Arsenal is a strange club. Like most clubs all over the world, it has a clear understanding and appreciation for its history. But unlike most clubs, it has a strong sense of what it is now, both on and off the pitch, and a clear vision of where it wants to go in the future.
It has a philosophy.
There will be fans that want us to spend to keep up with the big boys but for various reasons, most of them obvious to the rational fan, this is simply not possible. If anything, our refusal to do just that combined with Arsene Wenger’s stubborn desire to mould teams based on a consistent philosophy of possession-based, attacking football intensifies the desire to remain true to this philosophy.
The issue is that as a supporter — and more pertinently, as a supporter who has only seen Arsenal football under Wenger, a group that I believe makes up a large part of the club’s international fan base — this philosophy has changed. Whether it has been obvious to you or not, Wenger’s approach to Arsenal has altered. The desire to play possession-based, attacking football is still there but his youth experiment has failed.
The change in philosophy
You only need to look at the club’s most recent exits (and I don’t need to rattle them off to you). The players he has trusted to fight against the system, players he counted on to buck the ugly trend of disloyalty in the modern game, have deserted him. Whether you agree or sympathise with their reasons for doing so the fact is that Wenger, the idealistic bastard he is, had hoped they would stick around and in the process stick two fingers up at the rest of the football world by winning the biggest prizes on offer.
They got close but they missed out, gave up and bailed. End of.
What is important is that Wenger has accepted it. He is not some mad fool who is still fighting the same fight. This summer’s signings show that clearly. Last summer’s signings showed it too. Robin van Persie’s exit has burned him badly and his reaction to Alex Song’s ridiculous itching over a new contract — cutting him away with little more than a moment’s thought — displayed a newfound pair of concrete balls. If Theo Walcott and his agent thinks he’s going to get a new deal worth more than 75K, they’re in for a nasty surprise.
His idealistic approach to loyalty is gone and it is likely that the club is all the better for it.
Last season while writing about Arsenal I could feel the shift in the manager’s approach and the impact on his philosophy. It was unsettling in the sense that everything I had previous written about was penned with the perspective of reaching a peak from Wenger’s previous, youth-based philosophy. Yet it became clearer to me that this was no longer the direction he was taking with this team and rather than drawing conclusions, I felt a natural pull away from sharing my scrambled thoughts. In short, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to say and silence was golden.
Arsenal on a global level
This is a vital time for the club because its philosophy is being questioned on a global level. The ability of this club to ride out what I would label The Infinite Years of football in England — where the virtually infinite money of clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea have created a marketplace with no rules, boundaries or logic — depends on it retaining its idealistic philosphy in places like Asia, Africa, Australia and the US.
The supporters in these regions — and of course, I am one of them — have grown up in the time where football has gone truly global. To my recollection, 20 years ago it was not possible to get English football shown in Australia, for example. Between now and then I have seen the coverage of the Premier League grow from one match a weekend on free-to-air to blanket coverage of every single game on Foxtel. During the formative years of this process — during the mid-to-late 90s — the games were limited in nature, weighted heavily towards the two most successful teams at the time; Arsenal and Manchester United.
As teenagers and young kids these were the teams we could relate to the most, giving us enough narrative to build up villains and heroes and a story worth tuning in to. Sure, we might catch a Spurs or Aston Villa game here or there and sympathise with them or see a wonder-goal in a Sheffield Wednesday match, but there wasn’t the same continuity that came with following these teams. It became easier to love Arsenal and Manchester United because they were more familiar, offering character development like any good TV show.
While Manchester United — like Liverpool before them in the 80s — grew their fanbase primarily through success, Arsenal’s reputation and standing on the global level was tied in with their philosophy. Success was important, of course, but the crucial element was Arsene Wenger and his idealistic approach to the game. If you don’t agree simply ask a Malaysian or Nigerian supporter and you’ll see what I mean.
A sense of detachment
The truth is that this club under Arsene Wenger is at a crossroads. The shift at the club in the first-team level has happened and it is a challenge as a supporter to accept it. Even if it is ultimately for the better the reality is that the current landscape of football, as I’ve already mentioned, puts us and in particular, Wenger, in an impossible position. We are highly unlikely to win anything this season, next season or even in the foreseeable future yet most of us still hold hopes that it will happen.
On a personal level I feel like the last three seasons have slapped the naivety right out of me. I bought a shirt with Adebayor on the back, expecting him to repay the manager’s faith in plucking him from relative obscurity by becoming a vital part of Wenger’s successful project. He left and I felt gutted. Thierry bailed. Kolo Toure left. I felt stunned by Hleb leaving, by Flamini refusing to sign a contract and Fabregas going home.
Some of them hurt more than others but when Nasri left last season, something changed. It became clear to me that loyalty really wasn’t prevalent in the modern game and as such, attachment to certain individuals became dangerous. It made me feel stupid.
So I detached. But when you feel detached from the players who make up a team how can you truly support a team? Football is a passionate game for everybody involved but the moment you cannot truly get behind the players as a fan it becomes deflating. To take that further; how can you write about people that you no longer really respect or care about, even if it is in a tactical or technical sense? This blog is about the love of Arsenal but when you’re not feeling the love, what’s the point of it all?
When Robin van Persie released his statement earlier in the summer intending to leave the club I realised that things had changed for me. My detachment had changed my feelings. I simply did not care. I thought: if you want to leave this club and go play somewhere else, then so be it. When Song started itching for Barcelona I thought the same thing. Fine. Go. Now Theo Walcott wants to leave? I really don’t care. There was little anger, more a quiet acceptance that yes, the football world is not perfect but no, I wasn’t going to let it take away from my simple enjoyment of the game.
A team for life
It seems to me that Wenger has thought long and hard about his philosophy and in his own small way, which just so happens to be about as universal as you can imagine, he wants to show us that the world can be yours if you navigative life with intelligence, creativity and a desire to be innovative. Other teams have done it in the past — think Ajax in the 70s, Milan in the 90s and the Hungarians in the 50s — but Arsenal were the team I saw who offered this truly innovative approach, in a time while my love of the game blossomed from confused interest to full-blown passion.
As long as this philosophy remains I will care about Arsenal and as long as I care about Arsenal I will continue writing this blog. Whether that alienates me from some local fans I don’t know but I cannot fake a story that is not mine; about being born near Highbury or having a great-grandfather who handed me down a vintage Arsenal scarf.
The truth is I’m in far too deep now to stop supporting Arsenal. They will be my team for life. I am not foolish enough to believe they will keep telling the story over the rest of my lifetime the way I want it to be told, with the Wenger philosophy at the forefront of all of our successes. But that will not keep me from hoping.