Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Communication Breakdown

Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart wasn’t one of Manic Street Preachers’ more subtle song titles but, appositely, it did drive at a certain truth. Power structures need to erect a façade in order to conceal some of the more unseemly activities they carry out to maintain power.

There are far more serious power dynamics than KSE’s ownership of Arsenal, but Stan and Josh have struggled to control the narrative over their machinations. One of the main reasons that the Arsenal fan base remains so divided is because the club is minding a comms gap, nay, a comms canyon.

The owner’s reticence to communicate is so legendary that he earned the nickname ‘Silent Stan’ long before he bought Arsenal. Through his mouthpiece, Ivan Gazidis, we heard many a polished statement about Arsenal’s intentions to win the Champions League and the Premier League and Ivan’s tongue was so laced with silver that he almost had you believing it.

Arsenal also used to have Arsene Wenger, who was a great orator and communicator. This is why his press conferences would often take on a surreal tone as he was asked about any number of recent events unrelated to football. His quotes played well. But aside from all that, whatever you thought of him, even in the years of inexorable decline, he stood for something and he was able to articulate what it was he stood for. I saw him rescue many an acidic AGM with a crowd pleasing soliloquy.

Nobody at Arsenal ever labelled the stadium debt related austerity period as ‘Project Youth.’ The name was coined by supporters. Whether fans agreed with this vision or not, they were able to identify it so tangibly that they gave it a name agreed upon by consensus. That’s branding, baby. Conversely, across the river, Maurizio Sarri, though clearly dogmatic in approach, is being hung by the ‘Sarriball’ petard, despite never once having referred to his brand of football in this way. It has instead become shorthand for his intransigence.

The consecutive departures of Ivan Gazidis and Arsene Wenger were always going to create a vacuum that would take some time to fill. The departure of Sven Mislintat has also created a ‘comms’ issue because, as @poznaninmypants articulates very well in this piece, Mislintat, or at least his reputation, seemed to represent a strategy commensurate with a second tier European club like Arsenal. It was easy to follow and it yielded quick results with the signings of Torreira and Guendouzi.

There is a scene in one of my favourite comedies, ‘The Thick of It’, that nicely surmises this phenomenon. In the episode, the government is wrestling with how to respond to a crisis, before one of the ministers says, “Listen, Phil, I was a journalist, OK? Now, if you don’t respond you create a vacuum that sucks in speculation and then you can’t respond – you get sucked fucking inside out.” Mislintat’s departure has widened this comms gap and in it, has fallen an avalanche of speculation and counter speculation.

The situation around Mesut Ozil has exacerbated this sense of anxiety, leading Jonathan Liew to ask the painful question, ‘what are Arsenal for?’ in his recent column in the Independent. It’s an ennui many of us identify with. A confusing style of play with a manager still grappling with the language has led many Arsenal fans into an existential crisis.

A lot of the communication between the club and the fans has been conducted in a very ‘back channel’ manner. The briefing and counter briefing over the potential appointment of Mikel Arteta, the briefing and counter briefing on Ramsey and Ozil and the January transfer window has all led to a vacuum that has sucked in speculation and in-fighting.

Emery’s language has been laced with imposition, which, to my mind, suggests he has not been entirely happy with some of the decisions made. The last clear, believable communication the supporters had about the direction and intention of the club came from Emery himself upon his appointment.

My idea is to be protagonists. The history here is a team that love playing with possession and I like that personality. When you don’t have possession, I want a squad that are very, very intensive with the pressing. The two things are important for me to be protagonists – possession of the ball and pressing when you don’t have the ball.”

The trouble is, that has happened only fitfully thus far and in lieu of anything other than Josh Kroenke’s risible “Arsenal making the Champions League final.. is something we are very focused on,” remark, there has been little else communicated to us. Has Emery given up on the vision he has set out? Does he just not have the players for it right now? Who knows? That creates a problem.

Klopp, Guardiola and Pochettino didn’t enjoy stellar first seasons in charge of their respective clubs, but it was always obvious what they were trying to achieve (in part, because English fans had some level of familiarity with their work prior to taking their current posts). That is less obvious with Emery’s team and Arsenal don’t have the silver tongue of Gazidis or the oratory skills of Arsene Wenger to fill in the gaps.

This was always going to be a transition period for Arsenal and, as I wrote many times early in the season, some big players were always going to fall by the wayside. Change is ugly and difficult, especially cultural change and we have seen that in recent months with the Ramsey and Ozil situations.

Feelings are always hurt and egos bruised in this type of organisational flux. As such, we see pantomime booing of substitutions as supporters coalesce around their favourites. In the absence of a clear identity, many supporters have clung ever more firmly to that which they know and have become highly invested in individuals over the collective.

But as much as Arsenal have a comms vortex, which has sucked speculation into it, good comms can only supplement clear action. There’s an excellent chance that Emery’s vision for this team remains a mystery to us because it’s still a mystery to him. For the Kroenkes, their pronouncements sound so improbable because they are insincere.

Everybody knows they are not pushing the boat out to restore Arsenal to their early 20th century greatness, because we can see it in their (in)action. Plastering on a fake smile and rehearsing your lines to Jeremy Wilson once a year is not going to fool anyone. You can’t continue faking it if everyone can see you’re not making it.

Like white America in the Manics song, KSE can’t tell the truth because its whole world would fall apart. We know that they consider Arsenal another bookmark in their portfolio, they know it too. Even Ivan Gazidis’ sugar coated words could not conceal the staleness of that fact and, at the moment, we don’t even have the maypoles of Gazidis and Wenger to angrily dance around.

So what we have is a sense of helplessness. Most of us don’t really know how the Unai Emery and Arsenal story will pan out yet, which creates a little bit of anxiety as we negotiate uncomfortable changes. In the end, the best communication is good results. When it comes to the ownership structure, we remain marooned in a loveless marriage with no obvious sign of divorce.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my Facebook page.

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