Philosophy and/or results?  Really?

Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

The results of the Arsenal Supporters' Trust survey were published today, with pretty unsurprising results (for a quick summary, see the Telegraph article on the survey).  The results are interesting, however, for they indicate a lot about the general mood of the supporters (or at least one group of supporters motivated by something to answer the survey, since there were only 350 respondants from within the Trust itself...).  One particular question on the survey raises an issue, though, that is probably the most crucial and yet impossible to answer issue for Arsenal Football Club in the last five years:

...some 53 per cent agreed that Arsène Wenger’s football philosophy took too much precedence over the objective of winning trophies.

This debate has raged on since Arsenal last won the FA Cup in 2005, and it is not going away soon.  However, it is rife with hidden assumptions that paper over the fact that it really is not a debate at all, at least not in the terms that have been stated.  Philosophy cannot be separated from Wenger's desire to win, no matter what the media may imply.

[Before moving ahead, three things: 1) this is a debate that carries a lot of emotion, 2) it is tough to discuss this without sounding like an Arsène Wenger apologist, which, well, I am, and 3) one can entertain suspicions about the results of the survey insofar as one might think supporters aren't well-informed enough or haven't considered the question deeply (I confess to feeling this way often), but even if that admittedly elitist assumption were true, it is best to base any arguments on reason and evidence].

The question from the survey regarding philosophy and results rests on one major assumption: that the two can be separated.  That assumption, in turn, allows for the possibilty that Wenger's number one priority is something other than winning, which is not true.  Setting up the question in this way (the question reads "Do you think that Arsène Wenger's football philosophy takes too much precedence over the objective of winning trophies) sets up a dichotomy that is questionable at best.  53% responded "yes", 43% "no", 3% "sometimes", and 1% "no view".  (Quite a polarizing question, then!)

There is enough evidence out there, gleaned from thousands of interviews and  results on the pitch since 1997 to put the matter to rest, really.  What footballing philosophy, exactly, did the 1998 title winners or the 2002 title winners or the Invincibles "embody"?  Going unbeaten for 49 domestic matches in a row seems to indicate a philosophy geared towards, oh, winning football matches, as does making it to the final of the 2006 Champions League.  The lack of silver over the past five years has cast a fog over all of those triumphs, of course, but to think that Wenger sits in his office for sixteen hours a day painting lovely passing diagrams on his walls in blood simply because he hasn't spent dumptrucks full of cash on dumptrucks full of "grit" to have a chance -- a chance, all any club ever has -- of winning silver is a really dubious conclusion.

Wenger and Arsenal's board recognized long before just about anyone in England what was necessary for long-term sustainability of a Premier League club.  Highbury, one of the greatest stadiums anywhere, sadly was not going to make it much longer, and a plan was put in motion.  This plan was well-thought out and is already bearing fruit, as Arsenal are one of the only top European clubs looking sustainable at the moment.

Of course, the plan meant debt, and debt meant tightening the belts of transfer fees and wages.  Admittedly, Arsenal spend a lot on wages, and admittedly, Wenger has never been one to splash the cash on transfers.  But for the past few years, he simply has not been able to do so, even if he had wanted to.  This summer was the first in recent memory where he reportedly had funds at his disposal, but he is never going to pay over a reasonable valuation for a player.  It is a policy that has saved the club far more than it has harmed the club over the years, despite short-term worries.

Arsenal is emerging now as the club poised to be the most solid going into the future.  The immediate sting of still not having depth at central defender nor a goalkeeper that inspires confidence in supporters is outweighed balance out when one considers that the transfer position of the club is only going to get stronger in years to come.

That's just the economic focus.  Tactically, one could potentially argue that Wenger has failed to adapt to the current styles necessary to win in the Premier League.  However, that argument cannot be separated from the transfer finances (Arsenal have spent a tiny fraction of what the other big three have spent, as well as other clubs), from injuries, from unforseen problems (Flamini leaving, as a small example).  It is one thing to critique the tactics; it is another to question the manager's priorities, especially in the face of history.

This survey question reduces the complexity of football to a simple, asinine binary.  You haven't won anything?  You haven't been trying to win, then; you've been trying to merely play beautifully.

As an Arsenal supporter, when one feels down about things (and one will; it's part of fandom!), it's important to ask: what other club, with so little money to spend, who lost half the starting XI for months last year to injury, would have hung in a title race in the hardest league on earth until the end, reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League, provided a fleet of World Cup starters, sustain one of the best academies in the game, and all while turning a profit that ensures the long-term viability of the club?

The other problem with the survey, of course, has to do with the media.  350 people responded out of a group of folks who tend to be more vocal supporters.  So roughly 180 persons see Wenger as placing aesthetics and philosophy above results, and the media report it as if there are a significant amount of people who feel this way.  And undoubtedly there are, but it is important to remember that the Supporters' Trust does not speak for everyone ((and 75% of those same survey respondents are optimistic for the future!), and that still the vast majority of Arsenal supporters believe in the project.  Arsenal have one of the best managers in history operating with a plan designed to work within heavy short-term constraints; it is important to remember how much worse it could be. 

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