Neil Blackmon waxes on what may be the end of the Arsene Era dawning.
One of the things that makes sport so compelling is that while, in the end, sporting events are contrived events whose results have little effect on the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of our lives–we often see within sport little reflections of the day-to-day life lessons as well as the over-arching lessons of…history.
Today’s Champions League playoff for the group stages victory at Udinese aside, one can’t help but sense that we are witnessing precisely such a sport-as-microcosm-of-life sequence of events right now with long-tenured, absolutely-revered Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
In fact, today’s victory seemed all the more appropriate in the “sport as reflection of life” vein, because as summer hours give way autumn nightime, a resolute, determined and outplayed-for-large-swaths Arsenal side determined to not let the embers of past glories be extinguished, survived.
Alas, any objective viewer must sense that the group stages will hold only disappointment be but a brief interlude to the general decay and narrative of Emirates empire collapse occurring in North London.
What’s more–even the believers are forlorned now, sensing the decline and hoping against hope for one moment of magic, one surefire indicator that the heartstrings inside of them are right to suggest it is not yet time to turn out the lights.
The Arsenal faithful are a beatdown bunch these days, searching for positivity when the possibility of silverware always seemed well within their grasp.
It is fitting that Arsene Wenger stands among those seemingly incapable of grasping the dire nature of the situation—or, if incapable is the wrong word, at least reluctant to concede the gravity and extent of the problems. His empire is slipping away.
As one notable publication wrote, he and his most loyal fighters resemble, only half-ironically, the futile but noble captured fighters of the French resistance, seemingly oblivious or at the very least impervious to the looming and increasing-in-number swarm of interrogators at their doorstep.
Old strengths have become weaknesses, so the interrogators seem to suggest, and having now turned against the man who so many of them previously obliged with blind faith, the formerly accepted calls for “caution” and “patience”, the confident “I have a plan” reassurances– fall flat, landing somewhere due south of reassuring.
If it wasn’t the play of the red-and-white today, it was the camera captures of the manager and a particular image of sweat stained attire that seemed to suggest that playing it cool was out of the questions any longer.
There is simply faith no more in the old North London maxim, “Arsene knows.”
Why? Well, the answer as compelling as the question.
The answer again lies in the annals of history.
Examples of era-ending decline are legion and one common thread among these examples is that hindsight often guides us to fail to read the warning signs.
One indicator of era-decline that rings nearly universal in history books is the notion that overstretch is devastating to empire.
Overstretch affects an empire both economically and in the field of battle or conflict, often inflicting wounds with great overlap.
In ancient times, this was a critical contributing factor to the fall of Rome.
Engaged from East Asia to what is now Europe, the Roman Empire simply lacked the manpower to curtail all challenges to its military and economic power. It was forced to make choices about where it would place its troops throughout the vast expanse under its control, and in so doing essentially failed to make clear choices about which engagements were most critical.
Privileging no particular engagement over any other, the Romans decided to engage on all fronts- whether it be the creeping Vandal, Hun (more on Attila in a moment) Goth civilizations near the Danube, in France, Spain and Northern Africa, or the land trespasses further east in Asia.. The result of course (and yes- this is simplistic because space demands it) was it lost attendant economic power by trying to engage everywhere, and it lacked the manpower to effectively engage anywhere. In the end, the Romans were simply “overstretched”, and too heavily reliant on their old alliances (which often failed), to counter increasing intrusions on their supremacy.
In modern times, examples of overstretch creating an atmosphere conducive to empire decline range from the very obvious (Nazi Germany and the two (really three) front war effort) to the to-be-determined but increasingly less subtle (United States- Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya).
Without a useless commentary on the politics of the latter situation, the impacts can still objectively be viewed as similar to that of Rome and at a great price in both tactical success and economic treasure.
At its pinnacle, an empire can weather some overstretch, even in times of adversity (see the United States in World War II, England in the age of Victoria), but in the end you can usually rely on overstretch being a contributing factor to the end of historic eras or the decline of empires. And here we arrive back to Arsenal.
Sporting dynasties, eras and yes “empires” also see overstretch as a driving factor in their downfall.
Beginning with soccer, the most notable example is the Ajax empire of the 1970’s, perhaps the most prolific in the history of the beautiful game, was besieged by an overstretch issue.
In 1973, at the end of a four year reign of dominance in European and Dutch football, Ajax were, among many things, tired and disinterested in privileging particular engagements.
In an effort to win everything, the players were exhausted.
Having already accomplished nearly everything, the players, mostly Dutch, were more interested in the one thing they hadn’t won—a World Cup.
The same group of players that finally lost a European Cup match to CSKA Sofia in 1973 were present at World Cup qualifying weeks before that match and in the weeks after—and all were too focused on Dutch accomplishment at the 74 World Cup to think too much of defeat in the league or the European Cup in 1974.
