Sunday, December 4, 2022

Didn’t come with any satisfaction guarantee

Recently I attended a course for reasons of professional development. Naturally, I ended up applying everything I absorbed to the situation at Arsenal. At both Villa Park and Goodison Park, the atmosphere amongst the away support has been febrile and furious. I have seen countless faces twisted and contorted into shapes of rage and hatred.

It’s probably not for me to judge, but scanning these expressions of ire as they rain expletive strewn epithets on Arsenal players, the Arsenal manager and fellow supporters, I’ve begun to wonder if many of the away contingent actually enjoy being at matches any longer. (I think this sense of apoplexy is more diluted at home games, drowned in a sea of contemplative apathy).

Many do seem to actively despise every single second of the experience. Like I said, it’s not for me to judge so much as observe, but I sense that many are getting off on the hate. A fortnight ago, I wrote that, despite the assortment of supporter disenchantment, the manager’s name had yet to be taken in vain in any orchestrated or tuneful way.

The chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing!” at Villa Park when Giroud was replaced by Coquelin smashed that glass ceiling. The taboo has been broken and the piñata exploded again at Goodison Park. As Arsenal defended a corner in stoppage time, the chant “You don’t know what you’re doing” went up again. It didn’t seem to have been invited by any particular event, other than that time was running out and the song had yet to be aired!

I totally understand that the frustrations are cumulative. A 1-1 draw at Everton on a wintry Wednesday night is never a bad result in isolation. (In the unbeaten season, we drew 1-1 at Goodison on a wintry Wednesday night having led. In fact, if memory serves, Wenger replaced Kanu with Gilberto shortly after Everton’s equaliser to preserve the point). But below par results against the likes of Sunderland, Fulham, Aston Villa and Norwich predicated the need for three points at Everton.

But if we have arrived at a stage where the final whistle is greeted with “We want our Arsenal back!” by a significant section of the upper tier following an away draw, then we really are at a tipping point where relations between the club, the manager and the supporters have soured into mutiny. Incidentally, the penultimate letter in this F365 mailbox from Tom, Cheshire Gooner asks some very rational questions of which Arsenal it is people want back.

The course I attended spoke of the twin dangers of ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘narrative fallacy.’ Confirmation bias happens to all humans to some extent. Once we have formulated a theory, we will see evidence of its fruition everywhere we look. (See the dizzying debates on the ills of zonal marking). For football fans, this will often manifest itself in its adoption of scapegoats. Aaron Ramsey and Andre Santos have been rounded up and identified as Arsenal’s bête noirs’ by many supporters this season.

You may care to disagree, but I don’t think Andre Santos to be a bad left back at all. In fact, at about this time last year I considered him to be one of the form players in our team, but Arsenal’s defending has changed tack this year. Gone is the ‘pressing high up the pitch’ model, in favour of holding a solid defensive shape and getting behind the ball. One of Santos’ biggest strengths is his ability to nick the ball off of a winger’s toes on the halfway line, before prompting an attack. Arsenal’s strategic shift no longer allows him to make use of his greatest assets.

He is also somewhat inhibited by the presence of Podolski ahead of him who prefers to attack the same channels that Santos likes attacking. As a result, the two cannot build a relationship and Podolski is a more important player to us than Santos. It’s true to say that we no longer play in a way that gets the best out of him and, as such, his use has probably expired in the current squad. (I would be very surprised if he were still an Arsenal player next season).

It happens. It doesn’t mean he’s dog shite per se, but people can get locked into a way of thinking that filters out mitigation. “He’s fuckin’ shit!” becomes a default setting and everything a player does confirms it. Even to the point that accepting his mate’s shirt is forged into a fat, nobbly stick to beat him and abuse his wife on social networking with.

Likewise, Aaron Ramsey only gave the ball away three times at Villa Park on Saturday and rated him as our most productive player at Everton. I know statistical analyses have flaws and I do understand why some don’t rate Ramsey. For instance, I totally agree that he has a tendency to slow play down. (He was caught in possession a few times by Everton players and it’s a fairly common occurrence with Aaron).

But the rare occasions upon which he did give the ball away against Villa were greeted with visceral howls of derision. It’s conformation bias at work and it becomes contagious to others when voiced loudly. Like a barking tabloid headline about youth crime rates, it can lay eggs in your head and convince you that it’s more commonplace than it is. Every single flaw is picked on and amplified to support a thesis.

At half time, one urinal raconteur at Goodison told me, “We’re in the shit we’re in cos people like you back cunts like Ramsey.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not accusing everyone that doesn’t think Aaron Ramsey is Arsenal quality of such vein bulging disposition. But I witnessed more than a few different individuals subject him to the sort of abuse (I don’t use the term lightly) that I’d reserve for Tony Pulis charging headlong at me in a bath towel.

I genuinely struggle to see how a figure such as Ramsey could invite such hatred. I understand people not rating him as a footballer, but the froth mouthed bile I hear aimed at him so regularly is confusing. He seems a nice enough lad. He doesn’t lack application, whatever you think of his competence. Eduardo returned from a horrific injury with his quality compromised and became a sympathetic darling of our affection for it.

The manager too is now fair game for the acid tongues of the terraces. I wrote a few weeks ago that I’d become something of an Arsene agnostic. The more I think on it, the more I wonder if a new manager would genuinely perform what would have to be regarded as a minor miracle in finishing higher than 3rd. But for the disenchanted, replacing Giroud with Coquelin becomes bona fide confirmation that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Of course there was more to the substitution than “replacing a striker with a defensive midfielder when we need a goal.” Roberto Mancini replaced Sergio Aguero with Alexander Kolarov at Wigan on Wednesday with the score at 0-0. Our intent and our formation didn’t shift one iota. It’s more accurate to say that Gervinho replaced Giroud (I know, I know). Arshavin moved to the left and Cazorla to the right. I didn’t see it as a change for the sake of preservation. There was more to it than met the eye.

We’ve looked on with envy green eyes as more moneyed competitors have hovered up silverware. In the last seven years I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest we should have won one of the domestic trophies. But in terms of league and Champions League performance, we’ve been about par where we should be. No more, no less. The journey has been frustrating and at times you wonder if we might have done more. But I’m not convinced we’ve adjusted our expectations appropriately as a fanbase.

The emergence of Mansour and Abramovich were ‘Black Swan events’ likely to continue affecting the competitive environment for us for at least another two years. That’s presuming FFP does its job and that we can keep improving our commercial incomes. The reality is that we won’t be winning the league any time soon no matter who our manager is.

Finishing a touch closer to the leaders is a justifiable aspiration, but you have to say it’s unrealistic to expect us to win it until the competitive environment contracts.

Call it excuse making if you will, but that’s the situation. There are frustrations of course, but we should be finishing about 3rd or 4th every season, which means the manager, though not the miracle worker some would have you believe, is far from a bumbling fool either. Till next week. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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