Ken Early: Wenger’s troubles at Emirates reminiscent of Brexit
Arsenal fans endure the widest gap between what they want and what they have
Marcos Alonso ran and jumped and planted his elbow into Héctor Bellerín’s jaw so hard that Bellerín was already unconscious by the time Alonso headed the ball. It was a foul, of course it was, it couldn’t have been more obvious. Yet the pundits, even the ex-Arsenal players, mostly agreed that it was hard but fair.
That consensus reflected the fact that Arsenal are seen as weak, and in English football the weak get no sympathy. When they get bullied, people think they deserve it.
It’s doubtful whether Arsenal’s defeat even qualified as a disappointment. Disappointment implies an element of frustrated expectation, but few Arsenal fans could have expected anything other than another bad beating at Stamford Bridge. They have won two out of their last 22 away matches against Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs. Failure has become a habit.
It was not the best weekend for the news to emerge that Arsenal will leave it up to Arsène Wenger to decide whether he wishes to continue in the job. A two-year contract extension awaits his signature.
The horror with which many Arsenal fans greeted this news on social media showed how the board and the fans look at the club in fundamentally different ways. To the board, Wenger has been a guarantee of consistency, stability, and prosperity. To the fans all he represents is a guarantee of failure.
In some ways, the dynamic is reminiscent of the Brexit referendum, at least as the Brexiteers like to see it. Arsenal is ruled by an out-of-touch establishment elite that complacently believes the club has never had it so good. The ruling class is too busy feasting at the trough to notice that the “real people” are righteously angry and yearn to “get their Arsenal back”.
Wenger himself could scarcely be a more quintessential man of the postwar European liberal establishment. He grew up a few kilometres from the Euro-heartland of Strasbourg. He is a multilingual internationalist, whose work draws on influences from France, Germany, Holland and Japan. Openly disdainful of nationalism, he has picked more teams containing no English players than the rest of the Premier League combined. He has described himself, unselfconsciously, as “a facilitator of what is beautiful in man”. He even has a degree in economics.
Back in the late 1990s some newspapers called him “The Professor”; hard as it may now be to believe, that was usually meant respectfully. At that time his intellect, enlightenment and sophistication seemed like qualities worth aspiring to. There were a few years when the word “urbane” underwent a mini-renaissance, as there appeared to be a rule that it had to be included in every newspaper article about Arsène Wenger.
These days rationality has gone out of fashion, “urbane” has suspicious overtones of “metropolitan”, and Wenger is just another overpaid expert in a Britain that is tired of experts.
As to the forces that wish to sweep Wenger away, it is impossible to ignore the increasingly central role being played by Arsenal Fan TV, the YouTube channel that does video interviews with fans before and after every Arsenal game.
Wenger could certainly understand its appeal. In 2015 he gave an interview to L’Equipe Sport and Style in which he explained that he liked working in England because the English, unlike the Cartesian French, “know how to lose themselves in emotions”. He also said that “the philosophical definition of happiness is a match between what you want and what you have”.
These quotes explain why Arsenal Fan TV works. Of all Premier League supporters, Arsenal fans endure the widest gap between what they want and what they have. What they want is world domination; what they have is a team that can be depended on to fail whenever it really counts. It’s a formula for uncontrollable surges of anger and frustration, emotions in which the wronged Arsenal fans are happy to lose themselves. The more passionately they channel these emotions, the more views they get.
Arsenal Fan TV is never more popular than in the aftermath of a stinging Arsenal humiliation, such as the 2-1 home defeat to Watford last Tuesday night. By the weekend, a couple of the angriest post-Watford rants had attracted nearly half a million views each. Post-match interviews with the actual managers typically get barely 5 per cent of that.
This is a major disruption of the media ecosystem in which Wenger operates, and it is not to his advantage. Before the proliferation of internet channels, the conversation about Wenger was shaped by the mainstream media – that is, professional journalists who actually met and spoke to him at matches and press conferences. In this context, Wenger’s personal charm was a huge asset. Most journalists couldn’t help liking him, and they tended to see his tribulations in a sympathetic light.
The new generation of critics get no facetime with Wenger. They are immune to his charm. They don’t see him as an honest man trying his best according to cherished values, but as an aging dictator determined to enjoy more highly salaried years at their expense.
If they held a referendum on Wenger’s future tomorrow, Wengxit would be a reality. Arsenal is not a democracy; the board can keep him as long as they choose. But he’s lost control of the message, and as the media covering the club become ever more fragmented and chaotic, it’s clear that he is never getting it back.