Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Dominant Narratives

Arsene Wenger's behaviour at the Monday press conference, following the home defeat to Blackburn in the FA Cup, was tetchy, but it was hardly the "meltdown" claimed in the papers. Wenger was entitled to question why The Sun chose to run a claim that he was negotiating a contract extension with the club. This was obviously a windup, intended to goad Arsenal fans to question the manager's tenure. As any fule kno', Wenger has always allowed his contracts to fully wind down before starting fresh negotiations - "I always honour my contract" is his mantra. This has allowed the press to periodically claim that his head is being turned by Real Madrid or PSG, despite the fact that he then signs a new Arsenal contract. Which he has done repeatedly. Over 16 years. You expect this kind of mindless shit-stirring from the tabloids, but even the soi-disant quality press are happy to go along with it.

What we're witnessing is the relentlessness of the "dominant narrative", the chief reason why so much mainstream media reporting on football is column-padding bereft of insight. In the case of Arsenal, the dominant narrative is "x years since their last trophy", which legitimises speculation about the manager's job, the need for our best players to leave if they want to win trophies (apparently Barcelona "fancy" Wilshere, wouldn't you know it), and the squad's lack of bottle (Wilshere excepted). Before anyone suggests that the mislaid trophy cabinet key is simply a reflection of Wenger's declining powers, remember that the same narrative was wheeled out in the 50s, the 60s, the 70s and the 80s (and even the mid-90s). Arsenal have not managed to dominate silverware, and specifically win back-to-back league titles, since the 30s.

Meanwhile, Manure are apparently "on for another treble". This is a variant of their dominant narrative, which is "they don't know when they're beaten". The United mythology is largely founded on the Busby Babes and Munich, the combination of irrepressible youth and resilience. In reality, their success over the years has been based on generating and spending a lot of money. Most press coverage of their doings, in particular the flattery of Ferguson (who routinely acts like a thug in press conferences without shocking journalists), is simply the worship of power. This is not to say that these narratives are without foundation, such as the triumph of the "you'll not win anything with kids" United team in 1996 and their comeback in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern, but popular history inevitably promotes those events that support the narrative and relegates those, like the 1979 FA Cup final, that suggest an alternative. A morbid symptom of this is anxiety at the prospect of the post-Ferguson era, which is coloured by memories of the post-Busby decline and Liverpool's ascension to the perch.

The narrative also colours expectations, not just on the part of fans and media but also on the part of players. Despite being footloose mercenaries, footballers are team-players who consciously accommodate themselves to the club culture, hence the continuing competitiveness of derby matches when few of the players are local. Nothing will endear a new signing to Arsenal fans quicker than relishing the next match against Spurs (expect a Nacho Monreal exclusive shortly). Of course, this can backfire. Blackburn's single stroke of tactical genius last Saturday, other than 11 behind the ball, was to get David Bentley to warm-up in front of the Arsenal singing section. At a time when the crowd needed to lift the team out of its torpor, we ended up abusing the prodigal. "Even Tottenham think you're shit" may be funny, but it's best saved for when you're 3-0 up.

Other sightings of the dominant narrative in recent days can be seen in the "dressing room rift" trope at Chelsea and the "Mancini may be sacked" speculation at Man City. The latter is particularly odd if you consider that the Abu Dhabi Group have only sacked one manager, Mark Hughes (whom they inherited), in almost 5 years of control. These two clubs currently have the same underlying narrative, which is "more money than sense". It is assumed that money corrupts judgement, leading to impatient and callous firing (Mancini has spent longer at City than he did at either Fiorentina or Lazio, and is close to the 4 years he spent at Inter). In the case of Chelsea, strife in the dressing room is held up as both a chief cause of managerial turnover (in reality this churn is just an inability to secure and keep their preferred candidates post-Mourinho) and as evidence of the greed and egoism of the players.

Narratives can evolve if circumstances change. The Chelsea and City ones are newly-minted, for obvious reasons, which gives even their long-standing fans (as opposed to glory-hunters) a queasy sense of shifting sands. The climax to last season saw City's traditional narrative, the ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, threaten to make an all-conquering return, but this will gradually fade as long as the money continues to flow. Chelsea's old narrative, a seedy club off the pitch and flaky entertainers on it, lies six feet under the Bates motel. John Terry is the last link with both the knuckle-dragging Shed mentality of the 80s and the raffish off-field habits of the 70s. With the anodyne "Lucky" Lamps on his way out, and Ashley Cole planning to join a Trappist order, the last vestiges of "colour" will disappear when Terry is finally rendered down for burger meat. Chelsea will then presumably relocate to Monaco.

A good example of the malleability of narrative was the treatment of Mario Balotelli. When he started his career in Italy, a country where the evolution of racial sensitivity is about 30 years behind Britain, the domestic press coverage tended to focus on race and the immaturity of his response to goading, which was reminiscent of sheepskin-coated British managers criticising black players for their "lack of discipline" back in the early 80s. The coverage of Balotelli at Man City by the British media has veered between the challenges of his upbringing (i.e. a more sensitive appreciation of race) and his tendency to spunk money: cars written off, cash handed out to strangers, fireworks in the bathroom etc. The subliminal message was that here was a troubled young man with too much cash, which was emblematic of what City had become. On cue, Balotelli's return to Italy was greeted by Berlusconi's brother using a racial epithet. It's not quite a Ron Atkinson moment, but give it time.

With Arsenal facing an uphill struggle to over-turn a deficit from last night's first leg against Bayern Munich, it would be easy to subscribe once more to the dominant narrative and start wailing "how much longer?" But that would be foolish, and a bit like Spurs fans perennial susceptibility to the belief that "this is going to be our year". Success and trophies will broadly reflect club economics. While Chelsea enjoyed luck in winning the Champions League last year, it was only a matter of time before Abramovich's billions paid off. Arsenal are the 4th richest club in England, so we typically finish 3rd or 4th in the league. Wenger is justified in feeling irked by the insistence of the press that silverware, which is always in part a lottery, is somehow a greater achievement. The point is not that we don't want to win a cup, of course we do, but that the press slant is clearly mischievous. The "potless" narrative has served, off and on, for half a century. Why change a winning formula?

According to the Deloitte list, Arsenal are the 6th richest club in Europe by revenue, but this ignores wealth in the form of dubious sponsorship deals, the writing off of debts, and general financial "doping" by rich owners. There is no agreed ranking for club wealth, as it obviously comes down to the willingness of owners to pump in cash on demand, but I suspect the current "sustainable" model  would put Arsenal closer to 10th or 12th position (PSG don't even make Deloitte's top twenty). Wealth is a better guide to the ability of clubs to buy players, and if you look at squad value, Arsenal's league position has outperformed that value for some time now, which is a pretty clear indication of the value-added of Wenger and the club infrastructure. It is hardly a surprise then if we typically end up going out of the Champions League around the last 16 or last 8. Our relative under-performance in the FA and League Cups is real enough, but this is probably more down to bad luck than bad players (see Birmingham in 2011). Though it would be welcome, I suspect a cup win would do no more than change the narrative to "x years since winning the league", something that Liverpool fans have long since had to get used to.

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