“To all the Arsenal lovers, take care of the values of the club.”
As sign offs go, this one was about as ‘Arsene’ as it gets. Only a slightly scrambled automobile pun could have made it more Wengerian. The manager’s departing statement did not mention trophies or victories. He spoke of his ‘commitment’, his ‘integrity’ and of the club’s ‘values’, which confirms much of what we’ve come to know of the man this last 22 years.
Amy Lawrence neatly surmised the manager’s emphasis on values earlier this week and he expounded on this theme again in his post-match press conference on Sunday. In doing so, I think, unwittingly, he touched on why the tide of opinion had turned against him so much in his final years at the club.
Increasingly over the last 2-3 years, Arsene has talked about his work ethic (which I don’t think anybody seriously ever doubted), his commitment and of the values of the club. But ‘values’ are a little intangible and based on feeling, rather than anything more concrete. In the context of elite sport, ‘values’ is a diluted synonym for ‘brand.’
Arsene increasingly began to talk about values, if we’re being brutally honest, in the absence of results. But I also think it became difficult to decipher what Arsenal’s values actually were. Brands talk about stories- anecdotal offerings that supposedly set them apart from other brands. During Wenger’s final years, it became difficult to understand what the ‘brand’ or the ‘philosophy’ or ‘project’ or whatever you want to call it, was.
In modern football, there is increasing pressure to have a ‘philosophy’, unless you are one of Europe’s superclubs, in which case your ‘philosophy’ is winning stuff all the time. As inequality has grown in the sport, the pressure to create a ‘project’ is understandable in order to keep supporters (stakeholders) engaged. It is, essentially, a way of packaging failure, however relative, into something more interesting.
That’s why Stoke eventually tired of Tony Pulis and Charlton of Alan Curbishley and everyone of Sam Allardyce. In England, the two Manchester clubs have a ‘project’ based on fame, success and riches and they have the means to achieve it. For Arsenal’s purposes, Liverpool are a good comparator based on resources.
That Tottenham, a smaller club with fewer resources, have nudged their way ahead of Arsenal in the league is significant philosophically too. The Gunners dominance over their neigbours has been as much a part of their ‘brand’ over the last 20 years or so as the new stadium and the commitment to attacking football.
Liverpool and Spurs are undoubtedly teams who have been on an upward trajectory of late. Yet neither is likely to win the Premier League in the next couple of years due to the financial dominance of the Manchester clubs and Chelsea (who are undergoing an existential crisis themselves because they are no longer the wealthiest baron in the ballroom).
If I came back from May 2019 and told you that Liverpool had won the league title, you would be surprised, if not totally shocked. For Liverpool or Spurs to win the league, a few teams have to underperform (and this is why 2015-16 was the ultimate missed opportunity for Arsenal).
At the time of writing, Liverpool and Tottenham have a single League Cup between them in the last decade. Yet there is a better feeling whirring around both clubs because a) they have been on an upward trajectory but b) because they have a clear ‘philosophy.’ They’ve an identifiable playing style, a manager universally backed by the fan base and a clear recruitment policy too.
Liverpool have the best front 3 in the league and they bought the players from Southampton, Hoffenheim and Roma. Good business is possible.
— Arsène Wenger tribute account (@Blahovic) August 28, 2017
Arsenal’s decline has partly been caused by a total loss of a clear playing style and a hotch potch recruitment policy, that has seen new signings struggle to assimilate. Lacazette, Mustafi, Xhaka and Kolasinac have all encountered varying degrees of difficulty finding their niche in a team that lacks a clear style of play.
Some of the ‘values’ that have been associated with Wenger’s Arsenal have drifted away. Wenger has enjoyed an unrivalled reputation for developing young or obscure talent over the years. His early seasons were aided and abetted by the recruitment of talent that either nobody else knew about or everyone else had given up on.
It gave birth to one of the club’s favoured straplines, “We don’t buy stars; we make them.” This culminated in ‘Project Youth’ as Arsenal cut back squad funding to build a new stadium. It was a project of such clarity that everyone refers to it as ‘Project Youth’ without prompt from the club.
There is no stronger sense of brand identity than when your “stakeholders” name your brand for you. (Lest we forget that the 2003-04 official season review DVD was called ‘The Untouchables’ by Arsenal- later on there was a universal adoption of the term ‘Invincibles’ to describe this era). ‘Project Youth’ had mixed results of course, but generally speaking, the football was quite attractive and the strategy was easy to follow.
Finishing in the top 4 with a team of greenhorns and relatively little cash became Arsenal’s “brand” for some years. A young team in a new stadium with a commitment to passing football that dreamed big and failed beautifully (and occasionally, hilariously). Once the financial restrictions were loosened in 2013, the Gunners were free to spend with a little more freedom, which saw the signings of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
Yet there is a suspicion that Arsene does not work as well with polished gems as he does diamonds in the rough. Özil often felt like a talented, worthwhile enigma, but an enigma nonetheless as the Gunners failed to create a structure that availed for his defensive and physical shortcomings. It took two seasons to realise Cazorla’s best position and Alexis is such an individual that more tactically astute managers than Wenger have struggled to reign him into a system.
In short, once Arsenal shed their parsimony, they lost their ‘brand.’ No longer can the Gunners justifiably claim to be one of Europe’s foremost crèches for young talent. Recent signings such as Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang, Xhaka, Mustafi and Kolasinac have been of a far more experienced vintage. While young players have struggled to progress in a team that lacks structure.
The irony of course is that Arsenal have actually become pretty good at hoovering up silverware again in this period, even in the absence of a clear ‘brand.’ And so it all comes back to Arsene and his estimation of ‘values.’ The manager has often talked about football as a means of making supporters happy, of making them feel good.
Goes without saying the first half of Arsene's career was extraordinary, but the irony is that, were we to win the Europa League, his last 5 seasons might actually be a pretty tough act to follow too!
— Alastair Brookshaw (@albrookshawAFC) April 20, 2018
The problem was, even with some truly memorable days at Wembley (and hopefully with one more to come in Lyon), Arsenal’s football just stopped making the fans feel good. There is an inherent irony in the fact that Wenger enjoyed greater (though by no means total) backing during the drought years than he did once he started winning cups again.
In isolation, Arsene is entitled to say that the last few seasons have been far from a gritty life on the never, never. 4th and the FA Cup in 2014. 3rd and the FA Cup in 2015, 2nd in 2016, 5th and the FA Cup in 2017. It’s far from terrible. The tail end of the Graham era is similarly recalled as a period of stale regression, yet the Gunners finished 4th and won the Cup Winners Cup in his final full season.
The early to mid-80s are recalled with disgust, but Arsenal’s league positions from 1980 to 1985- 4th, 3rd, 4th, 10th, 6th, 7th- while not enormously impressive, hardly represent disaster. Yet these periods are remembered with such disaffection because there was little sense of a project or of any ‘values’ to feel attached to. These periods wreaked of decline and aimlessness.
For Arsenal, the stadium is now over a decade old and Chelsea and Tottenham are building new grounds, the discovery of unpolished gems has dried up in a far more competitive scouting landscape and new signings and young players have struggled to assimilate into a team that has lost some footballing fidelity.
I take Arsene totally at face value when he asks that the values of the club are looked after following his departure, because commitment and integrity have always been very obviously important to him. But if we scratch below the surface of that statement, what Arsenal need to create is a set of values, or a brand, or a philosophy, or a project for the fans to unite behind once again.
Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.