19 December 2019

On the Way - or - Do you believe in magic?

Time's up. Here comes Just Another Manager, to be followed, no doubt, by Yet Another Manager.
I'd say I hate to say I told you so, but I hate to say I hate to say I told you so. So I say: I told you so.

Seems like we have a series on our hands. Welcome to part two of Arsenal Managers Get Sacked, Sigh. Farewell, Unai Emery, who couldn't stick around long enough for English speakers to be able to say his name properly. Stress is such a problem for managers.

In the last thirty-three years, Arsenal have waved goodbye to only four permanent managers. When an Arsenal boss is given a single to Stepaside, it tends to be an occasion with heft – the end of a dynasty, the prelude to a succession. George Graham's sacking was explosive and wreathed in scandal. Arsène Wenger's departure was monumental like a retreating glacier. The end of Bruce Rioch's brief but productive tenure was baffling at first, but soon revealed itself to be part of a plan. The end of a manager's term was a sign that one way or another, something was happening.

Just a year and a half separated late Graham from early Wenger – all there was between that grit-turned-stodge and the first hints of the sublime. More than that: it separated two completely different conceptions of the club. There, apparently, for a steady and remarkably fruitful century, solid and deadly as a cannonball, flew Boring Arsenal; suddenly, in its place danced a company of angels (with surprisingly bad disciplinary records). A totally new fundamental truth had been established, displacing the old one. Within months, Boring Arsenal was so long ago that it may as well not have existed. Today, even further removed from that strange idea, somewhere there is an Arsenal fanatic taking time out from dealing with a second divorce by watching a YouTube clip allegedly of pre-1996 Arsenal and wondering what Rotherham have to do with anything.

And sure, the start of the subsequent decline long preceded the end of the Wengerian age, and Wenger was a participant in that decline. But his leaving was an ending. Events since then have shown that he may have been the only person at the club who knew what went where.

Emery’s time as manager had its merits. Arsenal would have qualified for the Champions League if not for the games they lost. There was the occasional display of the elan that had periodically shone right to the end of the Wenger era like a beautiful smile through fading ideals. You might have been tempted to believe that this was just what Arsenal did – that even when times were rough, they would occasionally allow confidence to overwhelm them, if only out of habit. Time gave the lie to such naivety. In part to cover deficiencies in the squad he was given to work with, Emery's tactics from game to game evoked a recurring dream where the protagonist spends an age searching for something before realising they don't actually know what it is they're searching for. The players would second-guess themselves, third-guess, fourth-guess, and eventually just guess. The last year and a half has been a slowly draining battery. The key word is "purposelessness", which enacts itself by starting out full of intent, then hissing to a sorry halt. The sacking of Emery was totally unshocking because no-one had the energy left to be shocked – an unnervingly mundane conclusion.

Just a year and a half. It's nice to think that a team's highest historical standards are a default to which it should return once choppy waters have been sailed through. The [Club] Way will kick in, especially if the team is helmed by men with [Club] DNA. All that success must have happened for a reason: virtue rewarded. This mythologising of past euphoria is one of the pleasures of being a fan, but it hides the reality, which is that your club is just a lifeless spirit needing intervention by an animating force. Or, as one sage put it: you gotta make it happen. The positive thing about this is that you can make it happen. But you can't just wave your Way at the opposition and expect them to fall in line – they have their own narratives to nurture. A past, and the pride, self-aggrandisement, and nervous aspiration that come with it, are useless on their own. Whatever you want has to be dug out of the cold, hard present, and then dug out all over again next time around. A sustained spell of success should, if you're being reasonable, be regarded as miraculous. It will fall apart if not tended to. It might fall apart even if it is tended to, but the tending is mandatory. An era, a self-image, an amour-propre – they’re fragile conceits.

And if a club's upper echelons allow a long-serving manager's reign to drift gently into impotence, if they fail to properly plan for his succession, and if they then fire the successor without much of a plan for his succession, you see what happens when nothing happens. Revealed is the default human state: to faff about cluelessly. A club's default state is to sink towards the bottom, which in this sport is a long way down. The basic aim of a club is to counteract this descent. You hope it's up to the task.


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