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The Power Of Narrative; Or, Why Arsenal Won't Win (But Will Come Very Close)

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Let's talk about talking.

Shaun Botterill

The Internet has brought us many, many wonderful things.  Like what, you ask? Well, in the early days, it was your one stop shop for Star Trek and Monty Python scripts, which a Python obsessive like me was really grateful for. As people started to exploit the utility of an easy, democratic, unfiltered form of communication, the Internet brought us everything, from everywhere - all of a sudden in the late 90's, from my little apartment in Seattle, where I was living at the time, I had access to the whole damn world: I could follow Arsenal online, I could check newspapers in Germany, I could see what the beaches in Cape Town looked like, all from my glorious 28.8 dial up modem. INFORMATION WANTS TO BE FREE.

Now, of course, the Internet is mostly a home for adorable cat videos. Another thing the Internet has going for it is that it has done a fantastic job at creating and fostering communities - you like knitting? Go to Ravelry! how about philately? Stamp Community Family is for you! The Internet let people of like mind but scattered geography get together and talk about things they love, sharing expertise and passion for whatever anyone can think of, and that's awesome.

Sports, of course, was a natural fit for this model - particularly if you were a fan of a team in a city in which you don't live. For the first time, thanks to "chat rooms", you could "hang out" with people who liked your same color of laundry wherever you were - whether you were a Mariners fan in Connecticut (as I was in the early 00's) or an Arsenal fan anywhere in not-Islington, you finally had a tribe.

But there's a downside to this. Without launching into a screed about how the Internet not only promotes but encourages groupthink, the other thing that happens in Internet conversations is that things harden into narrative at breathtaking speed - one person says X, another person reads X and repeats it to their online community, and this fractals out exponentially until the story about a thing is X that the first person said, whether X is true or not, because X has now gained the weight of thousands if not millions of people who accept it because thousands if not millions of other people said it too.

Arsenal, in the Internet/Wenger era, has seen its share of narratives that have taken root this way. In chronological order from Wenger's first full season:

1. Arsene Wenger only buys French players (despite having bought Ljungberg, Overmars, Kanu and any number of not-French people)
2. Wenger's teams have no discipline and are a bunch of thugs (Vieira was a hothead, Tony Adams/Martin Keown/Nigel Winterburn well ok sure this one may have legs fine whatever)
3. Wenger teams only ever want to walk the ball into the net and never play direct (despite the fact that Wenger has evolved over the years - this one lasted a really, really long time)
4. Arsenal always sell off their best players (largely true but with many, many caveats) and only ever panic buy at the summer deadline

So as you can see, narratives harden, but they also stop being true at some point.  The TROPHY DROUGHT narrative was the worst of all - not least because it was started with a grain of truth, that Arsenal hadn't won a trophy in a while. But then people GMO'd that truthy grain to suit whatever agenda they had until the insignificance of that truth was buried under a whole lot of nonsense - on both sides of the ARSENAL HAVEN'T WON A TROPHY SINCE LIKE V-E DAY argument - and the noise outstripped the signal so bad that a lot of people stopped looking for the signal and started bathing in the noise.

Last season, though, a new narrative started to bloom like a daisy in the disused garbage dump labeled TROPHY DROUGHT. Arsenal's revenue streams started being less like a Tucson wash in June and more like a Cascade mountain stream in April, and with that came, last season, the purchase of Mesut Özil, and this season, Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy, and David Ospina - all acquired to fit a specific need, all acquired prior to August 1st, and all acquired as part of a master plan that is being executed to perfection this summer.

Now, if you're a believer in narrative, this is the point in the narrative where you say "Everything's in place, money's been spent - ARSENAL WILL BE CHAMPIONS NOW!" Unfortunately, though, it's not that simple. For one thing, there are a few other teams that will have a say in who will be champions, and those teams either got better or stayed good.

Another problem Arsenal have struggled with over the years is health. This is year one of the Shad Forsythe era, and it's hoped that his influence and methods will increase Arsenal's ability to stay healthy; I'm not a doctor so I can't say, but it's a hopeful sign that Arsenal realized they had a problem and took steps to address it.

The third, and least quantifiable, problem Arsenal need to overcome is one of confidence. To be generous, Arsenal haven't played well against big teams or in big games for the last few years; they seem to like making up ground in the second leg of CL ties, and they didn't seem to understand that it was OK to show up for games against title rivals.

This August, though, is different than the last few - Arsenal have another FA Cup in their trophy case, and they have a squad which carries several freshly minted World Cup winners. The hope is that the confidence imbued by both of those things will help Arsenal play better in bigger games, but we won't know until Arsenal come into a big game if that's true or not. We can hope, and we can presume, but as the cliche goes, that's why they play the games.

So, all that being said, do I think Arsenal will win the title this year? No, I do not.  Until they prove they can win - or at least be competitive - against top four sides, I don't see how they can. I do, however, think they'll finish second, and that they'll be in the title race until the last week of the season.  If things go very right, they might win it all; I hope they do, I want them to, but I'm prepared for a second place finish and I'm pretty damn excited by it.

Is it Saturday yet?