24 March 2013

Totem and Talisman, Part One

Between us and 4th place lie two teams and nine games to play. However, rather than looking at numbers and fixtures, I'd like to take a broader view and look at two men and what they mean to Arsenal. One embodies the past, and one embodies the future. By now, you're probably tumbling their names and faces around in your mind. Arsene Wenger, the totem, embodies Arsenal's past and present while continuing to represent the future. Jack Wilshere, the talisman, embodies Arsenal's future. This is not just a meditation on age and the passing of time; it's also a taking-stock of a team's future and its destiny.

When I think of Wenger, the Amerindian totem pole comes to mind. A quintessential art-form of Northwest Coast Indians, totems frequently represent heritage, lineages, important events, and spiritual connections to the past. At a more superficial level, they are, like Arsene, tall and skinny and have distinguished visages. If we were to carve an Arsenal totem, it might very well feature at the top Arsene's face, aquiline nose and sharp eyes. Below this would appear other recognizable names and visages--Henry, Bergkamp, Ljungberg, and the like--along with the Arsenal crest, the FA Cup, a symbol for The Invincibles...

For the last sixteen years, Arsene has led this team. Sadly, his reign does seem to fall into two periods, neatly dividing his reign very nearly in half: the first eight saw trophies and league championships, culminating in the 2004-05 season, but the second eight are distressingly sparse. However, it is during Wenger's time that Arsenal have come to be known for a certain style, a certain philosophy, of football. There are not many teams about which the same can be said. Sometimes, this style has been mocked as Barcelona-lite or has seemed to falter against more rugged, less-talented opposition. Be that as it may, Arsene has built a team that plays not just with "style" but with an actual style, seeking not just to score goals and win games, but to live up to an aesthetic that demands skill and understanding of the game. After all, any knuckle-dragger who can tie his own shoes can hoof a ball in the general direction of goal to see what happens. Arsene's teams, for better or for worse, believe in motion and passing, a style that has sometimes been criticized for trying to walk the ball into goal, eschewing long strikes for clever passes and well-placed one-time shots. Be that as it may, it has earned Arsenal a distinctive reputation, a hallmark that has, in addition to the other more-material rewards, accolades. After all, football is also known variously as la joga bonito or the beautiful game.

If it was meant to be played smashmouth, we could just throw out the baby with the bathwater and call it rugby. Or American "football." Again, this aesthetic, this philosophy, is Arsene's mark. Sure, Barcelona may have perfected it, and Cruyff may have pioneered it, but only Wenger has taken it to the Premier League, arguably the world's best league, and made it work. Not only has he made it work, he made it work against legions of teams whose idea of football at the time of his arrival was to hoof it and hope. While it is true that Arsene hardly rescurrected a backwater team from England's third tier--he inherited a team from George Graham that included Bergkamp, Keown, Bould, and others and that had finished 5th the season before--he quickly remade the team in his image, finding, recruiting, and developing diamonds in the rough. Sadly, the magic that allowed him to find and develop such players has deserted him, squashed under the ruthless financial order of early 21st century football. Simply put, the approach that had worked so well now works against him. We've seen it happen too many times--Arsene finds a promising young talent, helps him develop into a world-class player, and watches helplessly (?) as a wealthier, more aggressive team snaps up that player just as he's coming into his prime.

This does not mean that the game has passed Arsene by. In fact, it's a sad side-effect of Arsene's insistence on a certain parity in his squads, so much so that it has been maligned as "socialist." Whether this is from envy or perceptiveness is for someone smarter than I to assess. However, between Arsene's ideal and the board's bottom line, Arsenal has been left behind as players seek the best contract they can find for the limited durations of their careers, and other teams with fewer scruples scoop them up, amassing skilled players, yes, but also massive debt. In the short term, we're seeing the fruits of that approach as Man City rocketed to the top of the Prem and Chelsea won last year's UCL. As Gooners look on in apparent dismay, Arsene remains steadfast (or is it stubborn?). His position reminds me of Calvin's tiger Hobbes, who once said, "I don't know what makes me sadder--that everyone has a price, or that the price is always so low." Now, 200,000 quid a week may not seem low, but it does seem cheap, as in chintzy. The trophies that are out there can be bought, or they can be earned. Arsene, for as much as it may frustrate fans, seems to prefer the latter. It worked so exquisitely well--until recently. Can Arsene, one of Europe's most successful coaches, recapture that magic, should he adapt, or should he move on? His future is not entirely his to make, and that will bring me to part two, the talisman.