Arsenal, the cult of personality and the collective

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.



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34 Replies to “Arsenal, the cult of personality and the collective”

  1. Great read and something I would have hoped to see in a broadsheet ten years ago, before they were dumb-down along with everything else in England.

    We are the luckiest club in the world to have Mr Wenger and it seems supporters of most other clubs realise this. It’s only a small section of our own supporters who are so short-sighted as to not see what the man has done, and continues to do, for The Arsenal. I think our motto should be temporally changed to exsisto patiens – Be Patient

  2. Arsenal were nominated by the peress to drop-out the top4 b4 the season even started,so why are they now saying arsenal r weak compared to united and Chelsea?.
    Without Rooney united would be out the top4,if chelsea had Almunia they would be out the top4.Both will drop points also esp with upcoming fixtures.
    Wenger is FINALLY opening his eyes to these back-stabbing press.The professor is angry,liverpool beware!

  3. One can only sit still and admire …and read again… and admire even more. Bravo Brian.

    The thing that struck me most when I visited the Arsenal museum last year was that Arsenal is proud of doing it their way and that is excactly what makes me proud of being (a small) part of it.

    Yes Ibbs I didn’t see it on arsenal tv yet but read it on the site. It looks like AW finaly has enough of the way the media is treating him.
    But by telling it to them in his cool way he will make them even more angry but what the hell: they hate us no matter what so lets just give them something back and expose them as cheaters.

  4. Wenger is akin to the virgin queen Elizabeth I? I would seriously reconsider this analogy…seriously….At the end of the virgin queen’s(it is highly unlikely that she was a virgin)reign criticism of her and her privy council was widespread, she left behind a legacy of failed military campaigns at land and sea( Spanish Armada was a slice of weather shaped luck), she was useless on the continent, she relied heavily on propaganda to maintain that “the golden age”(retrospectively names) was not coming to an end and all things considered most were more than happy she had died.

    Plus think of the T*bloid headline: ” ARSENE WENGER IS A VIRGIN QUEEN”


  5. Brian —

    Very impressive and well-written. The Virgin Queen analogy is a great one: “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.”

    I think that’s exactly it. The present-day Arsenal is a club built in his image, but the important point is that it’s exactly how a modern club should be run: a self-sustaining, winning club, with — as you say — a “long-term perspective.” (I think this is the crucial difference between between blind followers of AW the man (what the critics think the community of Untold Arsenal is) and knowledgeable supporters of AW’s vision for a self-sustaining super-club (what the community of Untold Arsenal actually is).

    Critics can’t see this. They only see Arsene as an easy target to be mocked: the arrogant intellectual with the funny accent who is “out of touch” with the “spend, spend, spend” “reality” of the Premier League. And they criticize him mercilessly for this. I’m sure this hurts AW (he could’ve deflected so much blame if he had signed somebody in January, even if it were his local barber!), but he refuses to get dragged into silly politics.

  6. I read a few blogs and papers(about football) daily from here in the US. But this blog has become a daily must-read for me. Because of the club’s philosophy and style, I became an Arsenal man as a teenager, and an admirer of Barca.
    Again, thank you.

  7. well i guess you can say the virgin has finally delivered now its time for her to go, since she has no intention of delivering another. i’l tell you what i know club longevity is dependent on ambition,ability to win. nottingham forest is stil better known than wigan even tho its in the lower leagues why? they were champs once and if not the less publicity football had then, might maybe be as popular as a certain arsenal fc

  8. Brian Baker…you have made my day. EXCELLENT article and I hope you continue writing these articles because unlike many Arsenal fans, you think before you talk.

  9. uk – if that’s ‘what you know’, you’re excused from telling me again. I’m not even sure you know what your point is!

    Brian – a remarkable piece once again, thanks.

  10. I think he’s just a guy who doesn’t want Arsenal to get sucked into the vortex of football’s financial black hole.

    More Milton Friedman than QE1

  11. A fantastic structural counter to the kind of flip flopping, micro-context rhetoric spouted by cretins like Myles Palmer. One of the most frustrating things about being a football fan is the lack of attention paid to context by journos and bloggers, so cheers! A couple of related ramblings…

    While investment plays such a large part in a club’s on-field success, capital, and the means by which clubs acquire it should not only be heavily scrutinised, it should also be factored into any successes.

