, gentlemen who have been found guilty of rape, pornographers, people found guilty of embezzlement, people who have used administration as a business tool rather than a last resource once a company has failed, racists, the fox hunting fraternity…

Well perhaps not the latter, (although I really don’t like people who participate in fox hunting) but it turns out there is quite a list of personal attributes that I don’t like too much.  Seems I am much less of a live and let live person than I thought I was.

So would I walk away from Arsenal in certain circumstances, even if the club won the league?  Yes I would.

But is it likely that Wenger would fall into any of these groups that I personally don’t like?  Clearly not.   I love the fact that he wants to play the best players in the world in our team, irrespective of of their nationality.  I love the fact that he wants teams to attack all the time.  I love the 25 passing movement leading up to a goal.

I count myself so lucky to have been present when trophies have been won, but even more lucky to have been at those moments which were achieved with exactly the style of football I want Arsenal to play.

It is a delicate balance, but there is a balance.  The end cannot always justify the means – and if you want to see something obvious that is part of the philosophy of our manager it is that.

The footballing philosophy of Arsene Wenger

Part 1:  The Wengerian philosophy

Part 2: Theory and Practice

Part 3: The Total Revolution

Part 4: Chapman, Allison, Graham, Wenger

24 comments to The philosophy of Wenger: what would be too great a price to pay for a trophy?

  • Adrian R

    Interesting questions to ponder, Tony. I reckon I’d endure (although moan endlessly about) a woeful style of play. We’ve been there before and I’m old enough to remember dragging myself along regardless. That said, I have more interests, options and money now than I did then so maybe not…

    The ownership question is a biggie. I don’t like the thought of any single billionaire owner of my club but that wouldn’t necessarily stop me – I’d be OK if Kroenke took over, I think. Usmanov, on the other hand, I don’t think I could stomach. The thought of my money lining his dubious pockets would be enough to consider it was no longer my club until such time as he left. I’d always be Arsenal, but not his Arsenal. Local non-league and cricket for me in that case!

  • walter

    Some interesting things you bring up Tony.
    Before I became an Arsenal fan I supported my local team in Antwerp. At that time (seventies) a first division club going up an donw every few years. I followed them untill I went to Highbury every week home and away. But after my Highbury experience it changed. When we played for the title we attacked and played nice football. But when in the PL we sometimes had coaches who went for a negative and defensive style of play. The press in my country gave it the name “concrete football”. Parking the bus was very mild compared to this approach. 🙁
    I must say that I couldn’t enjoy football during those years and I wasn’t proud of it. In fact I hated it. The press was hapy when we went down at the end of the season. And now looking back I think they were right although it did hurt to go down.

    I cannot speak and think for people in England but I do have the feeling that many supporters from outside the UK did become a fan for the way we play the game. It is something that I hear a lot when we go to the Emirates. We always can hold our head up high when we talk to other people or supporters from other teams.

    The win at all cost fans, yes they laugh when we don’t win. But supporters from other teams who also love football as a sport, down deep they admire us. For the way we do things and for the way we play the game.

    So I really hope we keep the way we play for the rest of my live. And I think I still would stay an Arsenal supporter no matter how we play but I will not have the same joy and pride I feel today. Even after those years without a trophy

  • IndianGooner

    Walter, you are right when you said “But supporters from other teams who also love football as a sport, down deep they admire us”. I have friends who support other teams but they do make it a point to watch the Arsenal games. There were instances where they watched more of Arsenal games than their own teams. Their justification for this was to mock me when we lose or draw. But the way they enjoyed watching the games said something different.

  • A Casual Observer

    I don’t think I could ever stop being a fan under any circumstances – I might go into hibernation i.e. not renew my season ticket, not watch live and only catch up on MOTD, etc… but the football would have to be really, really bad for that to happen. Regardless – I would still keep the flame burning through the dark times in hope of the renaissance [which we are now living in BTW :-)].

    Also – bit uncalled for with regards to fox hunting i.e. rapists, bigots, crooks and scoundrels I grant you – but this is cheap ‘political’ swipe that could alienate readers from a traditional rural community? Just a casual obseervation.

  • Shard

    Interesting article Tony. It really is a difficult question to answer. I think a boring style of play would not turn me away from the club (and i mean that regardless of whether it brings in trophies). But cheating and violent play are definitely not something I would put up with. Ownership I’m not sure about. I don’t think I’d stop watching though I wouldn’t be proud of my club.

    I think if Arsenal became a Chelsea, I’d probably be happy to win but I could never be proud of those triumphs. One friend of mine has been a Chelsea fan from before the Abramovich era, and though he’s never explicitly said so, I think he doesn’t rejoice in their victories wholeheartedly. Some soul goes out of the club in such a circumstance.

    Oh and the nationalistic and xenophobic ideas are just stupid and I find such notions extremely annoying at the least.

  • Ole Gunner

    We can’t run from this question. At some point, we have to have won or have failed.

