Yet after the revelations of this spring, you have to wonder how widespread that unrest is.
The situation on the ground and in the ground
In particular, all the hullabaloo and lobbying from three supporter groups resulted in only the most tepid and amateurish of protests during Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Norwich on April 30th. This led some observers, Arseblog’s Tim Stillman prominent among them, to suggest that social media produce an inaccurate representation of Arsenal support.
That certainly jibed with my experience at the Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion matches earlier in April. There was localized grumpiness and limited encouragement during the uninspired display against Palace, but I would describe the environment as disinterested rather than toxic. Two early goals against West Brom and a different fan demographic made that a more festive affair.
The atmosphere at these matches surprised me a little, because with my support restricted by distance to television, blogs, and Twitter, I had feared outright revolt in person. What I got instead was more evidence that the self-regard, outrage, and hyperbole we witness through social media aren’t pervasive among our fellow supporters.
How time rolls
In addition to attitude, social media tends to warp the sense of time. The immediacy of the vehicle, especially Twitter, creates an endless desire for news and feedback. But, in the real time experienced by most people, revelations and faux-revelations are not constant.
It’s worth remembering the different dynamics of virtual and earthbound existence during the close season. The patterns of the league and cup competitions aren’t there to guide us through the summer months, but the appetites and expectations driven by social media don’t abate.
To satisfy these desires, many fans look to the club’s player acquisitions. Intensified by print and broadcast media, supporters’ hunger for transfer news has further distorted reality. Now, we’ve reached the point where some observers expect their own needs for news to drive the club’s decisions. As if solipsism and ceaseless satisfaction of the Arsenal twitterati should somehow guide the business.
When manager Arsène Wenger responded to questions about fan discontent by saying “I’m sorry if I can’t keep [everyone] 100 percent happy,” he was referring to the team’s overall performance and its inability to sustain a challenge for the league title. But he could just as easily have been speaking about the way the club conducts its business activities.
Alternatives to PR priority
It doesn’t, for example, let public relations become the dominant priority during the transfer season. That might be an obvious point, considering the futile clamoring of supporters and observers for the acquisition of a top center forward since 2013. Still, Arsenal officials do very little to manage perceptions of what positions need to be filled, and they certainly don’t measure acquisitions to fit the social media news cycle.
More important are the club’s background work, the clarity of negotiations, and the preferences of incoming players. In the case of Xhaka, Arsenal’s scouts “have been watching him for a long time,” in the words of Wenger; Xhaka confirmed that the manager had made the initial contact in mid-2015: “It was a year ago, I was almost speechless when he called!”
From the outside, we can’t know how straightforward the negotiations with Xhaka’s representatives and former club Borussia Mönchengladbach were. The news cycle and popular appetites encourage misinformation, as when stories emerged that Arsenal had lowballed the German club. All we can assess is the outcome, which suggests very little fuss.
The timing also depended on Xhaka’s interest in concluding the move before the start of the European Championships on June 10.
So if any fans are thinking that their own desires and perceptions had anything to do with these events—the position Arsenal are filling, the player’s identity, the unfolding of negotiations, the arrangement of the announcement--all the evidence indicates other factors drove the business.
At the other end of the transfer period, when moves are about to be cut off for four months, the forces could be different. Even so, Arsenal isn’t likely to act based on fans’ longings. Opportunities might materialize, such as when playmaker Mesut Özil became available in late summer 2014. Now that the club has greater, perhaps unprecedented, financial stability, we can expect it to be a buyer more often than a seller in those situations.
No matter what the scenario, the plan for the business and the sporting strategy will guide decisions. Our own personal or collective preferences of what position, which player, or when won’t.
Although a football club’s business is entertainment, Arsenal’s genre isn’t fantasy.