Arsenal, the cult of personality and the collective
By Brian Baker
Another week, another defeat, another round of Chicken Licken posturing from the Arse-blogosphere. I’m not going to dwell on the painful realities of the loss to Chelsea, here, but offer another long-term perspective of Arsenal’s situation. I will start with the cult of personality that informs much football coverage in this country.
If you think about it, there’s very little penetrating analysis of football in the British popular media, from tabloid journalism to MotD to Football First. It often concentrates on personalities, where it does exist: how did so-and-so play? In the worst of the Arse-blogosphere this descends into invective against perceived offenders (the perpetual Denilson, this week Clichy, in the past Song and Eboue) or, of course, calls for Arsène’s resignation, as he’s to blame for every bad performance, not the players.
On a few blogs you read how Arshavin is clearly unhappy, the other players don’t like him and neither does the manager. (If this were true, and if Arsène has total control of footballing matters, why did Arsenal buy Arshavin and why still play him?) The cult of personality has the institution of Arsenal FC, its team and tactics and strategies, replaced by Arsène himself, a one-man band, an obsessive, a crank. I refer you to my previous post for more in this line.
Myles Palmer, himself the cheerleader of the Chicken Licken faction (and who does it for reasons of personal animus and the journalistic ‘story’, it seems, rather than emotional investment in the club) has written recently that Wenger is not a good tactician, rarely winning games through tactical adjustments or substitutions. Instead, Palmer calls Wenger a ‘choreographer’.
In part, I would tend to agree that Arsène is not the greatest manager at tactical switches on-the-fly, but I think it’s important here to make a distinction between those tactics and strategies. Tactics are short-term decisions or procedures that implement a broader, long-term plan of action, a strategy, to achieve a certain goal. While Arsène may have weaknesses as a tactician, as a strategist I think that he is without peer.
Most managers are not, and indeed in the current footballing culture of instantaneous success, cannot afford to be strategists. It is to Arsenal’s credit as a club that in the mid-1990s they employed world football’s most innovative strategic thinker, then completely unheralded in this country, to take the club forward, something that Bruce Rioch was signally unable to convince Dein and other board members that he would be able to do.
Since when, Arsène Wenger has overseen the complete remodelling of Arsenal’s training facilities, its move to a new stadium, its re-imagination not as ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ but as the most thrilling footballing side in England, its backroom culture, its recruitment strategies with regard to players. Everything is different now.
What, then, is the current strategy? If we ignore the ‘blame game’ and cult of personality rhetoric which sees Arsenal’s football planning in terms of one man’s stubbornness or whimsical desire to ‘experiment’, how can we analyse what Arsenal are doing with a long-term perspective?
The ‘youth policy’ is fundamental. This is far from being a whimsical experiment to see whether he can win the league ‘with kids’. It’s a strategic plan that responds to long-term developments in football that have still to fully unwind. It begins with the arrival of Sky monies, the transfer bubble, the spending of 70-80% of revenues on salaries which sustained the English Premier league from the mid-1990s until 2008, which has also had the side-effect of producing large numbers of institutional casualties: Leeds United, Charlton, Norwich, Southampton, Portsmouth, and so on.
Thankfully, Arsenal have not placed themselves in debt to finance the acquisition of superstars. It’s now clear that Arsène saw the inevitable deflation of the transfer bubble coming and decided upon an alternative long-term strategy to maintain the club’s position as an elite European and Premier League institution. Spending on younger players allows Arsenal to maximise the value of its outlay.
It is also well-known that Arsenal’s current internal culture runs counter to the prevailing English one of nightlife, celebrity and conspicuous consumption. This is why Arsenal develops its own players, to educate them in a different kind of lifestyle. Even media superstars like Thierry Henry behaved differently from Beckham or Terry; Arsenal players like Jermaine Pennant and Ashley Cole, who clearly were attracted to and were part of that English footballing culture, left the club, and it’s to be hoped that Jay-Emmanuel Thomas’s recent misadventure is not a bad omen for him.