    My answer to the question is that if Wenger couldn’t win a trophy this last 5 years given the club’s realities, nobody else could have. I just don’t see any manager being close enough to win anything other than the Milk Cup

  • A Casual Observer

    I seem to recall that we played boring, boring football under Wenger for the 2005 FA Cup final i.e. parked the bus and hoofed it at Bergkamp.

    We won that one.

  • goonergerry

    Tony I admire your beliefs- which appear to be deeply held.
    Personally I will turn off rather than walk away-but I wouldn’t turn off because the club became owned by a man was once convicted of a crime which he was subsequently acquitted of- especially in the chaos of the post Soviet Union break up.
    Equally I would not unquestioningly embrace ownership by an American sports tycoon who appears to know very little about football and has even less interest. His interest does not appear to be anything other than about making a profit out of the club- and we all know where that can lead- just ask Manchester United fans.

  • A Casual Observer

    @GoonerGerry

    http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2007/09/alisher_usmanov.html

    I would be more than a little unhappy if the personification of Jabba the Hutt got a seat on the board.

  • Casual – yes that cup final was horrible, but as I recall our style of play was something of a one off, and itself a response to injuries to certain players.

    I wasn’t really meaning to judge the club on one game. Two years ago (I think it was) I sat through something like four consecutive 0-0 games home and away, but I could accept that in the broader concept of getting the club back on track after some poor shows. It worked and we moved forwards again.

    That I can accept. But setting up the whole club on the basis of a philosophy that I find repugnant, that turns me off.

  • A Casual Observer

    Hi Tony,

    I wasn’t criticising.. it was meant as a talking point relevant to the subject. You are correct – Henry was injured.

    Is there a place for this type of football? Can we accept it under certain circumstances? Shit-kicker teams tend to pull this kind of football when they play us – so to them (like us in the 2005 FA cup final) it’s more of a one off (Stoke and Blackburn excluded) – however we see teams pack the midfield, kick us off the field and hoof it at the freak week in week out simply because they are allowed to and we are better at football.

    I say no [no place for it] – and through correct and consistent enforcement of the rules the limitations of this strategy will be clear; I am confident that we can crack any nut put in front of us, however tough through our superior football style and corrent enforcement of the rules.

    The problem here more is relating to your earlier point in which we get no breaks from the refs so therefore these days adopting a negative type of football would be suicide – Wenger is of the opinion that the soul of the sport will win in the end, there is something pure to football that will shine through against anything if you can just play it better and better. It’s totally against the traditional ‘English game’ aka ‘Leeds/Liverpool/Man-u’ in which the North West power clubs dominated though not only talented players but the blind eye of the referee. I really admire Wenger for this – it’s verging on fantasy but we are adopting this dream and I think we will see it come to pass… in all honesty – given a level playing field we would have won the league in 2008. We woz robbed.

    To clarify – I counted through 2 consecutive seasons key decisions that went against us and in both seasons (2007-2008, 2008-2009) there were runs back-to-back of twelve. You try flipping a coin heads up 12 times twice in a row and then tell me something doesn’t stink to high heaven with the PGMOB? By the way the odds of getting 12 heads in a row are 12^2 i.e. 4096/1… my mathematics runs dry when it comes to calculating the odds for this happening twice in a row (is it 16777216/1?? Wish I’d stuck a quid on it!). Anyhoo – given that teams will get away with whatever they can to get an advantage and the ref lets them get away with a lot – can we really blame them?

    The real football criminals here are the chap with the whistle and whoever bunged him.

  • Toba

    if i may ask is wining a trophy the only definition of success for a club? or there are other factors that points to the success of a club. when we consider that arsenal has not won a trophy since 2005 and use that (trophylessness) as the only yardstick for success we can as well call for wenger’s sack, but if other indices like huge financial turnovers, consistencies in ucl, consistencies in top four finish deeply entrenched institutionalized policies and such other things as a constantly full house on home matches, i think by any standard arsenal is a successful club. how many club can go through what arsenal went through and still be where we are today.
    basicly, there is nothin that can take my love of this club away except going to the extreme that tony talks about.

  • A big hello from South Africa,
    Aways interesting reading you blog. Love the humour, the effort you put on you articles.
    Regarding the article, quite difficult question you pose. I’ve recently started a blog about my local team here, Moroka Swallows, since you asked! Not the biggest and it went through a torrid time. One owner at some stage almost completely ruined the team where we had to starve off relegation for over five consecutive seasons and this for the 2nd oldest team around. Just last season we had another owner who nobody has seen or ever met, (don’t laugh this is serious matter).
    I went through high school being the butt of all jokes…but still, I found it very difficult to stop supporting my team, or even consider supporting any other. So I understand the point of your article but, from my experience, it will take something unimaginable for you to stop supporting Arsenal from what I gathered having read your blog for close to a year now. I’ve always been lurking around the shadows and will continue to do so, even if you don’t see me comment.

    Really appreciate your work.

  • Paul C.

    Tony – great piece.

    Bird – awesome comment!!!!

    I agree with Bird and others, and I would imagine that Tony agrees as well, we are not talking about not loving Arsenal anymore, or starting to support Spurs. We are talking about situations that might lead us to not renew our season ticket, or not to watch the game on TV when it is a sunny day outside, or to not buy that replica shirt.

