The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
If Arsene Wenger’s career was a kung fu movie, we would be in the part where the search is on for the villain who poisoned Arsene’s rice. Taking cues from the charismatic Frenchman, all eyes would be on the usual suspects, the media, referees, disloyal players, Roy Keane, Sam Allardyce, and the most obvious targets, those pin-stripe-suited figures throwing around Scrooge McDuck money for fun. But this film’s twist is that Arsene may have stubbornly poisoned his own rice.
Without question, Arsene Wenger’s footballing philosophy is the stuff of legends, the kind of stuff that inevitably leads to statues and shops with corny names. It is a presence in football that can’t quite be contextualized and fully appreciated until you run down a laundry list of coaches and realize how few have recognizable philosophies capable of lining up with the world’s great –isms, communism, socialism, capitalism, Barcelonaism. But as with all great –isms, there’s a downside, and Wengerism is no exception to this time-tested rule. As a great man who I may have made up once said, “Shifting landscapes wait for no philosophy.”
Back in 1996, Wengerism took the world by surprise, and by world, of course, I mean England. Arsene was a career coach with multiple successes under his belt, but his body of work didn’t quite resonate on a global scale until he replicated his successes at Arsenal, transforming the club and English football along the way. His philosophy was built by tapping into a continental pool of players that had yet to be realized or trusted by his peers in England. Add the Japanese-inspired modifications to the traditional, English training regimen and some good old-fashioned outside-the-box thinking and the insightful Arsene was well on his way to transforming an English league that, in many ways, was in desperate need of modernization.
Wengerism quickly became easily identifiable. Movement, pace, obscene technical ability, disregard for passports, and a dedication to healthy living collectively became Arsene’s ayahuasca (an Amazonian psychedelic drug thought to transform how you view the world). Over his first few years, England stood transfixed as if in a drug-induced state. The world inhaled. And then inhaled again. I certainly did. Multiple times.
Few could outrun Wenger’s newest disciples, an amalgamation of good old-fashioned Englishmen, seemingly random foreigners, and a superhero Dutchman who was scared of flying. The trophies were immediate and people soon began lining up around the corner to devour the teachings on tap at Highbury. Suddenly, a Frenchman was the philosopher-king of English football. He was “The Professor,” the robed, noble Frenchman sitting on the side of the pitch with his Coke bottle glasses telling the world that the era of English football as we knew it was over. Fini.
Mesmerized, slightly disoriented fans and media types weren’t the only ones to succumb to Wengerism. Arsene, susceptible to the trappings of success just like previous purveyors of transformative thought, also bought into Wengerism. And that’s where the trouble begins. No philosophy, not even the most transformative, should go unchallenged forever.
Looking at the human record, there are countless examples of what happens when individuals develop philosophies that successfully end up radically transforming thought and/or behavior. Often, these typically charismatic figures peak, which is then followed by a slow procession into a delusional state characterized by a fierce bond to the glory days and a perpetual belief that a formula that was once all the rage will be so again. It’s just a matter of time, isn’t it? That’s the worrying and poisonous component of success. Sure, it’s not an absolute; it doesn’t cripple everyone. But Arsene’s steadfast reliance on a philosophy that initially brought success just might be the very poison that leads to his demise. Said another way, Arsene may have unknowingly betrayed himself.
Arsene transformed football by keeping his mind open to new approaches and angles. He absorbed what leagues and cultures had to offer and hit the English scene at the right time, with the right recipe. But since then, one way to view Arsene’s stance is that he has stood still, staunch in his belief that his philosophy is the end. The irony is that this highly cerebral being may have reached a point of success only to discard the one thing that brought him success: an open mind.
All philosophies must evolve, and like all hardened souls who have doubled down on their philosophies as gospel after initial successes learn, being right and successful at a specific point in time doesn’t make you right for eternity, or right under all conditions. The Arsenal philosophy worked with a certain set of players at a certain point in time in a certain market, almost to perfection. But unfortunately for Arsenal, we no longer live in that world. Arsene no longer has the jump on foreign markets. No longer are there remote corners of the globe. Globalization has arrived and what was once Wenger’s Coca Cola formula is now public knowledge. Now, the race for continental talent, the talent necessary to execute football “The Arsenal Way™,” can be purchased by anyone with access to mines, oil, or vast resources of chicken. No longer is Arsene’s spell, alone, enough to draw players who can now express themselves at much higher salaries elsewhere. Yet, for some reason, we still reflexively talk about sexy football at Arsenal. Why? If we are being honest, sexy football hasn’t been around for some time. All you need to do is look at the style that was on display at Highbury a decade ago (which admittedly is a high standard for any team) to see how the latest versions of the team are much closer to Inconvincible than Invincible. Check your bowl, Arsene may have poisoned your rice, too.
We’re all wondering how this movie ends. Does Arsene take his own life by continuing to eat his poisoned rice, or is there another twist, a twist where the director reveals that Arsene has actually mastered skills taught at competing monasteries and defeats Manchester City in the final fight scene using Qatar-style?
At first glance, changing Arsene may be as difficult a task as convincing Chairman Mao to accept capitalism, or convincing Richard Dawkins to accept Jesus as his savior. But regardless of what he decides, the landscape around him will continue to change. That is inevitable. It is also likely we will inevitably learn that training young players to compete The Arsenal Way™, only to break through and find out that other teams have already explored the world and brought in experienced players already capable of playing The Arsenal Way™ while selling farm-raised Arsenal Way™ players to these same clubs is a suspect formula, and one that looks to be unsustainable.
Arsene has a strong, commendable philosophy, but if he wants to continue being a savior and avoid end-of-career buffoonery and caricature, he must learn to proactively introduce experienced, serious talent into his team, or risk losing the reputation that he has spent his life rightfully developing. I wish it didn’t work that way. It isn’t fair. But it is 2011, and today, reputations are easier than ever to build. They are also notoriously easy to dismantle, bastardize and destroy.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. If you are wearing your prescription, rose-tinted glasses, the potentially good news is that Arsene already knows all of this. It has now come out that back when Arsenal was in desperate need for a goalkeeper, they bid £20 million for Liverpool’s Pepe Reina. They seemingly made bids for Borussia Dortmund playmaker Mario Götze, Lyon playmaker Yoann Gourcuff, Rennes holding midfielder Yann M’Vila, and maybe even Lille hotshot Eden Hazard. Each of these bids, and these are only some of the ones that have surfaced, would have broken Arsenal’s record transfer fee. These bids suggest one important thing: Arsene knows and he’s now willing to spend well beyond what he has spent in the past. Whether he’s willing to spend enough is another question. So the potentially good news for Arsenal fans is that Arsene’s poisoned rice may not kill him, but rather, might have strengthened his immunity and expanded his powers. He may just be waiting for the right moment in the movie to maintain the appropriate level of suspense. If this is the case, this kung fu movie may have one last hilarious, unexpected turn.
In the meantime, keep your eye on your rice.
by Miriti Murungi · October 28, 2011