Dear Baby Gooner,
I return to this diary uncharacteristically fast. But I want to express an idea foreshadowed in the previous entry.
In that entry, I asked whether Arsenal’s current squad is the best in England, the answer to which—for all intents and purposes—is no. There are a number of reasons for this, the least of which is not the fact that Arsenal aren’t going to win anything this season, or the fact that the current squad isn’t the deepest.
Notwithstanding these factors and many such others, I answered yes to the question, basing the answer on potential, affordability and efficiency.
Based on this factor alone, Arsenal wouldn’t normally be expected to win any competition involving these three.
The implication of this is the reason many Arsenal fans grumble in the face of the club’s parsimonious approach to transfer and spending.
The golden rule of football stares them coldly in the face: No spending; No stars; No trophies.
And if the purpose of sports is nothing but winning, then appealing to the virtue of prudence and restraint becomes empty rhetoric.
One fan, in fact, told me quite bluntly at the height of 2010 World Cup fever, that football is about winning. Period.
I offered little in the way of resistance. But just a few days later, I won the argument.
You see, he and some others like him returned to the same forum, taking severe exception to Nigel de Young’s Karate football in the final of the World Cup.
They said Holland used ugly tactics. More than one of its players should have been sent off, they continued. It seemed, then, that football isn’t just about winning, after all; other things, such as playing fair or not playing “ugly,” matter.
If they do, then Arsenal's parsimony shouldn’t be brushed aside as though it were unimportant or irrelevant.
When, for example, moral lessons are drawn in the countless books about football and other sports, are we not saying that sports touches upon areas other than entertainment?
Or when we writes books with titles like “Soccer and Philosophy,” are we not admitting that “yes and indeed, football isn’t the sum of all things, but nevertheless, it does touch upon a few important questions of life?”
In light of this, then, matters of efficiency, economy, productivity and prudence must come into play when questions like what the best team is are posed.
Having spent almost a billion pounds in the last two seasons, shouldn’t we expect Manchester City to win everything, since, in fact, the bulk of this money has gone into collecting stars?
When Chelsea lose huge amounts annually because of huge expenses in the transfer market, are we just justifying our own failure when we expect them to punch way above Arsenal? And if they have replaced Arsenal as the main challenger to Manchester United, should that be a thing of surprise?
But more importantly, when Chelsea’s or City’s success fails to match their expenditure, shouldn’t we be entitled to question the wisdom of this way of doing business? Shouldn’t we also be entitled to a laugh or two?
Let’s consider Manchester United.
They’ve always bought whomever they want at whatever time they want (with this season being the odd one, granted); is it any wonder that they dominate affairs in England?
And if they are able to buy at will, shouldn’t we ask how they acquired this power? And shouldn’t we work to acquire similar power?
In sum, the balance sheet does matter, contrary to what a few disgruntled fans think.
I wanted, though, to examine the question of Manchester’s and Sir Alex Ferguson’s winning mentality vis-a-vis Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.
Arsene Wenger’s favorite but enigmatic words, “desire” and “believe,” acquire focus when considered in the light of Manchester United’s and Ferguson’s assumption that they can—and will—always win.
Bar last year’s Champions League final, how many matches do Manchester United play under the assumption that they won’t win?
Somehow, the collective world expects Manchester United to win.
But the key here isn’t expectation, it is the enthymematical first order for Manchester United, its manager and its fans, that they’d always win.
I dare say this has little to do with their purchasing power, since Manchester United, even when not playing particularly well, always have this understanding undergirding them.
They aren’t expected to crumble and fall away. If anything, they’re expected to get stronger as the finish line looms.
Contrast this with Spurs and Arsenal, or even the Manchester City of this season, and the point should break for you.
Arsenal are expected—in fact they expect themselves—to crumble and fall away at the sight of the finish line, and true to belief, they always do.
Their fans never believe—or so it seems—that Arsenal can get stronger when the finish line appears. The players, themselves, don't.
In the last five seasons, time after time they’ve found themselves in a strong position to win the league, but every time they’ve fallen away like mist.
That word—dangerously foolish it sounds. Invalid, in fact, in the face of objective empiricism.
That word—superstitious, an abstract that lacks definition.
And yet, it seems to be the one word that makes the difference in the personal stories of Manchester United and Arsenal.
Sir Alex Ferguson believes. His fans believe, his players too.
Arsene Wenger believes. His fans don’t, neither do his players.
In the two cases, the press believes with Ferguson, but mocks the idea in the Frenchman. And so as not to appear silly or superstitious, Wenger’s own fans mock the notion. “Arrant nonsense,” they say. “Go buy some players.”
That, certainly, is one solution, but apparently, it’s not the only solution nor is it the best.
Were this so, Manchester City would be on their way to winning the Champions League right now. It is even uncertain right now that they’ll win the Premiership title this season; plus, there’s no League Cup or the FA Cup for them, either.
So buying players isn’t the only solution.
Cue Bayern Munich who didn’t win the German title last season, nor is there any guarantee they’ll win it this season either, and yet the difference in their squad and Borussia Dortmund’s—winners of last season’s German title—is like day and night in terms of cost.
What about Inter Milan or Real Madrid? Real will win the Spanish league this season? Good for them, but they’ve attempted and failed in the last few seasons, despite a very handsome and highly expensive squad.
Again, buying isn’t everything.
But let’s concentrate on belief. What is it? Does it even exist?
Not if you think that such Hegelian notions as Vorstellung and Weltgeist are nonsensical mumbo-jumbo—pardon the tautology.
And yet the idea of “better” as we find in discourses on advancement assume that there’s such a thing as a force that drives things towards an end of sorts. That is, there’s after all, some sort of “will to power.”
Isn’t it the idea behind the modern person’s belief—alas, the word—that if he or she were only to try harder, things would become better? For, were everything really hinged upon uncontrollable or formless chaos, what guarantee would there be that things could be better, in spite of how hard a person tried?
“Belief,” then, saturates our everyday conversation and our common understanding of life.
And yet, I can’t even define it. But if I attempted to, I’d say belief is that thing that makes people think they can do or achieve something.
It is what the collective Manchester United seem to possess, and what the collective Arsenal seem at the moment to lack.
Manchester United believe they’ll win the title, Arsenal don’t.
Manchester United believe their squad will bounce back from any temporary setback, Arsenal don’t. It is the reason United fans rarely bay for Ferguson’s blood while a section of Arsenal fans seems to think it's fun to demand for Wenger’s.
Even now, when Arsenal have enjoyed remarkable form of late, yours truly still calls for caution, and yet does not think to doubt—not strongly anyway—that United could win the Premiership title once again.
Bayer Leverkusen, like Arsenal, don’t have it. Is it any wonder that they don’t manage to win anything?
Wenger’s favorite word.
Maybe there’s something to the word after all.
It is the point in the David-Goliath metaphor. Belief that with a piece of stone and a sling one can achieve the impossible.
I posit that that piece of stone and a sling is a good metaphor for the abstractive “belief,” the enigmatic word that Wenger loves to bandy about.
But rather than call it “bandy,” why not say that perhaps Wenger knows what he’s talking about, just like Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United seem to do?
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