That’s not to say that the club rules its players with an iron hand. Instead, the club (and Arsène) is criticised for insulating its players from the world, that they’re ‘pampered’ and ‘soft’. Clearly it would be absurd to take Arsène’s public statements of support for his players as a sign that he is incapable of criticising them in private (though some do), but the crucial thing is that Arsène constantly emphasises group responsibility, group mentality, group togetherness.
This emphasis on teamwork is, I think, a response to developments in the relationship between player and club/ employer over the last 10 years. While the Bosman ruling gave players the necessary freedom to leave a club at the end of a contract, it tended to dissolve the bonds of loyalty that were once the norm. We see very few ‘one-club’ players now. If fans are now customers and consumers, players are contractors, willing to move from team to team if opportunities arise to earn more, or win more trophies. Fair enough; but this must have a negative impact on group dynamics, on team ‘chemistry’. This is also why Arsenal consistently, and rightly, refuse to abandon their wage structure.
It is also the reason why Arsenal have spent the year re-signing young players to long-term contracts. Player mobility is only controlled by the club if they have two years or more on their contract to run, and player value is determined partly by contract length.
Vieira and Henry might have seemed undersold at the time of their sales, but contract length as well as age limited their sell-on value. (And if you don’t think sell-on value is important, remember that Manchester United have changed their own transfer strategy to target under-26s, and that Liverpool struggled mightily – and failed – to offload unwanted players like Babel because their estimation of the player’s value was too high.) Limiting player mobility allows for the group to develop together. Incoming players are intensively scouted in order to maintain this team dynamic.
Today’s Arsenal, even though Arsène necessarily embodies the club in the public sphere, is actually wedded to the opposite of the cult of personality: the primacy of the collective. Adebayor and Toure were purged in the summer because their cliques disrupted the collective, and the team has been healthier for it. The primacy of the collective is also the primacy of the strategy over the tactic, the long-term over the short-term, the development of a team rather than the acquisition of a roster of stars.
And here comes an unexpected conclusion: Arsène Wenger is contemporary Arsenal’s Virgin Queen. Like Elizabeth I, Arsène Wenger understands that the long-term continuity of the institution is far more important than the merely personal or individual. Elizabeth rejected the dynastic politics of the 16th century (where geo-politics was conducted through marriage and personal alliances) in order to construct a different nation state that would survive her: ‘England’ was her child, she needed no biological heir.
Arsène Wenger has constructed a different Arsenal that will survive him, in terms of its finances, its facilities, its scouting networks, its group of players; and like Elizabeth, a cult of personality surrounds him that obscures, in the popular eye, what he has truly done. Perhaps he likes it that way.
NEWS FROM THE HEART OF TOMORROW VIA THE DAWN OF LAST WEEK….
- Billy the Dog McGraw on Arsenal v Liverpool, King Alfred and the history of jousting – with complete team details. (Do not read if you have a weak constitution).
- Why Arsene’s Arsenal are hated (even by its own fans) Read Brian’s much acclaimed previous article
- How Liverpool fixed the the Football League
- Football3s is a new free to play, in match, fantasy football experience which you play in real-time whilst watching the live televised game. We are featuring Arsenal’s match with Liverpool next Wednesday. Players also have the chance to win £100. Please take a look at our site: http://football3s.com
- Arsenal 100 years ago – read the novel click here
- Want to write for Untold Arsenal? Send in your idea or your piece to Tony@hamilton-house.com. Please send as a word document, include your name as you want it to appear in the article, and please assert that the article has not appeared and is not on offer anywhere else. Articles must be in keeping with the this site.
- How the media always knocks Arsenal, but ignores England’s failures.
- Left has never been stronger at Arsenal FC!
- The seven main things that are wrong with football in England
- 2022-23 WSL Arsenal v Spurs – Match Preview – part 2 comments from the manager and team news
- 2022-23 WSL Arsenal v Spurs – Match Preview – part 1 the head to head record and comments on Spurs summer signings