    How is it that the kind of investment made by the kleptocratic scourge which is plaguing our football clubs tolerated and apologised for? It is more akin to a form of charity than investment, not to mention the fantastic whitewashing by all of its dubious source.

    This silence has utterly baffled me, given that the conduct of Abramovich etc. contradict almost every economic, political and moral principal that the British establishment supposedly stands for (e.g. stable markets, sustainable capitalism, British sense of ‘fair play’ in competition). The Kleptocarts seemed to have also evaded the wrath of so-called ‘common man’s’ opinion (nowadays to be found condensed in rhetorical tabloid moralisation, and scattered around pubs): a mix of xenophobia, ‘old-school’ values and loathing of decadent elites. The irony is that it is Arsenal’s philosophy (on and off-field) that gets attacked for its bourgeois decadence in the media !

    So, for me the real question still remains not ‘why has Wenger stubbornly gone down this development route,’ but ‘why haven’t more or all clubs followed this sensible long-term approach?’.

  12. I will always be a Wenger fan however this season:

    1. he has raised fans’ and player’s expectations
    2. thrown the FA Cup, which could have been won
    3. he seems to confuse fans with transfer targets to address known weaknesses.
    4. been too helpful to journalists who subsequently ridicule him.

    Honesty is the best policy

  13. what an article….what can i say…..same ridiculous thing is printed in different words to hide wenger’s inability to win title or admit arsenal will challenge for title when debt is over…same crap different writer…..

    t’s obvious that wenger has done a marvellous job with arsenal and still doing it but as a business wise not as a football club…..he doesn’t bring in players b’coz he thinks he has equal and better players than those who are available…..but i and lots of other fail to see that….hw’s campbell is better than lucas neil, cana wud have been good cover for song…… but iam clueless…and so is wenger…..and so is this blog community…..guys arsenal is a football club first and then business…..


  14. I think critic is the agent of Lucas Neil and Cana and hoping to make more money on them. 🙂

    I think you are far to mild in this, Critic.

    I’m sure that Casillas would be better than Almunia. So Wenger should buy him. Oh and maybe Alves on right back as he is in the Spanish supermarket. And maybe SAF would like to sell Evra to us, yes I’m sure he would.
    And why not buy Kaka now that we are doing business. Oh yes and let’s not forget we should buy CR as well as he is one of the best around.

    And make things complete: we should buy Messi.

    If Wenger don’t buy them all he is stubborn, should be sacked, get the empty, has lost it, doesn’t want to win trophy’s anymore,….

    What it would cost in total all these “better” players ? Who cares. Just ask Usmanov some money ….

  15. Walter, who is asking for Casillas, Alves and Messi?

    But we sold Adebayor and Toure for £44m. £10m was spent to get Vermaelen. £34 million is left over. £34m is lot of money, and enough to buy a quality player. It would be enough to buy a genuine keeper, at any rate. And where did that money go? It went towards overpaying our existing crop of players.

  16. Well-endowed in what department WEG?

    Ronaldo earns about 5 million a year, and rising.
    He cost 70 million to buy.

    Therefore to have him for 5 years costs around 100 million.

    For other stellar players, you could halve that…….50 million.

    Er, I’m not sure 34 million pays the bills.

  17. Walter,
    Great comment! I laughed so hard I had to look around to see if anyone was watching me! FOR ALL THE POSERS who are hell bent on the transfer window as their only grasp at reality of being part of the AFC revolution I read somewhere that the transfer window and transfers is counter intuitive to the current Arsenal philosophy. Gazidis I believe revealed that the transfer market is viewed as a last resort. Having said that I believe the POSER’s can click and see as much activity as they care to by either looking due NW at SPUDS central if you live in UK or click on Google earth and you can see Arry making his back room deals right now!

  18. Critic, it seems like the glass is not only half-empty for you, but its actually nearly empty with no hope for a refill. I really hate being at the bottom of the table as much as y…. oh, ooops. Well maybe the barmaid will come by and fill your glass for you soon enough.

  19. Well endowed, if we buy players they have to be better and those mentionned are better imho. To buy players who are not as good as we have it is wasted money I feel. So or you do it proper and buy only the best or we continue the way we work now: growing your own players and adding some if you don’t see anyone coming through.

