Thursday, December 4, 2014

Arsenal's Omniscients Miss the Point

If you're so smart, how do you explain your spectacularly poor timing?

That's the only meaningful question raised by the dismissive banner unveiled in the away end after Arsenal's 1-0 win against West Bromwich Albion. The team had just won its second match in four days, holding the opposition scoreless again. Yet a few of the leading lights in the grandstand thought that was the right occasion to publicize their desire to usher manager Arsène Wenger into retirement.

The episode was unedifying. We heard no new arguments about freedom of expression, got no insights into the internecine debates among Arsenal supporters, gained no appreciation of the complicated task of managing a professional sports organization.

What we did get was a glimpse of modern sports support, if not life, in all its simplistic self-indulgence.

Contrary in almost every respect

The impulses behind this type of expression run counter to the drivers of a successful, attractive footballing enterprise. Despite the clarity of the final results, professional football is a complex group undertaking, requiring business savvy, judgment of character and ability, tactical experience and smarts, psychological and motivational skills, uncommon physical ability, collective understanding, and other expertise.

That complexity frightens many. Those are ones clinging to the notion that "the simplest explanation is always the best," not recognizing that Occam's Razor has long been a logical fallacy. They latch on to every new piece of information about the club, not understanding how to assess the accuracy or meaning of that information. This same group appoints itself arbiter and tribune of The Truth about Arsenal Football Club, usually defined by an in-or-out vote on the manager.

The lack of nuance in this line of interpretation signals the fool's own stupidity. What's modern is the ability to gain an audience for that foolishness.

"Part of our emergency is that it's so awfully tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the 'moral clarity' of the immature," wrote David Foster Wallace in the essay "Deciderization 2007 - A Special Report." "The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it's continually discovering new vistas of personal ignorance and delusion."

Or, more to our point, Gunnerblog observed in the aftermath of the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United: "The truth is that a result is rarely determined by one single thing. It's almost never entirely due to the brilliance of one player, or indeed the error of another. Football is a game composed of thousands of interconnected moments." ("Arsenal 1 - 2 Man United: Why the players have to take blame too")

Your known unknowns

Those myriad connections during a match certainly call into question straightforward, cause-and-effect analyses. Similarly, simple narratives fail to convey a football club's complicated preparations for competition, in particular its player acquisition activities, fitness regimes, and man management style.

Still, a contingent of Arsenal fans reduces these activities to simple stories, such as:
  • In negotiating the transfer market, Wenger is a cheapskate and a ditherer
  • Arsenal's injury problems stem from the players' delicate physiques, the manager's inability to rotate the squad, and/or the playing style
  • The manager is a micromanager who can't get the best out of his staff or his players

We've debunked these myths before. Have a look at "Silly Season Survival Tips" on this site and "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Even Small Crowds" on my personal blog for better ways to think about the transfer market. In essence, if someone purports to have the complete, inside story on player acquisitions, dismiss that out of hand. It's such a murky environment that all accounts are suspect.

I'd encourage a healthy skepticism of injury analyses as well. A multitude of factors acts differently on each human body, so the idea that we could identify one cause or a few causes is far-fetched. For example, Wenger's recent implication that the World Cup schedule brought on the current spate of injuries doesn't account for the full summer vacations of the subsequently crocked Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Nacho Monreal, and Kieran Gibbs.

Instead, we're better off trying to understand how the club is addressing the web of contributing factors. "Arsenal's Medicine Man, Shad Forsythe, Will Work Wonders over Time" provides a good foundation in the advances the new performance chief is trying to institute.

And rather than accepting an at-best dated analysis of Wenger's management style and its consequences, we should consider the possibility that structuring and nurturing human relationships are highly complex undertakings. Management approaches, including delegating tasks and setting performance expectations, and motivational work owe everything to systems and psychologies that outside observers won't fully grasp. (Some attempts to describe these multiple dimensions appear in "Management the Arsenal Way" and "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not.")

Legitimate questions

These dynamics don't mean we should give up trying to understand what's happening with the club we love. They just call for appreciation of the complexities, wisdom to ask insightful questions, and skepticism of obvious answers.

For example, the question of who will succeed Wenger is now a shallow one. We should instead be asking how Arsenal's leadership is preparing itself to identify and hire the next manager, what principles will guide that process, and what structures will produce the choice. No writer or analyst, to my knowledge, has pursued those lines of inquiry with club officials.

That's a failure of the Fourth Estate. Indeed, the media is an active party to fans' rush to judgment because the simple story is easy to write and popular. Inaccuracy and banality don't seem to be concerns.

Acknowledging complexity and the limits of our own knowledge and ability should be of high importance, though, if we truly care about Arsenal more than our own opinions and brief moments in the spotlight.

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