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The Dangers Of Binary Thinking

Let's talk about thought processes, shall we?

That's his thinking face
That's his thinking face
Alex Livesey

Things are, shall we say, not going particularly swimmingly in the Arsenal universe these days.  The club has gone from first to fourth, and that fourth place finish is no sure thing as the season winds down, either.  But, this article is not going to get into the specifics of the situation - there's lots of places where one can do that, including several on this here site.

No, what I want to do today is take a step back and look at how people react to things.  The internet, by its very nature, is a quick-fire, unfettered id of a place - people can say whatever they want whenever and however they want, and given the comforting cloak of anonymity, that's almost always what happens.

The trouble with that, though, is that often times people post when they're...inflamed about something.  This can be both good and bad - if it's something you love, or something good that happened in the moment, it's easy to pour out a bunch of words about it and be happy.  Conversely, it's just as easy to get mad at something and pound out a rant on your keyboard, and either get it out of your system or keep the rant going until all the steam has been taken out of it.

In a lot of ways, this is healthy, and 99% of the time it's fine - people need outlets, and people need to vent.  And in a game thread-type situation, that's perfectly OK, it's a large part of the fun of the whole thing.

The problem, at least to me, lies when those angry rants codify into a narrative that then becomes accepted as fact because a lot of people on the internet say it and repeat it.  It happens everywhere on the internet, not just on sports sites, and it's equally as annoying everywhere because it contains maybe just the tiniest grain of truth. When that tiny little truth grain is served with a big ol' helping of confirmation bias (with a side of recency bias for extra flavor) by both its detractors and its supporters to say HEY LOOK I WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG, though, that's where I start to have issues.

In Arsenal's case specifically, the debate has codified into the following points:

- Arsenal always collapse in the spring
- Arsenal are perfectly happy to finish fourth and never win anything ever 
- Arsene Wenger refuses to spend money that, if spent, would avoid a spring collapse
- Arsene Wenger has lost it (or the game has passed him by)

There may be more, but those are the main ones that I see across the internet these days.  The problem is, each one of them falls victim to the process I described above.  The other, and arguably bigger, issue is that on the internet, there's apparently no room for nuance - it's a binary thinking paradise where you either think X or you think Y.  You can see this in each one of those bullets:


So if Arsenal aren't winning, they're collapsing, right?  There's only two poles there?  Wrong.  This season in particular, Arsenal have been ravaged with injuries to their most important players.  This is not an excuse; it's a fact.  As Lotusprime put it in the reaction thread:

Take Sturridge and Suarez and Gerrard away from Liverpool and they're wretched.
Take Hazard and Willian and Terry away from Chelsea and they're not a top 2 team.
Take away Toure and Silva and Kompany from City and they're not nearly the same.
but of course if you take away Walcott and Ozil and Ramsey, we should be exactly the same and keep winning.

Arsenal are not playing well, that's a fact.  Nobody will argue that fact.  But that fact is not proof of an "annual collapse".  It's proof that, this season, Arsenal are dealing with a first eleven that has been shorn of its three best players for a good chunk of the season.  Find me a team that isn't funded by oil who can cope well with that.


Show me where anyone at the club has said "we're OK with being mediocre by the standards of elite teams".  Go on, I'll wait.

Are you back yet?  Good.  Didn't find anything, did you?  Oh wait, you found Arsene's quote about "fourth place being a trophy" and you feel all happy about that because you'll prove me wrong.  But what you almost never bring back with that oft-repeated quote is the context.  The context being that Arsene was asked about Arsenal's success in terms of what at the time was a severely limited budget (relative to the top three teams, at least) and, yes, Arsenal's thin squad.  So of course in those terms, fourth place was deemed a success.  Any manager given the same constraints would say the same.


This is probably the least binary of all the points, because there's good arguments to be made on both sides that gives the discussion a lot more nuance than it ever gets.  Arsene doesn't spend unless he is absolutely convinced the expenditure is a good one; this is not the way the game works nowadays, so he's pilloried for doing things his way when his way has treated Arsenal fairly well over the years.

There is a discussion to be had about Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager, sure; that discussion is not HE REFUSES TO SPEND MONEY, however.  It's much more than that.


Sports is a zero-sum game; you win or you lose, and you can't do both (yes, I know, draws, but still). Arsene Wenger has won more than he's lost, by a not-inconsiderable margin.  Does that, at this point, give him a lifetime pass free from criticism or questions?  No, it absolutely does not.  But what it should give him is the chance for the discussion about Wenger's future to be about more than "HE'S LOST THE PLOT" or "HE DOESN'T SPEND MONEY".

When contemplating the end of a managerial era such as Wenger's, or Ferguson's at Manchester United, or any other long-tenured manager, it's not any one thing that should cause the end of that era.  Unless, I guess, Arsenal's entire starting eleven goes out and murders a bunch of homeless people by beating them to death with kidnapped babies the night before a game or something.

In normal circumstances, and with a team as successful as Arsenal have been throughout his time at the club, a manager as successful and as tenured as Wenger should by rights be allowed to define his own exit.  Again, that doesn't mean he can't be criticized, but after all he's done for the club, to demand he be run out of town on a rail solely because he won't spend money is shortsighted and kinda crazypants.

I guess what I'm saying with all this is just...think more, react less.  It's easy to rant and it's satisfying to vent, particularly after a tough loss like Sunday's, but in between game threads, let's all take a step back and think things  through for a minute before hardening those rants into a narrative that carries the weight of truth.