Arsenal’s Identity and Evolution
Skating, I fell and knocked myself out. When I came around, consciousness evolved faster. I saw nothing, hazy, and crisp. I picked selected items that became people around me. I felt the sun on my face and my weight on the cool ice.
I was clueless. The thinker was unsure who was thinking. I felt like a floating mind without a body. I could be anybody. I regained my identity after a half-minute that felt like an eternity. I stood up and skated off as myself. I think. I hope.
However, identity—what we think we are—is a social construct. It’s disconcerting to think of the self as fluid, considering we cling to the concept, but the ability to change one’s “identity” isn’t a bad thing (although a more considered approach than a blow to the head is always better), and it’s good to let the mind roam free.
Survival in a changing world requires transformation. Especially because everything we know, all patterns and habits, eventually stagnate as new emergent systems evolve and fresh ideas and thinking replace older ones. We must adapt and evolve to survive in a changing world.
This applies to people, organizations, and even animals. Football is no exception. Football teams have fractal identities—players, teams, clubs, and fans. These identities are subjective and interconnected. Football teams succeed if these multiple identities form a Super-Identity. Arsenal has aligned since Mikel Arteta became manager. Arsenal fans have a wild ride. It’s just begun.
In December 2019, Mikel Arteta took over Arsenal. In a changing football climate, they required a new approach or feared terminal decline. Arteta was hired to get his hands dirty and make tough but essential reforms. Arteta was coming to talk to the players about self-image and character, not merely coach them. Arteta worked. He came to change.
Arsenal’s reputation overshadowed their performances when Arteta arrived. After 22 years, Arsene Wenger was painfully fired, and Unai Emery was a risk that failed. Arsenal had lost confidence and fell down the league by the time Emery was fired.
Arteta tackled his massive on- and off-pitch issues immediately. He put his arms around a jittery football club and had a serious talk with the club and the dubious fans who were anxious for an intervention in front of a baying media. He comforted, healed the culture, restored camaraderie, and revitalized the battling spirit of the players, club, and supporters, all of which had been dysfunctional for longer than most mammals.
Last season’s magnificent football and the ability to recover from practically any setback showed Arteta’s success. Mikel Arteta created a team that dared to demonstrate their desire to win. He built a confident, competitive squad. Arteta did something similarly amazing. He worked on and off the field to foster that elusive emotion, connection, and pride. He reestablished fan-club relations. Last season, Arsenal fans rekindled. Incredibly, this has happened before.
George Graham’s Arsenal (1987-1995) was successful, 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 defensive, conventional, apprehensive of change and outside influence, and distrustful of overthinking and ticky-tacky European individual skills. Arsenal was old school, and when George Graham accepted £425,000 as a “unsolicited gift,” the Board had no choice but to fire him, leaving Arsenal astonished and floundering.
I loved Arsenal and the trophies they delivered to Highbury—two league crowns, an FA Cup, two Football League Cups, and the 1994 European Cup Winners’ Cup. I sung “One nil to the Arsenal” proudly. But Arsenal couldn’t live like that. Not healthy. It was juvenile and provincial, and someone had to help Arsenal grow up because nothing stays the same and the football world was changing rapidly.
Arsenal and English football suffered a symbolic blow when Frenchman Arsene Wenger arrived from Nagoya Grampus Eight in 1996. On a rainy, cold Tuesday night in Stoke, what did this Frenchman know about proper football? These short-sighted naysayers overlooked that history repeats, and Arsenal was about to have its own French Revolution.
Arsenal’s happy-go-lucky slightly tipsy days are over. No Mars Bars or long balls. Instead, Wenger instituted strict diets, cutting-edge training, and early nights. He applied science to fitness. He revolutionized the squad, establishing a new footballing philosophy, full-on attacking tactical coherence, and beautiful free-flowing football. Wenger revolutionized English football.
Wenger’s first season saw Arsenal double. Wenger led Arsenal to the Champions League final, 3 league crowns, 7 F.A. Cups, 7 Charity Shields, and the “Invincibles” season. Wenger’s methods were noted, and Arsenal’s tremendous success transformed England’s footballing landscape as new systems and ideas replaced old ones. Arsenal needed to adapt to stay ahead. Wenger was exhausted, therefore it was time to adapt or die again. Which leads us back to Arteta’s appointment in December 2019 and the continuous new revolution we’re witnessing.
Onkar Shirsekar art
Arsenal struts. Not George Graham’s Arsenal’s post-party swagger. Not Arsenal’s post-night-in swagger. Arsenal under Arteta is smart, confident, and hardworking. This Arsenal is strong, mature, and smart. Arsenal is a Zen-like athlete with fox-like cunning. This Arsenal is constantly adapting to its footballing surroundings, which takes some getting used to for fans.
Declan Rice, Jurrian Timber, and Kai Havertz—ambitious, talented, and desirable—are joining Arsenal. They perceive an ambitious manager. They see a rising club and a style of play they like. Despite Arsenal’s transformation, players are drawn to the club’s long-term ambition and manager. Declan Rice’s purchase fulfilled every seemingly insatiable hope and launched a new family of possibilities and dreams. Arteta got his way. His idea is supported by a Board that believes in him, so his style of play can improve and everything advances forward. Off-pitch momentum.
Football—and life—are continuously changing. Only the journey matters. I recall knowing during the Invincibles’ heyday that the super-sweet taste of everlasting confidence and victory would turn bitter. Human fallibility and degradation would strike more often than a Henry screamer. That’s the game’s beauty. It’s our story.
Arsenal has matured and adapted to its ever-changing surroundings during the last two seasons. We’ve seen managers come and go, bringing new ideas and systems with an Arsenalishness that binds them. We’ve had to adapt to rapid changes and steady decreases. We’re confident that unpredictability is nothing to fear if there’s a genuine plan and timely action.
When clubs are failing, fans are always ahead of the curve, upset, demonstrating, screaming for sackings or new players, demanding new ideas and novel techniques. When clubs are successful, fans are always behind, attempting to catch up with club expectations, getting used to the new territory, success, and confidence, watching a little amazed as their dreams come true. The wider world rarely learns from football, but with so many present issues, being prepared in our ever-changing environment is our only hope for future success.
If we want to rise up from our metaphorical fall on the ice and skate off with swagger, we need to think carefully about our identity and how we may improve. Since identity is a social construct, think how much better the world could be if we allowed our minds wander and imagined a more lovely existence. Just emulate Arsenal.
Arsenal’s Identity and Evolution