    As others have said, I would never stop loving Arsenal. However there are definately things that might lead me to temper my devotion for a season or two.

    And in general, yes, there are always prices too high to pay for winning a trophy. Trophies are not everything.

    Although they are bloody good.

  • Wrenny

    I think the best way to describe it is ‘pride’. Despite the lack of trophies, I am a proud Arsenal fan as I imagine most of you are. We play wonderful football, we promote youth, we don’t engage in violent bully tactics, and we are financially responsible and self-sufficient, all while competing at the highest level, and for those reasons we can be very proud of the club.

    If some of those things changed for the worse I would still be a fan, but my pride in the club would be severely dented, regardless of trophies.

  • Finsbury

    I enjoy the Lord’s ‘Italian’ mood swings.

    The change in tactics, whatever they were, as Song & Denilson grew into top level PL players (as teenagers!…Song had a little headstart), and all those 0-0’s were fun.
    I also remember RVP’s magnificence durng that spell. Amazing.

    On a seperate note, I’m really looking forward to the visit of Braga. It seems the club were inspired by AFC during a visit to Highbury, back in the old days.

    Seems fitting that they are coming on pilgramige to TNHOF at this moment in time.
    I think, we’ll see a strong line up, they’re a good team, and a home win is what we want.

  • Paul C.

    Yep, in the group stages the only important part is the score. A win is a win. I think Braga will turn out to be the strongest challengers in the group so a home win would be a great start to the group.

    It would be nice to win the group with a couple of matches to spare so the kids could get a couple of Champions League matches.

  • RedGooner

    I think the way I look at following Arsenal is how many days a season do I enjoy watching them …. To be honest even over the last few seasons without a trophy I have enjoyed the performances and excitement more often than not. Watching our style of play is special compaired to any of the teams in the EPL, I would even sooner watch Arsenal last year than chelsea and they won the league.
    The style of chelsea is just horrible to watch maybe I have been spoiled with so many years of wenger.

  • Adam

    If you judge football as only failure or win then you must subscribe to football being a failure as a whole. only a few trophies are on offer every season, The majority of teams cannot win a prize. Therefore football will disapoint the majority of fans.

  • Evil

    I would rather stop caring about football at all than stop supporting Arsenal. Basically, if one of the things Tony listed would happen (and for me most of those things would be bad, too) I can see myself just stopping watching football. My heart would still beat for Arsenal, but the Arsenal of old. I can never, ever, in any situation see myself turn on Arsenal and suddenly start supporting another team with the same passion I have for Arsenal. There is only one Arsenal and nothing that ever happens will be able to change that. I am a Gooner for life and I love the Arsenal from all of my heart. And if the team should ever change that much that I can’t identify with it anymore, I would rather walk away than feel like somebody who has betrayed Arsenal.

  • Evil

    @Wrenny
    I agree. Despite the lack of trophies, I see Arsenal as a club as a massive success. There are so many reasons to be proud of Arsenal and the team and I can’t remember EVER thinking that I would prefer to support a different team. No matter how miserable or sad I have felt after a loss, I was never thinking “Maybe I should support another team?”. That is out of the question, because I am proud of the team and I am proud to be an Arsenal fan. Why should I go for second best when I am already fan of the best club in the whole world?

  • Brickfields Gunners

    If ever there comes a time when supporting the club becomes painful, I’d stop watching all football.Even now I can’t watch 90mins of any game that does not involve Arsenal or the very least Arsenal players in internationals.
    Every weekend here we are able to see live almost all the EPL games ,Italian & Spanish league games but the only game I watch is Arsenal’s.I don’t follow any local team and don’t know the names of any of our National players – no big loss !
    I really can’t imagine a world without the Arsenal .

  • Richard B

    I think all fans of all clubs are ultimately looking to be proud of what their club achieves and how it goes about achieving it. But that’s not necessarily how you start being a fan. As a kid you don’t think about who runs the club, or who owns it, let alone how it’s financed. And because fans don’t start off caring about those things managers and owners often feel that they can get away with anything and do things in ways that are ultimately for their own benefit rather than that of the club and it fans. Never has that sort of sitation been so evident than it is now at clubs as differently ‘successful’ as Portsmouth and Liverpool. At many clubs, even when trophies are put in cabinets more often than they currently are at Aresnal, there is an almost visible draining away of any soul that may have existed before.
    In many respects the move to Emirates had the potential to do similar damage to our club. Some such damage probably was done and the ‘Arsenalisation’ project currently under way appears to me to be an attempt to reinvigorate that soul. The Fanshare scheme may represent another ‘healing’ step along that path. But, thanks disproportionately to Wenger very little was lost and that soul and the pride that goes with it remains largely intact. I’m as proud to be an Arsenal fan now as I have ever been – and it’s been over half a century now!

  • Singapore Gooner

    great post and comments! I hope wenger’s revolution will continue long after he has gone. he has made me even prouder to support the arsenal because the club stands for everything that is right in the game.