    Maybe a warning for the summer : with all those youngsters out on loan they will be like new signins when they come back. 😉

  20. I really look forward to seeing what happens this summer – apart from the World Cup of course.
    How many clubs will spend big? Real Madrid? I don’t think anyone is going to give them another £250m. On the other hand…. Barca? They will maybe sign 1 big player and that will be it (lets pray it is Ribery and not Cesc). Valencia? They are in as much debt as ManIOU. AC Milan? They are still skint by all accounts. Inter? Likely, but not players that we would be interested in. Juventus? They splashed out last summer, so can they afford it again with no CL money etc. The list is not that big. At home, we have Liverpool looking at the free transfer market, ManIOU bracing themselves for a fans revolt when they sell Vidic (and possibly one other) and Chelski who will be dead in the water in 2 years as it will cost at least £300m to replace their ageing squad – they lose £80m per year as it is, so will Roman get his cheque book out again, despite what the papers say?
    Only Man City are really capable of splashing the cash but their rich Sheikh has already started baulking at the fact he has spent nearly £400m and has nothing to show. (again the club lost nearly £80 last year on its own resources)
    So I have a feeling this next transfer window will bring a few surprises. I also believe that Arsene knows what is around the corner and will bring in the players we do need, but at prices that are suitable to Arsenal. We just have to be patient which is a rare virtue in todays “results now at all cost” world. The again the whole thing could go crazy, and we will have to make do with just 1 player coming in who nobody has really heard of.

  21. Brian, Brilliant, thought provoking article. There is no art to help ‘The Cult of Acute Myopia’ to see beyond their noses.

  22. Great stuff, Brian.

    Good common sense argument against the short sighted doomers, who plague our club.

    Unfortunately, although often otherwise intelligent people, they can only look at their football in the most simplistic terms.

    Instead of congratulating AW on a quite remarkable achievment, in keeping us top 4, in the most difficult of circumstances, they think they know better. These people will always be looking for greener grass & think they will find it in a desert.

  23. great piece brian, i love the positivity.

    critic, in this era, it is unfortunately true that the financial side of premier league football is a major part of running a club. just ask any pompey fan today. after your sentance praising arsene, you spout a load of suppositions as fact. none of us are as tuned into the goings on at the ems as arsene. to second guess his motives or reasons for his actions is peurile.

    goonerman. point 1; how has arsene raised all of our expectations? he will only talk about our taem in a positive way. anything else would be ridiculous.

    point 2; i dont agree that the faq cup was ‘thrown’ the match against stoke came after the two bolton matches where our players got kicked all over the park. it also came before the villa, utd and chelsea matches. it is obvious that had our top players taken another kicking at stoke it wouldnt do us any good.

    point3; he didnt confuse me. he said tat he would buy if all the boxes were ticked, ie quality, availability, price etc. obviously these boxes werent ticked.

    point 4; here we agree, somewhat. arsene answers most journos as honestly as possible. all of his press conferences are available online and its all too obvious that teh press pick and choose which quotes they can spin to make a headline. mostly he is taken out of context.

  24. One of the features of Arsenal fans is not just extent of despair when we lose, but also the extent to which fans have polarised not into pro and anti Wenger labelling everyone who criticise the teams performance as doomers and the AKB as the only true believers. Sorry but I don’t buy into any of this at all.
    Arsene is a great man and a good manager but one who is fallible and sometimes makes mistakes- but usually does not admit to making them. There are several mistakes in my opinion- that does not make him less of a man or manager. Underinvestment in the defence is the principle concern I have- does this make me odd- because I do not want the team to lose again for the 10th consecutive time to the big 2?

  25. Goonergerry,
    it is not about wanting your team to win or not, its not even about where Arsene has made mistakes or not, its about seeing the larger picture of what the club has set out to do rather than thinking only about what we’ve won or not won.
    We will win again, I’m convinced of that and we are actually very close and it is with all due credit to the man who has seen a project through. That should be respected whether you are pro or anti Wenger.
    It is absurd when fickle fans start pointin at Tottenham’s Carling cup win as a sign that we are not moving in the right direction when even spud’s fans are envious of our achievements.
    The only clubs that can claim to have been better than Arsenal in the past 5 years are Chelsea and ManIOU and they’ve spent more than a lot to achieve that, we are clawing back the gap and it is becoming clearer by the day to the wise ones that the route those 2 clubs have taken is not in any way sustainable.

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