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Arsenal, Arsène Wenger, and the Cult of Personality

As the summer transfer deadline approached Monday, millions of keys were called into action to lambaste Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.

As the summer transfer deadline approached Monday, millions of keys were called into action to lambaste Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.

“He’s still cheap.”

“He’s a ditherer.”

“He’s too loyal to current players to acquire anyone who might replace them.”

These are well-worn, superficial explanations of the club’s transfer activities, criticisms that transform the perceived personal traits of one man into the guiding principles of a multimillion-pound sports business.

It’s not just the amateurs making this association. Marketing professional Alex Fynn and Arsenal fanzine innovator Kevin Whitcher called their 2008 study of the club “Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub,” essentially equating the organization with its field manager. Even more striking was Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis’s recent characterization of the club as run-of-the-mill, save for Wenger. He told Sports Illustrated‘s Jeff Bradley: “There’s nothing that really distinguishes us from other clubs in England, other than this man.”

To me, this line of thinking is simplistic, misleading, and damaging to the spirit of the game.

The full-blown obsession with managers

The overemphasis on the character and power of the football manager doesn’t affect Arsenal alone. Although it’s easy to identify Wenger with the club due to his extraordinary tenure, to say nothing of the spelling connection between his first name and the club’s, observers are just as likely to limit their analyses of other clubs to the perceived traits of their managers.

The English media are particularly sycophantic toward Jose Mourinho of Chelsea, hanging on his every word, giving undue credence to all of them, and buying the image that Mourinho wants to present of himself. The fawning press then depicts Chelsea as a worldwise, ruthlessly practical organization; an equally legitimate characterization would be decadent and inhuman, but those descriptors don’t comfortably connect to Mourinho’s accepted public persona.

Then there’s the case of new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal. He presents himself as larger than life, which made him a good fit for a while at the similarly grandiose Barcelona and is in line with the hubris at Old Trafford. Van Gaal benefited from good fortune as Netherlands manager at this year’s World Cup, where many touted his tactical genius based on the Dutch defeat of an aging Spain squad and a goalkeeper substitution that could’ve just as easily gone wrong. The fawning led to predictions that van Gaal would bring Manchester United the title, notwithstanding the squad’s midfield and defensive deficiencies and the questionable performance of the club’s executives.

Manchester United may, despite its slow start, contend, but it’ll be more down to money and good fortune than to the brilliance of van Gaal.

Easy but inadequate analysis

This focus on the manager as the sole representation of a club makes work easy for those who craft the stories through which we understand matches and campaigns. All writers and broadcasters have to do is perform some amateur character analysis or copy those of others; they don’t have to ask players any hard questions about their decisions or performances. That’d be too uncomfortable and complicated.

As a result, we get fed and regurgitate a line of analysis that is simplistic in three main respects:

  1. It ignores structures, systems, finances, and club culture that make particular actions by individuals possible and comprehensible
  2. It creates a story we quickly relate to and understand by focusing on one individual
  3. It permits a knee-jerk critique based on a contrast of how that individual has acted and how I as an individual would have done differently in the same circumstances

Deeper factors and dramatic outcomes

The character-based drama is indeed attractive, partly because it is so easy to grasp. Nobody wants to think too hard about a pastime. However, as a means of explanation, the personality-driven narrative falls short.

What’s much more influential is the minimal degree of regulation defining football’s culture and structures. In contrast to American professional sports, which have governmental oversight and self-imposed salary constraints, European football as a business is a free-for-all. This encourages the financial frenzy, which itself drives player acquisitions, which threatens to trump the game itself as the object of attention. (See Rory Smith’s excellent piece for ESPN FC on this perversion.)

In this unregulated financial environment, the apparatuses driving clubs’ commercial and player acquisition activities have a greater effect on results than the personality of one man. I have cautioned in “We Are All Bean Counters at Arsenal Now” about paying too much attention to the business side, but that doesn’t mean the organization supporting the players and the manager isn’t important; it’s just not the reason to follow a sporting endeavor.

The competitions themselves are that reason. And at pitch level, thousands of individual decisions and actions, as well as twists of fate, occur that no one person controls. Any one of those small events can be decisive. That’s because football matches are tight-scoring affairs contested by elite athletes of similar talent.

It’s also why the matches are inherently dramatic. We don’t need to psycho- or otherwise analyze one person sitting in the manager’s chair to make that drama any more enjoyable.

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