Once, while out skating, I took a crack to the back of my head in a fall, knocking myself out. When I began to come around, I experienced an accelerated evolution of consciousness itself. My vision went from nothing to blurry to sharp. I began to pick out objects that morphed into people hovering around me. As I lay on the cold ice I detected the sensation of the sun on my face and the weight of my body.
But I had no idea who I was. There was thinking going on, but who was doing the thinking was a mystery to the thinker. It was as if I was a floating mind with no identity to root me into my body. I could have been anyone. Eventually (a matter of a half a minute or so that felt like an eternity) I regained a sense of myself. My identity returned and I got to my feet and skated off the same person I was before I fell. I think. I hope.
However, identity, this thing we think we are, is a social construct, not some fixed immutable physical attribute. It can be disconcerting to think of the self as fluid, considering we cling so hard to the concept, but this fluidity and the ability to alter one’s “identity” isn’t a bad thing at all (although a more considered approach than a blow to the head is always a better idea), and it’s always good to let the mind roam free.
Transformation is a matter of survival in the reality of an ever-changing environment. Especially because everything we know, all patterns and customs, always eventually stagnate as new emergent systems form and new approaches and thinking supersede older ones. We all operate in an ever-changing world and if we want to survive and flourish, we need to adapt and evolve or we perish.
This is true for individuals, for organisations, and even for living species. And, not surprisingly, it’s even true in football. Football teams have identities that are fractal-like; players have identities, the team itself has one, the club as a whole has one, and the fans have one too. All of these identities are fluid and subjective and interrelated. If all these multiple identities can align into a Super-Identity then football teams become successful. Arsenal has been on this journey of alignment since Mikel Arteta was appointed manager. For Arsenal fans this journey is one hell of a ride. And it’s really only just begun.
When Mikel Arteta took over in December 2019, Arsenal were at a tipping point. They needed a whole new approach in an ever-changing footballing environment or they risked terminal decline. In fact, that was partly the reason Arteta was appointed, to get his hands dirty and make some difficult and necessary changes. Arteta wasn’t coming just to coach the team, he was coming to sit the entire club down on the psychiatrist’s couch and have a good long talk about self-image and character. Arteta had a project. He was coming to make some changes.
At the time of Arteta’s arrival, Arsenal’s glory years were in the past with their reputation overshadowing their performances. After 22 years Arsene Wenger had been (awkwardly) relieved of his duties and the appointment of Unai Emery was a gamble that didn’t pay off. By the time Emery was sacked, Arsenal were suffering from some serious confidence issues and sliding down the pecking order.
Arteta had an enormous set of on- and off-pitch challenges on his hands and he got straight to work. He wrapped his arms around a then nervy and spooked football club and, in the glare of a baying media, he had a serious word with the club and the doubtful fans that were desperate for an intervention. He gave solace, he engaged with a frayed self-esteem, he brought healing to the culture, he restored the camaraderie and recharged the fighting mentality of the players, the club and the fans, all of which had been dysfunctional for longer than the lifespan of most mammals.
Last season’s beautiful football and newly found capacity to comeback from (almost) any setback revealed the extent to which Arteta was successful. Mikel Arteta had skilfully sculpted a team of players who dared to show how much they want to win. He created a team ready to compete and a team that believed in themselves. But Arteta also managed to do something equally astounding. He worked on and off the pitch to create that oh so difficult thing to nurture-a certain feeling, a certain connection, a certain pride. In doing so he reconnected the fans to the club. Arsenal fans fell in love again last season. And incredibly this isn’t the first time this has happened.
George Graham’s Arsenal (1987-1995) was a successful team, but that Good Ol’ Arsenal was partial to a drink or two (or three) in the local pub, happy to stuff a kebab on the way home, and manage the morning hangover with a full English breakfast only to arrive bleary eyed at the training ground like some out-of-date detective in a 70’s murder mystery. That Arsenal was a pretty defensive character on the whole and stubbornly traditional, suspicious of change and outside influence, and certainly distrustful of over-thinking and ticky-tacky European style individual skills. George Graham’s Arsenal was old school, and when George accepted £425,000 as an “unsolicited gift”, the Board found they had no choice but to sack him, leaving Arsenal stunned and floundering.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved that Arsenal and the trophies they brought to Highbury: two league titles, an FA Cup, two Football League Cups and the 1994 European Cup Winners’ Cup. I sang “One nil to the Arsenal” with as much pride as anyone. But that Arsenal just couldn’t go on living like that. It wasn’t healthy. It was immature and parochial and someone had to help Arsenal grow up because, as we know, nothing stays the same and the football world was changing fast.