In the end, those limited failures might suggest sacrifices were made to achieve the ultimate goal—a World championship for country—except that they lost the World Cup final in 1974 shockingly to West Germany, ending the Total Football Empire for good.
By the end of the 74 campaign, fatigue from fielding top level sides in all competitions and players prioritizing personal accomplishment at international tournaments over club achievement had crushed cohesion.
Indeed, the great Dutch midfielder Gerrie Muhren, who was Ajax’s Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs, put it best when he noted to David Winner, author of the magnificent opus Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer that when the decline hit, it hit suddenly, because Ajax were “exhausted and (we) didn’t stay together. Had we stayed together, we would have been Champions of Europe eight times.”
While it is certainly true that the economics of the game were changing in the 70’s and the alluring financial markets of Spain and to a lesser extent England contributed to the collapse of the Ajax empire—one can’t help but find history’s lessons about overstretch instructive. Today, those same lessons apply to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.
Miraculously, a European Cup trophy in 1994 didn’t spoil the faithful at Arsenal. When Wenger arrived in 1996, he managed to do what is mostly unthinkable in today era of treble and quadruple seeking glory hunters—he harnessed the raw greed endemic to that endeavor into a proper ambition, which involved a formula of focusing on first division glory first and allowing the chips to fall where they may beyond that stated goal.
The truth is, despite the lack of a Champions League medal, the ploy worked, resulting in three Premier League titles, four FA Cup titles and four Community Shield victories.
Is their regret about the failure of Wenger’s “Invincibles” to capture the Champions League in 2004? Of course.
And there are still those at the Emirates who rue the defeat to Barcelona in 2006. But in the end, Wenger’s philosophy of win the league first, worry about other competitions later was more than effective—it was a blueprint on how to successfully ensure that you at least had a chance at glory—hence the old Wenger line about how it is “good to finish fourth” because, after all, it means you can beat Udinese and still seek glory on the continent, as Arsenal have done today.
In truth, one wonders why this blueprint isn’t (or wasn’t) obvious: when you play in the best league in the world—league success should be privilege—the spoils will rightly follow.
Those following the developments around London Colney last summer didn’t, but probably should have, grimaced when Wenger and others hinted at a run for the treble and even quadruple.
Was there reason for enthusiasm of a high degree last summer? Of course. The team was simply so loaded that its more obvious weaknesses (somewhat overrated defense, the complete lack of a proven keeper) could be overlooked. What was more, the remainder of the league was shrouded in question marks and sides with more glaring weaknesses—so why not think big?
The simple answer is that Arsenal hadn’t done that before—it was out of character.
It was a leap too far, and one only need look at a few of the teams fielded in all competitions to see there was an unusual determination to secure results with a top unit that was unlike the Arsenal sides in the past.
Depth, so often an Arsenal strength (at their pinnacle, and even beyond it, this was a side that could field Carling Cup elevens capable of qualifying for the Champions League) was hamstrung in the name of a glory agenda, and when failure and injury resulted, the always-present goal of in-league success was hampered. History, instructive.
A second contributing historic factor to era or empire decline is economical and overlaps with overstretch.
The older but still historically recent global economic downturn—what we Yanks call “The Great Depression”—was, with all appropriate apologies to my collegiate finance and economics professors—essentially caused by bank failures, Britain’s odd choice to revert to a pre-World War I gold standard, and a contraction of the money supply that resulted in a stock market collapse, aided of course by malfeasance on the part of bankers and investors who had become, simplistically, overinvested in one particular area of the economy rather than having a wide-range of possible investment.
If that sounds somewhat familiar (albeit crudely stated), it should: the Global Economic Crisis or Near Depression that began in 2007 was caused by very similar and inauspicious circumstances—not limited to but certainly primarily being the subprime mortgage crisis and predatory lending, a lack of revenue in relation to accruing debt, and (again) bankers and investors being too heavily engaged in one particular economic area at the expense of diversification. It is noteworthy that in many respects Britain never has recovered its global superpower status in the wake of the Great Depression, which of course had a great deal to do with World War II—and, given the recent downgrade of American credit, the United States may not recover completely from the current economic crisis—it will instead have to adjust to a “new normal.”
The situation at Arsenal is much less about the decline of the club’s economic well-being—it is relatively secure (compared to many other European clubs of similar make-up) under American owner Stan Kroenke—but the ignorance of the warning signs that terminally resulted in each economic crisis do tell us something about the decline of Wenger’s Arsenal. Two things in particular are worth noting: first, each crisis was to a reasonable extent caused by overreliance on one particular market or investment. Here, Wenger is guilty, and the chickens have come home to roost.
For all of Wenger’s forays into the “obscure talented young Frenchmen” or “talented youth from far less competitive league” markets that have been successful, there have been, with increasing number, far too many that have failed. Silvestre is an example you hear often but it is a poor one—he was 28 when he joined the Gunners and established at superclubs.
