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Tactics vs. Narrative

If Arsene does what people don't think he does, what does that mean?

Paul Gilham

We all know the power of narrative. Narrative can turn fiction into truth by its sheer repetition; narrative can also actually be true. In sports, narratives are particularly powerful - an athlete's strong performance following the death of a family member is seen as "courageous", a first game back following an injury is "a heroic comeback", and so on. This, despite the reality that these are just dudes getting back to work, like we all do, and nobody calls the clerk at Office Depot "courageous" for coming back after a week's absence thanks to a sprained ankle.

Why do I bring this up? I bring this up because Arsenal aren't playing particularly well right now, as we all know. What this has done is cause the various pro- and anti-Wenger camps, fresh off a break that lasted all of a couple weeks, to harden their stances based on recent results and injuries, because if there's one thing that both pro- and anti-Wengerites can agree on, it's that confirmation bias is super fun.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, "confirmation bias" is the tendency to interpret information about a thing in such a way as to confirm one's already-held notion of that thing. So, if Arsenal draw while playing a 4-1-4-1, and if you're not a fan of the 4-1-4-1, it's definitive proof to you that the 4-1-4-1 does not work and that Arsene is insane for using it. In reality, as some have pointed out in the comments, Arsene Wenger switching up formations to adapt to opponents is actually tactics, which is something many have accused Wenger of not using in the past.  Whether the change in tactics is successful or not is a separate discussion; the point is, things actually do change tactically when people think they don't.

None of this is necessarily to defend what's been happening lately, nor is it to condemn it. It's merely to point out that life is not binary; it's not a case of "Wenger's awesome" or "Wenger has lost the plot". After all, Wenger's not the one on the pitch kicking the ball around; he arranges the bits on the field, but the bits on the field have to do their jobs successfully as well, and right now several people aren't. We can complain all we want about Özil being played out of position (and Özil wasn't the problem on Saturday anyway), but when it comes down to it, Özil, and every player on the pitch, plays where they are told to play.

At some point, it's incumbent on the players to adapt to what's asked of them; if, for example, Özil is being asked to play on the right more than he's used to, maybe he should train more on the right, because he knows it's something the team needs.

The other thing people often forget in their rush to angry judgment is that soccer games have opponents; Arsenal can't just show up, be Arsenal, and walk out winners. Teams are trying to stop Arsenal from winning, and right now they're succeeding, but again that's not the fault of any one man or one factor on its own.

It's really easy to see the "struggles" of a fourth place, no league losses yet Arsenal right now and say WENGER OUT or WHY NO CDM or any one of four or five popular narratives; what's harder is to look through all the stupid stuff and see what's actually going on. To me, what's actually going on is that Arsenal are a good team that are in an indifferent run of form; that's not solely Arsene's fault, nor is it the fault of any one thing in isolation. It's a combination of tactics that may not be adapting to situations quickly enough, injuries that have affected what tactics can be used, and players not playing as well as they should.

The great thing about these problems is that they're all solvable (and not, narrative fans, by firing the manager).  I'm not giving up; I'm not even particularly angry about Saturday.  I'm just interested to see what happens next.