So in 1996 when Arsene Wenger arrived from Nagoya Grampus Eight, a Frenchman from the Japanese League, both Arsenal and English football took a metaphorical blow to their identity. Most assumed that it wouldn’t take long to sort this Frenchman out; after all, what did he know about proper football on a wet, cold Tuesday night in Stoke? What these short-sighted critics had forgotten was that history repeats itself, and Arsenal was about to have their own French Revolution.
No more nights out and full English breakfasts for happy-go-lucky slightly tipsy Arsenal. No more Mars Bars and long balls. Instead, Wenger introduced meticulous dietary systems, cutting-edge training regimes, and early nights. He introduced a scientific approach to maximise fitness. He went about revolutionising the squad and introducing a whole new footballing philosophy, a full-on attacking tactical coherence, and a free-flowing football that was beautiful to watch. In doing so, Wenger managed to revolutionise English football itself.
Arsenal won the double in Wenger’s first full season. Under Wenger, Arsenal won 3 league titles, 7 F.A. Cups, 7 Charity Shields, reached the final of the Champions League, and played the entire “Invincibles” season without being beaten. But Wenger’s methods didn’t go unnoticed and Arsenal’s incredible success changed the whole footballing environment in England as emergent systems formed and new approaches and thinking superseded older ones. Other teams started catching up and Arsenal needed to continue evolving or risk decline. But Wenger had run out of steam and once again it was time to adapt and evolve or perish. Which brings us back to Arteta’s appointment in December 2019 and the ongoing new revolution happening right now in real time before our very eyes.
This Arsenal has a swagger. Not the same swagger that George Graham’s Arsenal had after a night out. Not the same swagger Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal had after a night in. This is Arteta’s Arsenal with a smart, super-confident and hard working swagger. This Arsenal has physical stamina, emotional maturity, and mental sharpness. This Arsenal is a highly tuned athlete with Zen-like mind control and the craftiness of a fox on the hunt. This Arsenal is always evolving to adapt to the footballing environment it inhabits and, honestly, for us fans, it takes a little getting used to.
Players like Declan Rice, Jurrian Timber, and Kai Havertz who have real ambition and are overflowing in their prowess, value, and desirability are choosing to come to Arsenal. They see a manager on a mission. They see a club on the up and they see a brand of football they want to play. Even though this is a transition period for Arsenal, players are attracted by the solid vision and long-term belief they have in the club and the manager. The purchase of Declan Rice especially satisfied every seemingly unquenchable hope and started birthing a whole new family of possibilities and dreams. Arteta got what he wanted. His project is backed by a Board that believes in him, his plans for the style of play can now evolve to the next level, and everything moves forward. Momentum momentum momentum on and off the pitch.
Life, and that part of life we call football, are always evolving, always changing. There is no final destination (bar the obvious), there is only the journey. I remember during the Invincibles’ era knowing that the super-sweet taste of perpetual confidence and victory would eventually morph into a bitter taste in the mouth. That human fallibility and inevitable decay would eventually strike more often than a Henry screamer. And that’s the beauty of the game. It’s a reflection of our experience. Over the last couple of seasons we’ve watched Arsenal mature and evolve a new sense of itself to cope with the ever-changing environment in which the club operates. We’ve seen different managers appointed and sacked, seen them bring new ideas and systems all of which are stamped with an Arsenalishness that holds all the changes together. And we’ve had to learn to go with the flow, to deal with the sudden departures from the norm or the slow declines that seem inevitable. And we’ve been convinced that unpredictability is nothing to be feared if there’s a serious plan with the right measures taken in good time.
When clubs are struggling, fans are always ahead of the curve waiting for the club to catch up with expectations, angry, protesting, calling for sackings or new players, demanding new ideas and novel approaches. When clubs are prospering, fans are always behind the curve trying to catch up with clubs expectations, trying to get used to the new territory, the success and the confidence, watching a little amazed as their dreams manifest before them. It’s not often the wider world could learn from football, but with so many currently unfolding challenges tumbling upon us, then being prepared within our ever-changing environment is our only hope for any kind of future flourishing.
If we all want to get up from our metaphorical fall on the ice and skate off with a swagger, we’d better have a long hard think about our identity and how we might make some improvements. Because after all, as identity is a social construct, then imagine how much better the world might be if we just let the mind roam free and imagined a more beautiful existence into being. We just need to take a leaf out of Arsenal’s book.