More accurate examples, however, exist, and range from the “flashes of brilliance” types such as Denilson and Sebastian Squillaci to the erratic and infuriating types Andrei Arshavin and Nicky Bendtner down to the pure disasters, players such as Alexander Hleb or Pascal Cygan.
There was always faith in the mantra “Arsene Knows”, both among the Gunner supporters and more so within the manager himself, and now, with the money to diversify investments, look elsewhere and sign proven commodities, Wenger continues to rely on his ability to find the guy other folks weren’t looking for. Simplistic? Maybe. True—well—if Arsene Wenger has been playing “Moneyball” nearly as long as Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane—then it might be worth noting that “Moneyball” doesn’t always work—and one only need look at six years and no trophies or at the A’s rash of bottom of the barrel finishes to figure that out. Throw in the fact that Lyon decided to begin competing, at least in a cursory manner, with Wenger in seeking out “Moneyball” type talents, and you start to understand the way overinvestment in one particular area, sans diversification, can generate a climate of instability. When you factor in the failure of Wenger to resign his proven commodities like Fabregas, Clichy and Nasri (either because he’s confident his “find a new obscure French dude” strategy will work again OR because he already has a plan involving Jack Wilshere and other youth—we’ll never know, because Wenger doesn’t say), and you at least understand the concerns about Wenger’s arrogance getting in the way of success or the general feeling of unease around London Colney.
What’s more—the “Arsene knows” mantra also has a bit of the old historic empire-decline problem of underestimating your adversary as well. Is Wenger still right that it’s best to make sure your club’s money is safely in the bank than invested on the field in the current era of treble-quadruple seeking glory hunter sides? Time will tell, but for the time being, one can’t help but think he’s no longer correct.
Manchester City are playing the role of Attila the Hun to the Roman Empire, the figure you thought was too primitive and barbaric to succeed but is perhaps a shrewd and clever player in the world of European soccer. Surely you can’t just sign a host of glamorous players an expect results to roll in, can you? This nouveau riche attitude creates resentment and perhaps, in the mind of a long-proclaimed genius like Wenger, it creates a bit of overconfidence. Problem is—Wenger is bleeding players to City, and City look like worldbeaters, having put their money on the field and not in the bank. Of course, no side has the resources at their disposal that the Citizens have—but that’s precisely the point—it is high time Wenger recognized that competition will require good-faith expenditures on his part. That doesn’t appear to be coming—indeed—Samir Nasri is off to the Eastlands and Juan Mata, a potential star who seemed to be in the Wenger ilk, is off to Chelsea—and all we hear from Le Professuer is a “we’re not signing him”, but not an explanation why. If Roberto Mancini can manage all those egos—and here’s betting Wenger’s betting he can’t—there’s no question the Citizens will run victory laps around the Emirates this year and beyond—and Arsene seems to be the person who “knows”. Forgive me if that failure doesn’t remind me of the old story about when Rome’s Priscus went to meet Attila the Hun in 449 AD, and discovered quite quickly that he wasn’t the savage beast he’d believed him to be, but instead represented a clever, and perhaps overwhelming, foe.
Finally, there’s the little matter of history being instructive the other direction. Sure, there are times when faced with great adversity, very powerful nations (and sporting teams, for that matter), have responded and come up from the ashes to return from brilliance. The British Empire, in one final stand, saved the world in the Battle of Britain. Ditto the Americans in thirteen days in the 1960’s. Dr. King was jailed again and again but still delivered a dream that is worth fighting to perfect today.
On the more trivial front of sport, the Yankees weathered the brutal post-Winfield horrors of the 1980s. The Philadelphia Phillies lost 10,000 times. Then they won the World Series. Ajax returned to all-world dominance in the 1990s. Barcelona weathered Franconian repression and became, though it isn’t anymore, “mas que un club.” And there is, of course, the truth that Arsenal are only two matches into the season, lack Jack Wilshere, and are safely through to the Champions League group stages. There isn’t, at least for now, a lack of joy in Muddville. But one can safely suggest there might be soon. And one should worry if things have gotten stale.
The notion of a coaching situation “becoming stale” is a relatively new phenomenon and is located primarily in American sport. Yet it is important to think about in the Wenger context precisely because sometimes revival requires requisite and fundamental change. Alabama football, for example, was a awful southern mess in the early part of this century before Nick Saban came in and changed a culture grown complacent. Bob Bradley was just replaced after one of the more successful eras in the history of US Men’s soccer—not, this writer would argue, because he was a failure as a manager but because there was a general malaise and lack of “newness” to the culture in Chicago and beyond.
Will Wenger slowly dance in a burning room? Or will perhaps Cesc Fabregas needle him from Barcelona and tell him it’s time to turn off the lights.